THE Ukraine war isn’t turning out as expected – certainly not as President Vladimir Putin expected. Heads are rolling in Russian High Command. The quick fire blitzkrieg to occupy Kyiv and topple the Zelenskyy government has been bogged down – literally – in the ‘rasputitsa’, the same muddy road conditions Napoleon and Hitler encountered during ill-fated Russian campaigns.

Putin is paying for the hubris of launching an offensive during the mud season. A convoy north of Kyiv was held up, causing flat batteries, empty fuel tanks and perished tyres. Russian heavy armour is being picked off by more lightly armed and fleet of foot Ukrainian defenders.

The anticipated Russian control of the skies has yet to materialise because of Ukrainian armed forces’ effectiveness, UK and Nato supplied portable air defence missiles, and the invader’s unreliable command and control systems. The Russians have overwhelming advantage in manpower and weapons. They’ll continue to struggle to make it count if their forces can’t communicate properly with each other, or over-extended supply lines seize up.

There’s also one fight the Ukrainians are winning hands down – the PR battle. This is the first real Twitter War. President Zelenskyy and his compatriots demonstrate a genius for communicating directly with millions around the world, winning their support and rallying their own population.

They’re making sure the horrific pictures of Mariupol’s bombed out maternity hospital are seen across the globe. Yet even in these darkest days, they’re also projecting an indelible image of a spirited nation, which refuses to be cowed. New footage emerges daily of captured Russian tanks and rocket launchers being towed away by massive, “don’t mess with me” tractors. Ukraine now has the best armed farmers in the world.

Napoleon’s dictum was “in war morale forces are to physical as three to one”. That’s why Putin has been unable to roll over Ukraine. And it’s why, sadly, he’s re-grouped and is intensifying the assault. He’s ordering ever more despicable atrocities to terrify the civilian population, in an attempt to break its will to resist. So we can’t count on Putin’s threat to Ukraine – and by extension the West – dissipating any time soon.

This desperate situation presents NATO leaders with agonising choices. How best to help protect the Ukrainian people without triggering a wider, more unpredictably dangerous conflict between nuclear armed states?

In this war we’ve all become armchair generals – even improbably Nicola Sturgeon – slipping fluently into the lingo of ‘no fly zones’ and the like. There is, however, a yawning gap between commentating from the sidelines and taking responsibility for life and death decisions.

The Ukrainians are paying for Putin’s war with the loss of their homes, livelihoods and ultimately their lives. The British people are united in standing with Ukraine in its hour of need. But what cost are we prepared to pay to do so? There can be no doubting our country’s humanity and generosity. The donations to fund humanitarian aid bear testimony to that. But what priority will we attach to European defence in the years ahead?

Defence is rarely a topic that exercises voters at election time. The last general election in which it played a significant part was 1987. The then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, famously suggested his preferred method for countering Soviet aggression was guerilla warfare, rather than with the protection of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. It was not a winning argument.

In the mid-1980s, defence spending was over 5% of GDP. The Cold War’s ending enabled the UK – Europe’s leading contributor to NATO – to realise a significant ‘peace dividend’.

By 2016, UK defence spending had fallen for the first time below NATO’s 2% of GDP target. The Johnson Government’s 2020 Integrated Security and Defence Review reversed the decline, projecting for four years real rises in the defence budget. Spending now stands at over 2.2% of GDP. Is it enough? Read General Sir Richard Sheriff’s novel War with Russia and you might conclude it’s not.

Sir Richard’s book is a work of fiction, but its synopsis is anything but far-fetched – Russian territorial gains in Ukraine, de-stabilisation and then occupation of the Baltic States, triggering a direct confrontation with NATO. Sir Richard’s work draws on scenarios actually war-gamed by NATO when he was Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

The book’s recurring theme is that for deterrence to work, threats must be matched at every level by credible and flexible military responses, whether conventional or nuclear. On his analysis the UK’s conventional forces had become unbalanced by 2016, with the funding for two aircraft carriers squeezing out other investment, particularly in the army. The military value of our contribution to NATO’s forward defence in Europe needed strengthening to contain and defeat Putin’s aggressive intent and higher risk appetite.

The British Army will comprise just 72,000 regulars by 2025, the smallest since 1714. The most recent defence review assumes fewer numbers are offset by greater technological capability. Yet only a year ago a Commons Defence Committee report concluded the army’s armoured vehicle capability was obsolescent and likely to be outgunned by a Russian adversary.

Next week Chancellor Rishi Sunak will deliver his Spring Statement. His task was already daunting. Finances ravaged by Covid are in need of repair. A cost of living crunch hitting family budgets has to be tackled. And now the economic consequences of sanctions and a European war must be factored into the forecasts. Teetotal Mr Sunak could be forgiven if he opted for a stiff Macallan as his Dispatch Box tipple.

Despite the economic challenges, one of the first adjustments the Chancellor should make to last autumn’s spending plans is a defence budget increase. The Germans have already announced their intention to do so. There could be no clearer demonstration to Putin of our resolve and his miscalculation.

The UK’s prosperity depends on Europe’s security. On 24th February the world changed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Our assumptions and priorities now need to change too.

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