This is the weekly newsletter from editor Iain Martin for Reaction subscribers. This week only we’re making it free. To receive it every weekend become a subscriber here.
On 2 April 1981, a British official wrote a secret memo headlined “SOVIET INTEREST IN THE WEST’S ENERGY POTENTIAL.” It focused on the strategic implications of the Soviets wanting to supply the West with more gas from behind the Iron Curtain.
This was during the Cold War and in the early 1980s the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence in London were worried about the Soviets being so interested in feeding the West’s growing appetite for large quantities of gas. The Reagan administration opposed the construction of assorted Soviet pipelines to Western Europe in that period. What, other than hard currency, did the Soviets want?
Four decades later the answer is even clearer than it was then. What they wanted was to weaken the West by creating energy dependence. Although Vladimir Putin is not a fan of the Soviet Union, because it’s something older he’s looking to recreate, a greater Russia, a Russian empire, he accelerated that Soviet energy push and made Germany and others reliant on Russia’s gas supplies. The results for Ukraine and global security are catastrophic.
That historical gem of a secret document from 1981, now in the archives at Kew, was an unheeded early warning signal flashing. It was highlighted this week by Calder Walton, a historian at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and is worth quoting in detail. Not just because it contains echoes of a lost world, the Whitehall politesse masking geopolitical seriousness, scrupulous attention to detail and Cold War-style references to colleagues, including a Mrs Evans and her collection of useful intelligence material.
The author of the document was an H. P. Kos, although another official scribbled a note across it flagging up the Yamburg gas pipeline. The Yamburg pipeline runs southwards and westwards more than 3,000 miles from the Yamburg gas field to below Moscow. It’s part of a network of pipelines that pumps fuel to Western Europe, now, today, through Ukraine.
Kos wrote in 1981: “There now appears to be increasing concern, particularly on the part of the Americans, about the extension of Soviet energy supplies (especially natural gas) to West European countries and the strategic implications of this. Robert Moss has commented on this on 2 March and there have been other reports which I think I may have marked to Mrs Evans through Mr Pullen.”
He goes on: “I am now struck by the attached SWB report quoting a Pravda article concerning the need for an East/West ‘energy bridge’. This indicates that Soviet propaganda is now beginning to focus on this. I should be grateful if Mr Pullen could have a word with Mrs Evans and perhaps look out for any other Soviet comment on the subject. We will then need to consider how to brief Vienna and Berne as well as perhaps doing something in Germany.”
Perhaps doing something in Germany…
Doing something in Germany has taken on a whole new meaning in the last week. On Sunday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz abandoned Germany’s defence and energy policies, making it clear the country will now spend properly on defence and seek to wean itself off Russian hydrocarbons.
The German transformation, a moving spectacle, was of a piece with a wider reunification of the West since the Russians launched their barbaric assault. Putin’s idiotic invasion has achieved in a fortnight the precise opposite of what he intended. Pumped up on power, high on his distorted reading of Russian history and contempt for the Ukrainians, he assumed a decadent West was too ridiculous, too distracted by its bitter culture wars, to rally.
He was wrong. Heroic Poland is providing sanctuary to more than 650,000 refugees. The European Union has moved swiftly on sanctions against Russia and wants to do much more on collective security. NATO has been impressive and the already close connection with non-NATO Sweden and Finland gets closer by the day. The smaller Baltic states are also being supplied with more air cover. This is just a start in what will be the fortifying, or refortifying, of non-Russian Europe.
The US and the UK both warned for months that the invasion was coming. Their intelligence was correct and while that is little comfort, they did use those months to step up military assistance and training, and they shipped weapons. The success Ukrainian special forces are having, to be seen in video best not watched, probably owes something to the effective allied advice provided in the lead up to war.
The Russian force has turned out to be too small for winning a quick war and is vulnerable to fast-moving guerrilla tactics in the rear. Taking cities that it cannot meaningfully hold it finds itself facing demonstrations by tens of thousands of brave citizens marching against the occupiers.
In the air, the Russian air force is taking hits and is struggling to gain air superiority. At least two Russian pilots were captured today, and unofficial estimates record up to ten Russian planes, transports and helicopters shot down on Saturday.
Naturally, in the social media version of this war we see more in the West from our Ukrainian allies than we do from the Russian side. Even so, what was supposed to be a swift flattening of resistance followed by the arrest of President Zelensky, as a prelude to murder, risks turning into a mud-locked humiliation for Russia. That explains why Putin is switching to the war crimes playbook used in Syria, targeting civilians indiscriminately. He will be held to account, Western leaders have said, and this time, if he can be caught, they mean it.
Indeed, at times this week it has felt as though the West is back, most of all in the shock and awe central bank sanctions used to crater the Russian economy. Much of the focus is on sanctions against individuals, where in Britain the government has been way too slow. The central bank action was a different matter. The operation mounted by the European Central Bank, the EU, the Fed, the US government and the UK Treasury and the Bank of England effectively cut Putin off from about half of the reserves he had accumulated. They’re not stored in Moscow vaults, they’re in Western financial institutions, and now he will struggle to get at them.
But if the West is back, try telling that to the Ukrainians pleading for more help, desperate for air cover we cannot provide for fear of Putin starting a nuclear war. They have been let down. Not in the last ten days, but in the last 13 years since George W. Bush said in 2008 he would back their application to join NATO. The Bush administration gave what turned out to be false hope to the people of Ukraine.
America then followed it up with the lawyerly Obama, who had lots of warm words for Kyiv. But even during the Russian action inside Ukraine in 2014 he used a speech in Estonia to underline that only NATO countries would be defended from Russian aggression. Putin drew the obvious conclusions, he could carry on in Ukraine, as he had murderously in Syria.
That Western failure stretching way back gets me to a series of questions I want to pose about how we in Europe might best organise ourselves to defend civilisation from barbarism.
Across civil society, there will need to be a vigorous debate on what adapting to living in a war era means for national policy, defence, energy, the economy and cooperation between the democracies. This is only starting. Only France’s President Macron, reborn as an election frontrunner, has had any kind of go at preparing the population for painful decisions, as he did this week in a speech on how hard it is likely to be economically and militarily. In the US, President Biden in his State of the Union address this week didn’t express it at all. Boris Johnson hasn’t yet either in Britain.
Energy prices are skyrocketing, inflation will get an extra kick and growth, other than in defence companies, is likely to stall. Against that backdrop, Putin if he wins will menace Poland and the Baltics or sit in his own vast, version of North Korea making nuclear threats.
None of this goes away even if we all get lucky and Putin is somehow removed. There can be no guarantee the next Russian leader will be much more to our liking, or if he is that he’ll last and avoid being replaced by another Putin.
With that reality at the forefront of our minds, Europeans have to work out quickly how we can be best fortified. I’ll split this into three questions, to which I certainly don’t have definitive answers and I would like to hear from those with views. Perhaps we should find a venue soon to hold the discussion in public.
1. What’s our system of alliances and security architecture going to be?
I know I keep banging on about this, but NATO and the EU overlap. Britain isn’t in the EU, but it is the continent’s leading intelligence power and operationally on defence it is interwoven with France. Sweden is in the EU and not in NATO, yet. This week, the UK Foreign Secretary has been rebuilding links with the EU and her counterparts. That’s good to see. Post-Brexit, let’s all reset, rapidly, and cooperate.
2. What does an up to date and built to last military look like?
There is no point building a Cold War force that turns out to be obsolete. Ukraine’s defensive campaign is showing the power of drones accompanied by fast-moving special forces and militarised civilian populations.
3. President Trump Part 2 is coming and we’re largely on our own. How quickly can we Europeans get our act together?
Bad news. Trump is the Republican frontrunner for 2024. The influential Republican CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) that concluded last Sunday in Orlando, Florida, was a Trump-fest. Trump is unreliable on NATO and unreliable on Putin, to put it mildly. On the Democrat side, Biden looks incapable of running again, though he must last a full term or we get a spell of the hopeless Veep Kamala Harris. Who else potentially sane is out there? Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is the alternative Republican, and all those in the reality based community can only hope that he stops Trump. Though I have my doubts even he’ll be much help. Last week he was mocking the French saying they wouldn’t put up a fight if Russia invaded France, directing this slur at the nation of Verdun.
That last question is painful for Atlanticists, like me. There are wise and lovely Americans who read this newsletter, and I think you know how much affection there is in Britain for American culture. Europe owes America the debt of D-Day, Harry Truman, Miles Davis, Woody Allen, Aretha Franklin and so much more. But since the end of the Cold War something has gone terribly wrong with the transmission mechanism in American politics. That mechanism used to ensure impressive figures from American life became national leaders.
Now? A nation packed with many intelligent people, buzzing with enterprise and initiative, is focussed primarily on a crazy culture war that is destroying its universities and its international reputation. Through assorted manias on the left and Trumpian populist stupidity on the right it has come to look worse than disturbed.
The terrible upshot at a dangerous moment is this: a great country, the US, the supposed leader of the free world, last elected as President a sensible, experienced, reliable person with a proper understanding of geopolitics in 1988.
I’m sorry, in Europe we’re going to have to proceed, fast, on the assumption that this won’t change and hope to be pleasantly surprised if clever people can outwit Trump. European civilisation must be defended and Europeans are going to have to do it and fund it.
It feels glib to say “have a good weekend” when all this is going on. Better instead to say: Slava Ukraini! Heroyam slava.