If we want to avoid a ruinous war with Putin, we need to do one thing

by Jessica
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The words of Defence Secretary Grant Shapps couldn’t have spelt it out more starkly. “We have moved from a post-war to a pre-war age,” he wrote yesterday while making the case for greater defence spending.

Is that just hyperbole? It makes us sound as if we are back in the 1930s, gliding inexorably towards all-out conflict within Europe. I am not quite so pessimistic.

But one thing is for sure: if we want to avoid being dragged into a ruinous war with Putin’s Russia, the best way to avoid it is rapidly to arm all Nato countries so that Putin will not dare attempt to do to the Baltic States, Poland or any other European country what he has done to Ukraine.

Sadly, we are a long way from ensuring Europe’s security at present. The strong deterrent that kept Western Europe from war with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War has been allowed to atrophy.

While NATO expanded to encompass most of Eastern Europe, investment in armed forces did not keep pace. European nations believed a little too much in the “peace dividend” to spot the danger that Russia continued to pose. Defence spending was diverted into social spending, which was far more popular with voters.

That might have been excusable in the 1990s when it was possible to see Russia as making a one-way journey towards democracy and freedom.

You could forgive governments for downplaying the continuing need for strong defence, right up until 2006 when Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in what can only be described as a state-sponsored terror attack in London, which made clear the true nature of the Putin regime.

Following Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, however, it has been utterly impossible to ignore the threat he poses to Eastern Europe – and Western Europe.

Yet many countries continued on as if nothing was amiss. Germany pressed ahead with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, making it more reliant on Russian gas.

Meanwhile, most European Nato members continued to ignore the requirement, contained within the organisation’s rules, to spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence.

Rather than invest the money themselves, too many governments made the calculation that the US would always guarantee Europe’s security and that, therefore, they needn’t bother too much themselves.

By the time of the Nato summit of 2018, held in the wake of the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury, just four Nato members were hitting the target: the US, UK, Greece and Estonia.

France was spending 1.8 per cent, Germany 1.2 per cent, and five members were spending less than 1 per cent. US taxpayers have grown somewhat tired of carrying Europe on defence, unsurprisingly.

Barack Obama had politely requested NATO’s European members up their spending, but it took Donald Trump’s characteristic bumptiousness to spur them into action; after Trump tweeted that the US “loses big” on Nato membership, leaders began to realise they could not count on the US propping up their defence forever.

European countries are now spending more on defence, but it is still not enough. Europe, with its vastly higher GDP than Russia, ought to be able to maintain pretty impregnable defences.

Yet remove the US and NATO only has 7,513 tanks against Russia’s 12,267; 8,754 artillery guns against Russia’s 18,266; and 162 attack aircraft against Russia’s 689.

As we learned during the Cold War, when Europe remained at peace in spite of constant sabre-rattling between East and West, the best form of defence was a deterrent.

For years Putin has been testing the West’s defences with incursions into air space and by nibbling away at parts of Ukraine – before concluding two years ago that our resolve was weak enough for him to risk a full invasion. We must not make the same mistake again. But it isn’t just Russia.

This week came a reminder that Britain may again one day have to defend the Falkland Islands against attack – as Argentina’s new president Javier Milei demanded a “timetable” for the handover of sovereignty for the islands.

Needless to say, that is not what the Falkland Islanders themselves wish for – a decade ago they voted nearly unanimously to remain under Britain’s wing. Despite the West’s unprecedented period of peace for 79 years now, there will always be threats to our security from malign regimes.

It is time for a sharp reversal of policy and to build up our Armed Forces once again.

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