Main Image Credit An aerial view of Whitehall. Courtesy of Mike McBey / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0
While the UK government has been effective in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the levers of national power were once again applied too late.
In the weeks leading up to and following Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine, the UK government has been proactive and effective in providing diplomatic and military assistance to Kyiv. The UK has also worked through NATO, the UN and the Joint Expeditionary Force to punish Russian aggression. Yet despite Whitehall’s response to the crisis, it must be acknowledged that the UK’s policy in the first instance was to deter the outbreak of war. This policy failed, and the reasons for that failure bear scrutiny.
A Long Time Coming
Any review of the UK’s strategic options as regards deterring Russia from invading Ukraine must begin by considering what was known when. The invasion did not come out of a clear blue sky, but instead approached with ample warning. Assessments that Russia was likely to engage in further offensive operations against Ukraine were circulating in 2019. I was asked to write a report on deterring Russia early that year, which set out why Russia might do this. Russia’s build-up of forces around Ukraine in early 2021 showed that it was able to mobilise significant combat units around the country in a short space of time, though it did not put all of the necessary support functions in place. I was asked at the time whether I thought Russia would invade Ukraine. I answered that Russia had signalled that it could, and whether it followed through would depend upon how NATO responded to the threat.
Over the summer Vladimir Putin published his essay on why he didn’t think Ukraine was a country, while the FSB 9th Directorate was set up to coordinate intelligence activity targeting Ukraine. If the build-up in March had demonstrated that Russia had the means, Russia’s statements and the activities of its agencies in July and August showed it had the intent. In November, when Russia again started massing forces on the Ukrainian border, there was finally an alignment of means and intent. Discussing the situation in Washington DC, long-term Russian military analysts were already convinced that this time the Kremlin would conduct an attack in late January or early February. By December the US intelligence community was sufficiently confident to publicly state that Russia was highly likely to invade.
Despite the steady progression of warning lights blinking red, it was only in late December and early January that Whitehall started looking hard at deterrence options. Some actions were taken – NLAW being an example of a useful weapon that sent a powerful message. But in many of these meetings the answer to a lot of options was that there was not enough road left to train the Ukrainians to use kit that could be provided. Nor was there enough time to fix the gaps in Ukrainian capability like air defence – identified in 2019 and for which help was repeatedly requested by the Ukrainian military – that had never been addressed. It was also evident by then that Putin had made his decision and an uplift in Ukrainian military capability was unlikely to shift the military-technical calculations in Moscow. Moreover, as Russia had the means to invade assembled on the border by then, there were fears that expanded NATO activity in Ukraine would prompt Russia to accelerate its plans, or draw NATO into the conflict if fighting erupted while NATO trainers were on the ground.
A generous interpretation of the lack of early deterrence activity might say that to avoid fuelling the Russian narrative that Ukraine was becoming a NATO base, the West refrained from pushing forward the capabilities necessary to achieve deterrence by denial, while depending upon deterrence by punishment. The threat of economic retaliation through sanctions was clearly messaged. The problem with this is that there was no assessment showing that the Russian government was likely to be deterred by sanctions. Moreover, NATO countries were active in Ukraine. The UK conducted an armoured exercise with the Ukrainians last year. But the UK government was clear that the UK would not fight for Ukraine. Such actions were therefore irrelevant in deterrence terms. What would have mattered is Russia’s confidence in its ability to defeat the Ukrainian military, something that such exercises did little to shape, even as they convinced the Kremlin that Ukrainian integration with NATO was inevitable if the situation remained unchanged.
Despite the steady progression of warning lights blinking red, it was only in late December and early January that Whitehall started looking hard at deterrence options
An honest appraisal would instead conclude that the UK had ample warning to seriously equip and address the weaknesses in the Ukrainian military to deter a Russian invasion by denial, but either chose not to, or never considered doing so. Here it is worth noting that there is a recurring pattern afflicting Whitehall. Assessments of the Afghan military clearly predicted that the Afghan state would collapse upon NATO’s withdrawal, and yet it was only at the last minute that the UK began taking steps to evacuate entitled persons. In 2019 it was similarly predicted with high confidence that Iran would retaliate to the seizure of the Grace One, and yet when the Iranian response came, a startled Department for Transport official unexpectedly found themselves at the forefront of the UK’s crisis management. In short, Whitehall is repeatedly stumbling into national security crises for which it has had ample warning.
