‘Europe is at war – We must act or Putin will push westwards,’ writes Tobias Ellwood

Tobias Ellwood and Vladimir Putin

‘Europe is at war – We must act or Putin will push westwards,’ writes Tobias Ellwood

Tobias Ellwood MP

By Tobias Ellwood MP

Published: 02/03/2024

- 12:29

Updated: 02/03/2024

- 12:51

The former defence minister warned there is a chance of ‘losing control’ through poor communication, mishaps or false flags

Will Putin go nuclear?

This is the question he wants us to lose sleep over. With American Congress dithering over financial support for Ukraine, Germany hesitating over gifting long-range missiles and France playing politics within Nato about putting boots on the ground (knowing it would never be approved), only Britain has been ruthlessly consistent in offering the quality and quantity of assistance Ukraine genuinely requires.

Most dictators would grimace if any state invasion had not concluded after two years. The loss of 3,000 battle tanks, half a million casualties and very little territorial gain would result in a coup.

But with both Prigozhin (the ex-head of Wagner) and Navalny (the ex-head of the opposition) out of the way and next month’s presidential election already sewn up, this dictator, who has already been in power for 25 years, has every reason to smile.

Vladimir Putin

Putin 'has every reason to smile'


If your longer-term strategic goal is to emulate your hero Stalin, you first paint the West as the bad guy responsible for Russia’s domestic economic woes; second, you demonise Nato as the existential threat to Russian security; and, finally, you assert that the war in Ukraine is therefore essential to defend the motherland.

It is the West’s comprehensive failure to appreciate this bigger picture that has prevented us from thwarting Putin’s wider intentions as we kid ourselves that this is still all about Ukraine. It is not. Europe is at war. The West, including Britain, is involved. Unless Russia is seen to fail, Putin’s adventurism will continue westwards.

Indeed, Moscow’s strategy to constantly spook the West with escalatory threats just fuels the confusion and hesitancy about how we should respond. At the start of this war, Putin succeeded in deterring Nato from any form of intervention. Thankfully we’ve come a long way from publicly declaring weapons sent to Ukraine were for ‘defence use’ only – largely thanks to Britain pushing the envelope.

NATO says ‘it’s up to Ukraine to decide acceptable way’ as Kyiv compelled to give up land to RussiaNATO

But we still don’t label Putin as a threat to Europe even though he’s now more Stalin ever was. No longer is Putin kept in check by the Kremlin's inner circle or the Communist Party. With Russia’s economy increasingly propped up by China and Iran - Western sanctions are having little effect and Putin is exuding ever greater confidence.

The latest example of this involves leaked military documents outlining Russia's doctrine for tactical nuclear weapons use. Yet there is nothing new here. These papers are years old. It has long been known that Russia’s plans - in distinct contrast to Nato - include the use of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons as part of its wider combat protocols. It has far fewer advanced conventional weapons than Nato and the large low-yield arsenal is designed to compensate for this. Their power is equivalent to letting off hundreds of thousands of tonnes of TNT capable of destroying a garrison HQ or city block.

It’s time to rekindle our Cold War statecraft skills. If Putin is allowed to publicly speculate about the use of nuclear weapons without being challenged, he is at an advantage because the assumption is made that he will go there. He then exploits that assumption further to frighten the West into inaction.

There is no doubt that a European confrontation with nuclear weapons is higher than at any time since 1962. But there is more chance of losing control of the escalatory ladder through poor communication, mishaps or false flags.

When challenged by the USSR after the war, the West made sure Stalin knew exactly where we stood. Our policy was containment with force. Can we say the same today? Our policy seems aimed at preventing Ukraine from losing, not enabling it to win. Into that gap Putin strides, exploiting our weakness and buying himself time.

We must not let this nuclear sabre-rattling distract us from the truth: Putin and his partners, President Xi and Ayatollah Khamenei, want to split the West. Only our hand-wringing indecisiveness will gift them that prize.

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