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The Russians are not landing at Dover

"Is that a Storm-Z battalion?" Credit: Getty

January 30, 2024 - 8:10am

A cursory glance at recent newspaper headlines would suggest that young British men are already being fitted for uniforms and kissing their sweethearts farewell at train stations, ready to be packed off to Europe as part of a conscript army taking on the might of the Russian military. 

Last week, the outgoing Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, sparked “conscription fever” when he discussed the idea of a “citizen army” ready to fight a land war in case the UK is dragged into conflict with Russia. Former deputy supreme commander of Nato, General Sir Richard Shirreff, later said that it is time to “look carefully at conscription” as it “might be necessary” to deter Russia. Adding to the Cold War atmosphere, it has emerged that US nuclear weapons will soon be stored on UK soil again, while senior generals from Nato countries have warned of Russian strikes on targets across Europe should Vladimir Putin attack the alliance in the coming years. 

While commentators might enjoy speculating about how well Gen-Z Tiktokers would fare in pitched battles against columns of T-90 tanks somewhere near Dover, rumours of Europe’s demise may be somewhat premature. Military chiefs are unsurprisingly eager to assert the continued relevance and necessity of the armed forces. With both coffers and recruitment quotas to fill, they have a vested interest in provoking the kind of alarming headlines that pressure electioneering politicians into fattening defence budgets and prioritising army recruitment. Indeed, Sanders already has a long history of publicly complaining about defence cuts. 

Meanwhile, the warning that victory in Ukraine would only encourage Putin’s revanchist ambitions further west is the main argument used by Nato and the White House to attempt to convince the US Congress and sceptical Republicans that they should keep funding Kyiv. Certainly, the Ukraine campaign has been an unambiguous demonstration of the imperialist ambitions of Russia’s President, a man who famously described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century and has been doing all he can since to reverse it.

But when the German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius confidently predicts that Russia could attack a Nato country within five to eight years, it feels like a note of scepticism is required. 

Russia will be tied down in Ukraine for at least the rest of 2024, with UK military chiefs assessing that neither side has the capacity for a major territorial breakthrough this year. Looking to the longer term, the BBC this month calculated that at least 42,284 Russian military personnel have been killed since the launch of the invasion, with other estimates rising much higher. Declassified US intelligence last month indicated that Russia has lost 87% of the total number of active-duty ground troops it had before the war and two-thirds of its pre-invasion tanks. Western officials say Russia is currently spending 40% of its GDP to sustain a war against a country that is 28 times smaller than it. 

The most recent “victories” achieved by Russia are the hamlets of Krokhmalne and Vesele (pre-war populations of 45 and 102 respectively). Held back by Ukrainian counterattacks, Russian forces have abandoned attempts to encircle the city of Avdiivka in favour of attritional block-by-block warfare likely to take a heavy toll on the 40,000 soldiers they have committed to the task. It is a long way from Avdiivka to Berlin.  

Even if — as Belgian army chief Michel Hofman claims — Russia’s military weakness is “temporary”, the memory of it will endure. Putin is unlikely to forget in a hurry the humiliating failures the Russian military suffered in the earliest days of the invasion and how a three-day operation became a war lasting years. The threat should of course be taken seriously, but a new ground war in Europe is not imminent. 

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Martin M
MM
Martin M
2 months ago

That article is quite cheery on one level, but it is definitely in the interests of the West to inflict a further toll on the Russian military, and the Russian economy.

Robbie K
Robbie K
2 months ago

A special thank you to Comrade General Sanders at the Ministry of Peace.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
2 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Like most members of the “Black Mafia” he is an appalling ‘attention seeker’.

A D Kent
A D Kent
2 months ago

 Here we go again, another Unherd piece that takes as read a particularly Western view of the Russia-Ukraine war.

No the Russians aren’t going to come to Dover, but that they’re in a better position now to do so if they wanted to than they were in 2022 is becoming more clear by the month.

The initial Russian plan was never to ‘take Kiev’ – they knew they didn’t have sufficient troops to do so. It was to stabilise the break-away republics and negotiate neutrality – they were doing alright until Bozo flew to Kiev to deliver Biden’s message to scupper the Turkey talks.

From then on Russia did what it had been preparing for for the previous two decades – it mobilised. It activated it’s industrial base that it had strategically decided not to out-source and upped production of everything. It was able to do this because it had planned for this situation well in advance and it was built into their military doctrine.

We have had all the over-promoted cretins all across the Western think-tank complex telling us of how they were about to run out of everything and drawing straight lines on graphs from the 2010s munitions production figures to extrapolate them into the future ‘proving’ that the Russians could never produce enough to survive. Well guess what? It turns out that those figures weren’t indications of Russia’s maximum production capacity, they were indicative of their production when just ticking over whilst their factories re-tooled, re-trained and modernised. There was no reason to run these plants anywhere near full capacity for a war that may not come – but every reason to have them available for when it did.

Yes they’ve made plenty of mistakes – no one knew really what to expect in this new epoch of drones, forensic ISR and devilishly tricky mines that can now be deployed by shell or drone on paths within minutes of them being cleared. But now the Russians have destroyed Ukraines first army, then the one that they constituted with all the West’s Soviet stocks, threw back the Ukrainian summer offensive, mostly destroyed their air-defences and are now pushing on all fronts.

And contrary to the popular view – Ukraine had plenty of advantages in not getting the ‘full support’ of NATO. The moment NATO went ‘all in’ would be the moment that Russia seriously targetted all the satellites and other ISR infrastructure upon which most of the West’s systems depend. Of course NATO would do the same to the Russian’s – which would leave just one other country with significant satellite infrastructure left – and guess which side they’re favouring nowadays?

Regarding the politics and Putin’s objectives, rebuilding the state of Russia from it’s parlous position after the Western sponsored ransacking of the 90s isn’t imperialism. Putin made it crystal clear in 2008 that Ukraine joining NATO was a red-line – just like many other Russians (liberal and hard-line), Western diplomats, academics, journalists and politicians of all political persuasions had done in the previous 3 decades before and 2 since.

We may be ‘dragged into war’ wit the Russians – but if we do, it won’t be by Putin or whoever follows him – it will be by the Neocons in Washington (and increasingly the UK), the preposterous German leadership and the various corrupt, gravy-training interests of the West’s Military Industrial (Congressional) Complex. These are the very serious types who failed to learn the greatest lesson of the Second World War – do not underestimate the Russians. We must not listen to them.  

Michael Cazaly
MC
Michael Cazaly
2 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I agree with all of that.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
2 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Well said,

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
2 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Spot on.

David Wildgoose
DW
David Wildgoose
2 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Fantastic summary. I wholeheartedly support it.

Martin M
Martin M
2 months ago

Exactly the opposite for me. It is incumbent on the West to use every means at its disposal (both military and economic) to bleed Russia dry. If we don’t succeed, we will rue our failure.

John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
2 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

If the article is correct and Russia really is spending 40% GDP on the Ukraine campaign, it is amazing that it has lasted even this long.

The original Cold War was won economically, not militarily: the Soviet Communist economy simply could not keep pace with the USA’s scale of military investment. However, all this assumes that Putin won’t resort to nuclear threats as his ability to wage conventional warfare decreases.

As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that China is not a militarised economy yet, and if it ever became such a thing, the West might very well face the same problems that made the USSR collapse 35 years ago.

Martin M
Martin M
2 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

The last time I looked, China had some economic problems of its own. Plus, China isn’t as expansionist as Russia (Taiwan aside).

Martin M
Martin M
2 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

The initial Russian plan was never to ‘take Kiev’ – they knew they didn’t have sufficient troops to do so.
I don’t think that is right. Everything suggested that Russia thought the war would be over in a week.

A D Kent
A D Kent
2 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Maybe – but over in a week following negotiations. They knew they never had sufficient troops to occupy much of the country, let alone take Kiev by hostile means. Contrary to Western media narratives, that great big column threatening Kiev withdrew in pretty good order – according to the RF and some other sources – this was as a ‘good will’ gesture. The Bozo flew to Kiev, there was the Bucha incident (for which the jury is very much still out0 and the rest is (debated) history.