At least part of the problem appears to arise from the gearing by which the civil service presents ministers with options. This is important, because it is eminently fixable. The process by which units gain ministerial approval for activity is the Ministerial Submission or MINSUB. If officials on the ground believe actions are necessary, they must submit a MINSUB. If ministers ask for options, units are tasked with assessing what they can do and then proposing these through MINSUBs. In the Ministry of Defence these are first examined by Security, Policy and Operations (SPO) to assess whether the options align with policy or are of sufficient importance to elevate to the minister. In principle, this is a sensible system for assuring democratic accountability.
During the last 30 years, three trends have rendered this process highly problematic. Firstly, in the context of counterterrorism where very small tactical actions in legally complex environments could have strategic implications, it became normal for ministers to approve and direct very detailed military operations. Secondly, advances in technology have enabled the highest echelons to directly control micro-tactical activity. Thirdly, national security crises during the War on Terror were usually short-lived, imminent threats or long-term structural issues, where adversaries had little capacity to drive the tempo of events or retaliate operationally.
The result of these trends is a bureaucratic process that sees a need to gain ministerial approval for the most trivial of actions. In the face of a complex state actor able to execute its own operations, however, the responses are too numerous to be understood and managed by a handful of individuals. Furthermore, because every unit is seeking permissions for all of its activities, SPO is completely overwhelmed and many MINSUBS are dismissed for want of capacity to consider them, rather than because they are unworthy of consideration. Making matters worse, units that have repeatedly had their proposals for activity turned down have often assumed that this is because ministers lack appetite, and as a result have begun to self-censor the options they put forward.
The government must be proactive in identifying its interests and how to bring about conditions that advance them, rather than reactively punishing adversaries for undermining the UK’s security and prosperity
Given the number of simultaneous and competing tactical questions elevated to ministers, the top of UK Defence decision-making has become captured by the urgent at the expense of the important. In the context of Ukraine, for example, proposals to provide training to close the gaps in the country’s defences found themselves in a holding pattern within the bureaucracy until the imminence of Russian aggression brought them to the fore, by which time it was too late for most of them to be implemented.
Building the Machinery for Competition
The War on Terror was characterised by long-term strategic objectives revolving around terms like ‘stability’. At the same time, most of the issues that required rapid decision-making were short-lived crises like terrorist attacks. When Russia drew down its forces around Ukraine in April 2021, the reaction at the heart of the UK government was that the crisis had been averted and that government attention could move on. In short, the machinery appears cognitively unprepared for dealing with sustained and unstable problem sets. But it is precisely these problem sets that characterise competition between state actors.
Whether it be Russia, China or Iran, the UK government must accept that adversaries can shift direction quickly and retaliate at scale. Doing nothing does not lead to a stable environment; it simply leaves the adversary with freedom of action. Proactively shaping the environment to suit UK interests requires that ministers prioritise their efforts and reinforce them at a sufficient scale to meet identified thresholds of effect. Rather than slowly building towards ‘stability’, the path to policy success will often be non-linear, with escalating tensions creating the leverage to negotiate on substantive issues.
If Whitehall is to stop stumbling into crises, therefore, it is necessary to regear the machinery to force ministers to make decisions further out. Higher echelons must be disciplined in focusing on command and discouraged from seeking to exercise tactical control. The government must be proactive in identifying its interests and how to bring about conditions that advance them, rather than reactively punishing adversaries for undermining the UK’s security and prosperity. The Integrated Review was a good start, but it is now necessary to shape the machinery to operationalise it. In short, strategy is in need of resurrection.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare