The John Antcliffe Memorial Lecture 2023

May 26, 2023

Churchill College, Cambridge University

17 May 2023

Rt Hon Lord Robertson of Port Ellen KT GCMG HonFRSE PC


It is small consolation indeed for the misery and violence being visited on our friends and neighbours in Ukraine that Vladmir Putin has suddenly and brutally reminded those of us in the West of our renewed vulnerability.

We were shocked at what happened on 24 February last year and it woke us up in a way only comparable to the impact of the attacks of 9/11.  24/2 was Europe’s 9/11.

In so many ways we had become very relaxed in a world which seemed ever more at peace, where living standards were rising, where global levels of real poverty were at historic lows and we enjoyed record  immunisation, connectivity and food security.

It was as if it was a birth-right, bestowed on us by that previous generation, shocked and traumatised by two world wars in the 20th century who had created global institutions to ensure that such horrors would not happen again.

They were far sighted; we, in contrast, took it all for granted and are now dismayed at unprovoked aggression by a nuclear weapon state, with the rise of autocracy world-wide,  with the erosion of democratic values, and the return of Great Power competition forcing countries, companies and indeed people to take uncomfortable sides.

Complacency is never attractive. Even in benign circumstances it can lead to accidents, misadventures and dangerous miscalculation. In a world today of remarkable volatility, where the velocity of change is dazzling and where new and novel vulnerabilities endanger any lasting societal model, complacency is a curse. Therefore the peace dividend we generously took as the Cold War finished in the eighties seems in the rear view mirror to have been monumentally reckless.

In national security, and in the safety of our populations – the first and most important obligation of any political leadership, the kind of complacency we have been prone to in the last couple of decades has led us inexorably to the current crisis.

For example. Take the vote by The House of Commons on August 29, 2013 to defeat Prime Minister Cameron’s proposal to take military action against the Assad regime in Syria. He had crossed the West’s red line on his use of chemical weapons on his civilian population. That remarkable rebuke to a British Prime Minister, followed by his non-resignation on such a vital issue, led to President Obama to avoid a near certain similar Congressional humiliation by betraying that bright red line he had drawn. The chemical barrel bombing of civilians continued apace.

The direct consequence of these two miserable retreats was to see Putin move into the vacuum, prop up the dreadful war criminal regime in Damascus, flatten cities like Aleppo and gain a much coveted naval base on the Mediterranean.

That failure of Western will combined with the humiliating and shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan solidified in the fevered mind of Vladimir Putin the notion that the West could be taken on and advance without pain his delusional dream of a reborn greater Russia. In many ways I think one is driven to the conclusion that our biggest enemy, after complacency, is ourselves. We are often our own worst enemy.

But Putin’s latest adventure; the elimination of the independent state of Ukraine must surely be the wake-up call to us in the West that we are in serious danger. The question we must ask ourselves is this. Are we willing to allow Vladimir Putin (and the Chinese who he is increasingly beholden to) to determine the global rules in what will be a new rules based order after the unprovoked assault on Ukraine?

Rest assured the consequence of Putin prevailing in Ukraine is not just the deadly danger to other neighbours, Moldova, Armenian, Kazakhstan and Georgia – he will not stop at Ukraine. No, his bigger prize is the chance to reorder the world environment in ways that the Soviet Politbureau wanted but never achieved.

He has no sellable economic or social model to impose on the international community even as he erects a new Berlin Wall based on his view of sexual relations, religion and draconian law and order.  But rewriting the global rules along with China will, he believes and we should reflect, achieve global respect and authority.

The Global South, sitting on the fence and tilting to Russia as a way of teaching what they see as an over arrogant west a lesson, needs to waken up to the fact that they do have a dog in this fight. If it becomes accepted that borders can be changed by the use of force, if nuclear weapon states can, with impunity, cow and eliminate weaker neighbours and if a world order which has, through stability and predictability, served them well, can be over turned by one man’s revisionist history – then global anarchy will be the result.

Seeing payback for colonialism, Iraq, climate indifference and the neglect of regional bones of contention in what is happening in Ukraine is their own brand of self-harming complacency.

I stood beside Vladimir Putin on 28 May 2002 in Rome and heard him say these words. “Ukraine is a sovereign, independent nation state and it will make is own decisions about security.”  Twenty years on he writes an essay saying that Ukraine is not a nation at all and on February 24  he tries to eliminate its ’independence’, its ‘sovereignty’ and its very existence. And he put us on the spot when he made that gyration in policy.

To be fair, we in the West rose to the challenge.

The NATO he wanted to limit now has Finland and soon Sweden newly in the fold, the predicted rift between the US and Europe extrapolated from the Trump era turned into a welded partnership and the usual infighting in Europe saw unprecedented unity and resolve.

That unified European revulsion at what Putin had done has been outstanding and in many ways astonishing too.  After the feebleness shown over Georgia and Crimea and the betrayal of the Budapest Memorandum where Ukraine traded security assurances for voluntarily giving up its residual Soviet Nuclear weapons arsenal, the solidarity this time with Ukraine has been serious and impressive. It has shaken Putin and represented a warning to President Xi about his ambitions for Taiwan.

We do know what it takes to win this war. It is both simple – and at the same time difficult; persuade Putin that he has more to lose by continuing this war than with ending it. Simple, because it is up to the one man who started this invasion to change only his mind. Not to a Parliament, not a Politbureau, not to a Security Council – just the mind of the Commander who has embarked on this foolish, disastrous adventure in recreating his version of history.

Difficult, because in the kind of authoritarian society Putin has created and with few of the challenges and constraints in normal societies, one man can, and did, take a country to oblivion by personal dictat.

And yet, even dictators monitor and are aware of public opinion and can, in protecting their power, often be highly sensitive to movements among the people.

President Xi recently ended his draconian COVID lockdown policy literally overnight because the populace he saw they had had enough. The Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, similarly released thousands of arrested female Hijab protesters because he could feel the storm clouds growing.

In Kosovo in 1999 Milosevic was persuaded by us that we intended to invade to achieve our objectives – ‘NATO in, Serbs out, refugees home’.  In fact, we had made no such decision but we had deliberately given the impression that we would, and it was enough to spook Milosevic – and Boris Yeltsin. So persuaded was he that he told Milosevic that he was now on his own – and that dictator then folded.

What then do we do to help the Ukrainians to prevail?

My formula; Supply (weapons in quantity).

Signal (to Russia that we don’t do defeat and we are with Ukraine for the long term).

Sustain (the solidarity and unity which has shocked and surprised Putin and has inspired the Ukrainian people).

But even more importantly when we consider what is happening today is this. Last week we saw the evidence of the use by Russian forces of White Phosphorus – yet another war crime in the making. In the face of this outrage, how do we lose this war?

Here’s my checklist of what not to do and examine if you will, how many of those we are we doing at the moment.

First of all to lose, you weaken the coalition of political support which has meant so much in global politics. Encourage bickering, grandstanding, private initiatives and Boris Johnson saying bring Ukraine prematurely into NATO.

Putin’s main tactic now is to string out this war until the US Presidential election in 2024. And hope that Donald Trump returns to the White House.

That’s why there is no Russian offense so far with Russian positions being dug in defensively. Trenches, minefields, re-enforced positions – pure  attrition. He proclaims ,“wait them out”.

Second, you lose if you blame the increased cost of living on the war in Ukraine.

Your population is struggling at the moment so what you want to do is get them pressing for a settlement to relieve them of the increased price of pasta and fuel.

What you have to do is repeatedly inform them that the costs of living were on the rise before February last year and that there are costs we have to bear and they are a lot less than the costs being borne by those fighting the invasion.

Third, you lose if you stop telling your people that the Ukrainians are fighting on our behalf too and the dire consequences of Putin prevailing.

The real message is, if they think the cost of living has jumped because he invaded, by how much will it soar if he succeeds? And you should be telling them that if Putin wins, what price Taiwan and Putin’s other neighbours

Fourth, to fail don’t bother with Parliament. Follow the magnificent example of Prime Minister Cameron in 2013 who did not prepare for that remarkable and humiliating vote on Syria. Churchill, in contrast, went to Parliament personally and regularly through the Second World War and kept MPs full briefed and involved.

Rishi Sunak has not yet led a single debate in the Commons on Ukraine and there have anyway been only two full Parliamentary debates since the invasion.

Fifth, to lose the war don’t react as Putin has declared war on the West.  Just carry on, one step at a time, as if what  was happening on the other side of our own continent was serious but not an actual war.

Putin, on the contrary , is rapidly learning the lessons of the debacle of the February invasion and implementing changes, he is working armament factories round the clock to replace used munitions, he is spending his time rallying the public for more and more sacrifices. We are doing so little of any of these.

Sixth, to lose complain about how much it’s costing taxpayers to host Ukrainian refugees. Don’t counter the Farage-type attitude that they are the same as the small Channel boats.

They are not. In fact we are only temporarily hosting them while the men fight and die on our behalf and the sole objective of the visitors is to get back to Ukraine the moment it’s safe.

Seventh, in order to fail don’t bother trying to get messages to the Russian people, and their leaders, in the way we did during the Cold War. After all, that signalling might just change public support for the Kremlin and persuade Putin to do what Gorbachev did in 1979 in pulling the Red Army out of Afghanistan.

During the Kosovo war in 1999 we did a press conference every day for the 78 days the war lasted. So did NATO and the US Department of Défense. The messages of our resolve got though to the internal refugees but also to the Serb High Command. That’s why there’s a statue in Pristina today made up of the old satellite dishes which delivered our messages.

Eighth, to really lose become more preoccupied with your own fears of escalation rather than transmitting fears of escalation to the enemy.

Timidity about what the Russians might do with some of their many nuclear weapons has allowed the Russian military high-command to forget that in a full scale confrontation with NATO, Russia would lose – and be destroyed.

Getting it into the heads of the top military people around Putin that if they intend to pursue a total scorched earth policy in Ukraine, they should not expect the West to stand back indecisively.

These then are some of the ways we could lose to Vladimir Putin. I do not believe that President Biden wants to lose. Nor do the leaders of NATO and the west. They know only too well the costs, nationally and internationally of Vladimir Putin prevailing in Ukraine.

But beating Putin will mean taking action toughly, meaningfully and with a long term commitment to winning. To change his mind he needs to know, and have evidence, that we are there till he loses.

I have pointed out the ways we might, maybe unconsciously, follow the ‘failure’ checklist. To avoid it we need to be conscious of it and avoid the traps. Winning is Supply, Signal and Solidarity. Supply the weapons. Signal our intent. Solidarity maintained.

Put as simply as we did successfully over Kosovo.  ‘Russia out, Ukrainians back, refugees home’. Simple, memorable, clear – and the way to winning.

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