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OPINION - Another turning point in Ukraine should force us to rethink our own defence

The Wagner mercenary group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, has claimed control of Bakhmut (via REUTERS)
The Wagner mercenary group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, has claimed control of Bakhmut (via REUTERS)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that while foreign and defence policies don’t win general elections — most party manifestos bury them in the weeds of the footnotes — they can easily lose them.

Next month the Government publishes its Defence Command Paper Refresh, the blueprint of what the UK will spend on defence over the next three years, and what the Government expects to do with those defences. The refresh means it’s an update of the programme published in 2021. But it should not be a mere rehash of that paper because now the UK is deeply involved in supporting Ukraine in the war against Russia.

The Government has some tough choices ahead about the defence budget and how roughly £50 billion a year will be spent. There will be spectacular shortfalls since defence inflation tends to run several points higher than the general inflation figure.

New kit is needed — the Army hasn’t succeeded in introducing a major new fighting vehicle programme for years — such as drones of all dimensions, clothing, aircraft, ships and submarines. Above all there has to be a focus on people, particularly service housing conditions. More imagination and effort is needed to stop the shortfall in the number of recruits.

With the fall of Bakhmut and summer bringing a new level of fighting, the war in Ukraine has reached yet another turning point — one of many, admittedly, but crucial nonetheless.

Fighting has broken out on the Russian border at Belgorod, explosions are heard sporadically in Crimea each week, and there are signs of pocket insurgencies within the Russian occupied zone in Ukraine itself, and in parts of Russia. Both sides appear to have suffered huge losses — possibly as many as 300,000 killed and injured in all. Russia is now relying on the weight of numbers. A general mobilisation by stealth has produced roughly 300,000 in Ukraine and on its borders, with a reserve of some 200,000 in preparation.

Their command is divided, with personalities like Yevgeny Prigozhin of the Wagner Group and Chechen chieftain Ramzan Kadyrov playing their own bandit politics, and new commercial military companies entering the field.

With a smaller population, and therefore a smaller potential reserve, Ukraine is under pressure. But Ukrainians know they are fighting for their lives and homes.

The expenditure of munitions is breathtaking. Roughly 10,000 drones of different calibre are downed each month, Ukrainian sources informed this week’s highly successful London Defence Conference. The former director of the Defence Academy, Ed Stringer, explained that weapons that dominated 12 months ago are now obsolete — the Ukrainian arsenals need constant replenishment and upgrade.

In recent weeks Sweden has trained a new Ukraine brigade with Leopard2 tanks, the capable CV90 fighting vehicle, and artillery — equal and superior to equivalents in the British Army.

The Government has much to do to make sense of its defence and security posture for the mid-21st century. The present set of pre-election policy papers cannot be a holding operation. Shadow defence secretary John Healey has promised a full review within the first year of Labour taking office. Though cagey about increased spending, he gave priority to personnel, highlighting that 4,000 soldiers and families live in such squalid quarters that they were excused rent.

A new approach is needed, and perhaps the Australian government of Anthony Albanese has just pointed the way. Canberra will publish a major National Strategy paper next year – but it is to be updated and adjusted by a dedicated committee every two years.

Admiral Tony Radakin, the defence chief, pledged to the London conference that the UK would more than fulfil its role in the Nato Euro-Atlantic region and for Ukraine especially, as well as to the new partnerships in the Pacific.

The need for credible security and engagement in Europe and the Indo-Pacific was elegantly explained by Henry Kissinger in an interview for his 100th birthday. More robust defence and diplomacy is needed, he says, to dispel the fashionable narrative of gloom that US and China’s rivalry is on an inevitable path to war.

Vigilance and ingenuity of allies are needed to dispel the myth, and deter the revanchist claims of both China and Russia.