The following speech was made by Lord Robertson of Port Ellen to the House of Lords on 26 January 2023
What is increasingly clear is that Vladimir Putin has declared war on the West. What is also clear is that we are not responding adequately to that overt challenge to our countries and what we stand for. There is no visible urgency in our national behaviour.
It is not war as we used to know it. That old-fashioned kind of brutal war is, however, being waged against the territory and people of the sovereign state of Ukraine. Putin's war on the West in contrast is more subtle, more hybrid, less visible, more multifaceted – but just as potent and damaging. By using misinformation, election interference, cyber attacks, corruption, organised-crime, malicious diplomacy, and by exploiting every crack in our democratic societies, he seeks to disrupt and weaken the fabric of our liberal, open democracies.
It has nothing to do with promoting an alternative economic or social model as the Soviet Union sought to do with their brand of Marxism-Leninism. Putin may harbour secret, demented dreams about re-creating that oppressive empire, but in reality, he is simply but violently posturing about gaining attention and establishing some parity with the USA. With his economy tanking, and his young, economically active population draining away, these are foolish delusions.
The issue for us today, as we approach the 365th day of Putin's three-day war against Ukraine, is what should we be doing in response to the declaration of war made by the Russian President? Here, then, is my checklist of what we need to do:
First, we need to secure our own societies and democratic systems. With London still as a reservoir of Russian dark money and London's lawyers still doing the dirty work for Russian money-men and women, more has to be done to enforce and toughen sanctions against those who do the Kremlin's biddings and those who benefit from his regime.
Second, our own defences need strengthening. That does not just mean increasing spending, it means replenishing what we have given to the Ukrainians.
Third, we need to give the Ukrainians more. If, as ministers continually say, the Ukrainians are fighting for themselves, their country, and for us – as indeed they are – then by holding stocks and equipment here, when our front line is actually in eastern Ukraine, we leave ourselves dangerously exposed.
Fourth, we need to tell the Russian people that we, NATO, the EU, the West, are not attacking Russia. Instead, we are helping the sovereign state of Ukraine to defend itself against an unprovoked attack.
How do we get that message across? The answer is we did it in the Cold War and can do it again.
More Russian language information into Russia, encouraging the independent BBC World Service, using YouTube, Instagram, and a host of social media means we can get past the wall of deceit and lies which characterise Russian propaganda outlets. A younger generation can access the web, but the older, the majority, of folk depend on the official media with its Orwellian approach to truth and facts.
Fifth, we need to tell the Russian military, whose advice Putin clearly ignored when he ordered the invasion, some bold truths. The Russian high command know that they were ill-prepared for such an ambitious war, that they had, through faulty and over-optimistic intelligence, grossly underestimated the opposition, resilience and ingenuity of the Ukrainians.
The Russian military, who I met numerous times, know that they are struggling against a formidable, highly-motivated Ukrainian population now being armed with Western-supplied, sophisticated weaponry that they have no answer to.
In their collective memory must be the parallel with the Red Army in Afghanistan in February 1989. Faced then with an endless, unwinnable war costing lives and precious resources, the Kremlin ordered the mighty Red Army of the Soviet Union to come home. Nobody was asking then for an off-ramp or a ceasefire, or some face-saver. They simply folded their tents and left. Thirty-two months later, there was no Soviet Union.
Sixth, we need to tell Putin and the small number of cronies around him and advising him, and telling him what he wants to hear, that all his strategic objectives have failed. He wanted to stop NATO enlargement: Finland and Sweden are about to join. He wanted to split Europe: it is more united than ever. He wanted to split the US from Europe, but he's welded them together in common purpose. He wanted to crush and eliminate Ukraine from the map, and instead he has produced a new, deep permanent feeling of nationhood in that country. He wanted at the very least to annex and absorb the Donbass and the land corridor to Crimea, but his spokesman can't even describe what has been annexed, never mind what they now actually hold.
We need to remind Putin of this. One step over the article 5 NATO line, then there will be an existential risk to the Russian Motherland.
Here is another message for the man in the Kremlin, who gave us this terrible war. Speaking, as I do, as the only person ever to announce the invoking of article 5, that guarantee that an attack on one NATO country is seen as an attack on all, can I tell Vladimir Putin who I met nine times and at that point did good business, this fact. That the article 5 guarantee of a nuclear weapons alliance goes well beyond normal red lines.
Finally, we need to address the Global South and the lack of understanding of Ukraine's position in Africa, South America and India.
It seems many countries in the South see this is as a regional conflict, of pay back for NATO enlargement or a challenge to the over mighty US and arrogant West. But they must understand that if it becomes accepted that borders can be changed by force, that sovereign states can be invaded and annexed, if nuclear blackmail intimidates neighbouring states, then many more countries than Ukraine are on the danger list. We need urgently to get that message over and have it heard loudly.
I end with a sentiment worth pondering if it worries some people about possible escalation. The greatest nuclear threat we face today is a Russian victory. We must do everything we can to prevent just that.
Lord Robertson of Port Ellen has been Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, UK Defence Secretary and Secretary General of NATO. He was a Scottish Labour MP for 21 years