Are cooler heads going to prevail in the Ukraine war? - Patrick Mercer

Something very odd, very interesting happened in Moscow a few days ago. It was all connected to the widely forecast Ukrainian attacks which failed to materialise as the Kremlin celebrated a couple of crucially important events for the Russian people.

First, on May 7, President Putin was inaugurated for what will probably be his last term in office. Then, two days later, the annual Victory Day celebrations took place with giant parades in Red Square and a number of other cities.

Now, this was the perfect opportunity for Ukraine and her Western backers not only to rain on those parades, but also to spoil the day when Vladimir Putin, was given unfettered approval to pursue his ‘Special Military Operation’ (SMO) for another few years. Clearly, it was incumbent upon Kiev to show her defiance with a shower of drones over Belgorod or Moscow or, as has now become traditional, an attempt to sink a Black Sea Fleet vessel. But nothing notable happened, despite all expectations.

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For instance, many in Russia thought that the 100,000 NATO troops currently exercising in Poland and the Baltic States would make some form of demonstration. The idea that a fully equipped allied army is content to sit on Russia’s borders simply to deter further aggression is widely disbelieved. Rather, several prominent commentators have suggested that if Ukraine shows signs of collapse these troops will roll eastwards and straight into battle with Russian forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow. PIC: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty ImagesRussian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow. PIC: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow. PIC: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

And these anxieties have only been added to by several Western politicians, most notable of whom has been President Macron. He’s suggested that French troops might be used in combat roles in Ukraine, not explaining how this might be arranged with NATO’s bosses, but maintaining what he likes to call ‘strategic ambiguity’ to keep the Kremlin guessing. Oddly, though, Paris is simultaneously asking the Russians for a ceasefire in Ukraine over the period of the Olympics. Threats and favours make strange bedfellows, though.

Meanwhile, our very own foreign secretary started to rattle his plastic sabre. Lord Cameron, apparently unilaterally, suddenly gave his blessing for the latest tranche of cruise missiles that Britain was supplying to be used “deep inside Russia,” a major change in alliance policy. In parallel, he promised an annual £3bn in military aid “for as long as it takes” whilst neglecting to mention that a new Labour government may have different views.

The problem was further complicated by the open secret that NATO specialists have to be present on Ukrainian territory to fire complex cruise missiles such as Storm Shadow. Now, those troops may well be wearing Ukrainian uniforms, but the dangers of their being killed by Russian fire (and all the risks of escalation that come with such a tragedy) are obvious. So obvious, indeed, Chancellor Scholz has refused to give missiles because it would imperil German soldiers’ lives.

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Now, whilst such niceties perhaps go unnoticed by Lord Cameron - the Kremlin pores over every detail.

As an example, the day before President Putin’s inauguration - and all the mayhem that that was expected to unleash - Moscow’s defence ministry announced a surprise exercise of tactical, nuclear weapons. These weren’t big nukes, but battlefield weapons - just the sort of thing that might be used against targets such as Storm Shadow launchers or even the NATO legions on the Polish border. And there was no equivocation from Russia’s foreign ministry either: they said that it hoped the drills would “cool the hotheads in western capitals”.

Then, just as that news was breaking, Sergei Lavrov - the wily, Russian foreign minister - summoned the British and French Ambassadors to his presence. It seems to have been a short meeting - brusque, I’d imagine - and when they left neither diplomat spoke to the assembled press.

Revealingly, later the same day the French foreign ministry announced on X (formally Twitter) that, “No, France is not sending troops to Ukraine.” That was followed by Pierre Levy, France’s ambassador - with astonishing hypocrisy - attending President Putin’s swearing-in ceremony, which most other western diplomats boycotted.

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Now, I have no doubt that the Pentagon was privy to exactly what Mr Lavrov said to the two ambassadors earlier this month. So, taking the Russian’s words seriously, at the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at Ramstein last Monday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made it quite clear to his NATO minions that America would not approve Ukraine's use of US-provided weapons for strikes in Russia. Perhaps America was also trying to ‘cool the hotheads in Western capitals’? In any event, neither Britain nor France has yet chosen to put their threats into practice.

All this is fine until you look at what’s happening on Ukraine’s front lines. With some small exceptions, President Putin’s men are advancing everywhere including a new offensive towards Kharkiv in the north which is inflicting significant casualties and taking many prisoners.

Patrick Mercer is a former MP for Newark and Army colonel.

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