Andrew Fisher
AF
Andrew Fisher
2 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

A balanced account – not!

The idea that Boris Johnson – that clown?! single handedly scuppered a peace deal is ridiculous. But you just lap this sort of confirmation bias stuff up don’t you?

The “neocons” – which is now becoming just another pejorative term – are not “in power” in Washington.

Criticism of the West is perfectly reasonable. A wise eyed gooey support of the revanchist Russian regime, who have been – since 2014 and not 2022 – using military aggression against a neighbour they fully recognised in 1991, is not.

By the way, lots of mythology about the “invincible” Russians. It was a close run thing in 1941 to 43.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

“Regarding the politics and Putin’s objectives, rebuilding the state of Russia from it’s parlous position after the Western sponsored ransacking of the 90s isn’t imperialism.”

Given his views on the collapse of the USSR, it isn’t just the nation of Russia that Putin aims to restore, and given the unanimous view of the former Eastern Bloc nations towords the prospect of the restoration of government by Moscow, it is wrong to dismiss the charge of imperialism towards Putin. It is, conversely, a fair point.

I agree with much else you say here but on this point I would suggest you are mistaken.

Matt B
Matt B
2 months ago

The warnings are well founded, and this piece should not detract from that, whether we are talking about spending alone or adopting a Swedish/Finnish or other force-muliplier option. The warnings come with rough timeframes, and far from being fanciful they relate to Putin’s record and own speeches and writings about his near abroad. So, no, his massed ranks and tanks are not expected at Dover (no-one said they were), but NATO Art V on collective defence means that NATO members – us – could be called on for more forces – and note the requirement would NOT just be for men. If a worst case, civil defence and other Home efforts would be needed. Even the pandemic showed that. Now, think of missile, cyber and other sub-threshold attacks.
Russia’s capability at sub-threshold warfare is clear (quite apart from its global spreading of diversionary effort to disperse responses. Ignore it all at your peril, and brush it aside if you will. But if push does come to shove in 5-10 years be prepared (and that means now). Free-loading “Irish” sit-on-hands defence is not an option.

A D Kent
A D Kent
2 months ago
Reply to  Matt B

Unfortunately ‘we’ have put all our military eggs into the shoddy baskets of aircraft carriers and the F-35 – the former obsolete, the latter out-classed by Russian & Chinese counterparts even if they can get into the air.

Then there’s the ongoing problems with the Type 45 destroyers and billions wasted on things like the Ajax APVs. We can throw more percentages of our GDP at this, but the problems are systemic.

Matt B
Matt B
2 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

No doubt. But whilst the reasons for the current situation are bad, and the reasons for it equally so, the next steps still involve parsing the risks as they now stand. Dismiss them all as the feverish fancies of cretins and gravey-trainers if you will – but at the risk of granting Putin a lot of benefit of the doubt. An oppressed actor in good faith?

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
2 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

THE NAVY LARK
Sadly even our Minesweepers seem to go backwards* when they are meant to go forwards!

(* Astern for naval buffs.)

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
2 months ago

Fighting Russia in someone else’s country is far preferable to fighting them in your own. Neverthless, the ‘mighty’ Russian armed forces cannot convincingly defeat one former Soviet Republic. Our Generals need to learn to stop shouting, “Wolf, Wolf!” at every opportunity.

A D Kent
AK
A D Kent
2 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Not fighting them at all is preferable to both those options. As for them not convincingly defeating Ukraine – we’ll see about that if and when we ever get reliable evidence for their losses, or indeed less censored views of what is going on there. The AFU were demanding the return of male fighting-age refugees a couple of months ago – they wer already hamstrung by a dearth of 20-somethings to recruit from as the chaos of the 90s led to a massive drop in birth rates then.
By some estimates the UK have already donated about a fifth of our munitions to the AFU, but still they can’t advance.
Russia is doing about as well as any force could do in this new epoch of of ISR, drones, missiles & mines. I’ve posted something longer on this 2 hours ago, but Unherd is taking it’s time in approving it.

Martin M
Martin M
2 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

There is no argument that Russia thought that the Ukraine war would be over in a week, so by any metric, it is doing badly.

Alex Carnegie
AC
Alex Carnegie
2 months ago

Three simple questions 

1/ Has the chance of a major war increased significantly in the last ten years?

2/ Does the UK have large enough forces and infrastructure in case it becomes involved?

3/ Has the UK increased its defence budget accordingly?

The answers are fairly obvious.

The issue is not whether a major war is certain or imminent in the next three years but whether – after thirty years of unprecedented global stability – we are returning to more normal conditions and need to resume paying the appropriate insurance premiums.

The comparison with the 1930s is interesting. So far Sunak has done less than Baldwin and Chamberlain did in response to a gradually increasing chance of war. Let us hope for his sake that peace prevails as otherwise he may go down in history as Rishi the Ostrich

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

He won’t be in a position of power long enough to have made much difference, since defence procurement (including personnel) takes place over much longer time periods. It will therefore likely fall to Starmer to move the dial, and an Unherd article in the last couple of days has suggested he might be a ‘secret warmonger’. Hmm… i have my doubts about that, but nevertheless, he’ll have far more influence than Sunak.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

That great LIBERAL Herbert Asquith took us into the greatest disaster in British history soon enough.

Martin M
Martin M
2 months ago

Herbert Asquith took Britain into the EU? I don’t recall that!

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 months ago

The Conservatives were much more in favour of entering the war in 1914. It was only the Liberal Party that was split on the issue. Our entry into WW1 was entirely in accordance with long standing British policy to prevent a hegemonic power emerging in Europe – and more specifically on the French coast 20 miles away.

It was a costly but correct decision in my view. Things could have been very different, but the erratic and untrustworthy German behaviour after the fall of Bismarck in 1990 – not least launching an entirely unnecessary naval arms race with Great Britain – probably ensured the development of the 1914 alliance system.

Tyler Durden
TD
Tyler Durden
2 months ago

Giving the growing issues with funding, the key for NATO and the EU is to stop the Russians breaking the Ukrainian lines and marching on Kiev again.
That is not my conventional understanding of the term ‘struggling’ as applied to Moscow’s forces here. The months ahead look to resemble a clear prelude to a peace settlement quietly engineered by the Americans and Russians.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
2 months ago

The Covid model provided some with a workable blueprint for stoking fear:
1) find an enemy of untold power: Russia, of course, despite all the stories telling us how feckless Putin’s forces are. We should quaking in our shoes anyway. 2) propose the cure: conscription in this case; otherwise, more defense spending which, as an American, I would encourage European nations to do if there was no Putin. We can’t afford it any more. 3) creating an outgroup: anyone who objects to the panic porn and understands that Vlad is not going to attack a NATO country.
Also like Covid, act in concert with other ‘leaders’ so there is a unified party line to bring the proles in line. A half-million dead Ukrainians and a nation practically in ruins, but we’re still being lectured about imperialist desires.

Charlie Two
Charlie Two
2 months ago

they may not be at Dover but we are moronically under funded and resourced re defence. £180Bn spaffed down the bog every year for ‘Our’ NHS?! and as for depending on the rationality of Putin, Xhi, the Mad Mullahs of Iran et al, then i wouldnt be getting complacent any time soon.

Dougie Undersub
DU
Dougie Undersub
2 months ago

Like much of the commentary on Gen. Sanders’s remarks, this article frames the issue incorrectly. There is, indeed, little chance of Russian tanks rolling across Luneberg Heath any time soon but, precisely because Putin is mired in the Ukrainian mud, his interest in increasing his disruptive pushing of the boundaries is that much greater.
Only the older generations can remember conflicts that affected the whole population. Both today’s politicians and public imagine that wars are things that happen in faraway places and affect only the personnel directly engaged. They’re about to discover that the conflict in the Red Sea affects inflation and will make us all poorer.
Russian incursions into our airspace and beneath our waters will increase unless we show resolve. It was no coincidence that the Russian Navy chose to hold an exercise west of Ireland right over the area of sea bed where multiple transatlantic cables come together. Vital North Sea infrastructure is also being mapped.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-65309687
Many of the ransomeware and other cyber attacks on the UK originate in Russia. While the hackers’ motivation is monetary, they must have, at the least, tacit approval from Putin and their skills can readily be directed towards infrastructure targets.
While conscription into the armed forces is not an immediate need, we do need the whole population to realise that peace and freedom requires our constant effort and attention.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 months ago

Best contribution to this debate.

j watson
j watson
2 months ago

The question is one of deterrence and not just towards a Ukrainian type invasion of another east European country but Russian, China, Iran, N Korea etc in filtration and disruption. Combatting this needs some traditional armed forces – you can’t rely on World trade without some ability to protect key shipping lanes and seabed comms – but also stronger cyber warfare capability and resilience. It also requires alliances and those require mutual commitments demonstrated.

James Love
James Love
2 months ago

Squeeze Russia economically. Wait for its demographic winter to collapse its capacity to fight.

Martin M
Martin M
2 months ago
Reply to  James Love

Excellent suggestion. Russia has been our enemy for most of the last century (short periods of “alliances of necessity” notwithstanding), and will undoubtedly be our enemy for most of the current century. We should behave accordingly.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
2 months ago

What these military planners are truly afraid of is a military alliance between Russia/China/Iran/North Korea and maybe a few others. No, Russia isn’t going to take on NATO by themselves. It would be suicidal. The numbers do not favor them in any way. They would be badly outgunned and in the longer term, outnumbered as well. However, if they had allies, the equation changes significantly. If the US had to spread its military resources between several theaters of combat, for example Korea, Taiwan, the Middle East, and Europe, it would not be pretty… at all.

The first, most obvious problem is weapons shortages. There’s some evidence that the US military industrial complex is struggling to keep up with just the Ukraine and Middle East conflicts. Global war is a different beast entirely. The US and allies might be facing a shortage of munitions within months or weeks of the onset of hostilities. The US would have to transition to a war economy, which hasn’t been attempted since 1945. It would be a slow and messy process that made catching up difficult if it was even possible to do so. Further, the enemy would have orders of magnitude more soldiers. In terms of arms, the US is comparable to China and Russia. In terms of actual military personnel, it is badly outnumbered. With North Korea and Iran, the numbers get ridiculous. Raw manpower doesn’t count for as much as it used to in warfare, but it’s not irrelevant either.

The chances of such a global conflict are low, but not zero. War planning and defense is to a great extent a matter of preparing for the worst case scenario. A lot of the noise about defense budgets and conscription is the recognition that today’s worst case scenario looks apocalyptic compared to that of 2005 or 2015. These are the people whose job it is to prepare nations for the conflicts it might face and they are doing it. If a nation isn’t going to prepare for the conflicts it might realistically face, what’s the point of having a military in the first place?

P Branagan
P Branagan
2 months ago

No Bethany, young men most certainly should not go and fight for a society that over the 30 yrs has been nothing more than a sustained diatribe of hatred against males and everything mascaline.
When conscription is introduced it should be confined to females – who as you know are inherently superior in every way to males.
Females may have something to fight for. Males do not.
Now go and fight. I’ll mind the kids.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
2 months ago
Reply to  P Branagan

Great idea! “Up Goldilocks and at ‘em!”

John Tyler
JT
John Tyler
2 months ago

Naive in the extreme! The idea of Russians in Dover is, of course, a straw man.

Put simply, the real situation is this: we either prepare for the worst or risk our independence. The adoption of appeasement (our practice for several decades) does not work. It never has and never will. It is impossible to reason with a hungry bear; you either feed it, feed it more and more and more while not daring to cause any offence; or you deter it so strongly that it chooses to eat elsewhere or ends up dead.

This is pragmatism, not warmongering. I no more wish to kill another human than a bear, but I’m not prepared to live in constant fear.