In conversation with General Sir Richard Barrons

In conversation with General Sir Richard Barrons

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the most significant event in European security history since the fall of the Berlin wall and a strategic shock equivalent to 9/11. A week after it began, James Harding and General Sir Richard Barrons discussed the likely outcomes for Ukrainians, Nato preparedness, and the reality of the threat of nuclear warfare.


Russia misjudged the invasion – but is likely to achieve its military objectives

At the outset, the Russian army believed the invasion would be a cakewalk, done in 48 hrs. This was a “profound miscalculation.” The convoy outside Kyiv is the key to what happens next. Russia has now brought up the bridges and heavier troops it needs to get moving – potentially on Saturday 5 March – and then to isolate Kyiv and likely fight into the centre.

The most likely outcome is that Russia achieves its military objectives. Russian military forces will occupy the terrain that runs from Russia through the Donbas along the Sea of Azov and Black Sea coast as far as Odessa. That will devastate the Ukrainian economy, separating much of the country from the sea, destroying its export market. It also creates a land bridge to Russia and essentially produces a case for annexation.

The second objective will be to remove the democratically elected administration in Kyiv and replace it with a client of Russia. Third, Russia will ensure that the Ukrainian military is so destroyed that it isn’t a threat to Russia at all. We might assume Russia has plans for how much of the country it wants to actually occupy, which might be all of it. Zelensky’s life is in real danger – but he is more likely to be killed by a cruise missile arriving in his accommodation than by the mercenaries who have been sent to assassinate him. If he were killed, it would be a huge strategic shock for Ukraine.

Nato will avoid engagement because of the nuclear threat

The convoy won’t be systematically bombed. Russia is now doing a better job of controlling the local airspace, and the Ukrainians don’t have the capacity to tackle it themselves beyond some drones a few military jets.

The opportunity to provide Ukraine with enough military hardware to deter and defend against Russia themselves has passed. It existed between 2014 and mid-February. Sending tanks now would be futile, unless they were the same type as they operate now.

Western forces won’t attack the convoy because that would be interpreted by Putin as an act of war – and would necessitate bombing air defence targets within Russia. Putin would widen the conflict and may resort to nuclear weaponry if challenged. NATO could not control the risks of escalation and it may suit Putin to turn a struggle to succeed in Ukraine into a wider NATO/Russia confrontation.

The Russian military war book treats ‘tactical/theatre’ level nuclear weapons as tools for de-escalation. If its military is seen to be struggling, they could theoretically be deployed – even though the General “does not want to believe” it would be credible for Putin to make such a decision.

Russia’s nuclear capacity includes “tactical” or “theatre” weapons which could be used in Ukraine, with significant impact and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The latter are “doomsday” weapons with range as far as Washington and payloads of 300-800 kilotonnes (the lower range could “obliterate” Washington).

It is “a fantasy” to think these intercontinental missiles could be shot out of the sky. In “a general nuclear exchange” between Russia and Nato countries, defensive shields would be overwhelmed. In the case that they were deployed, Russia’s cities would be obliterated in equal measure as those in the west “in about the same time frame”.

The consequences for Ukrainians will be profound

As the convoy (and a complementary assault from the NE) moves toward Kyiv, Russia may issue an ultimatum to the Ukrainian’s government, but Zelensky is likely to say Ukrainians will fight on – at great cost. Ukrainians will be defiant. This battle will have a massive human cost for military and remaining civilians.

Russia will face a resistant population and a violent insurgency. This will make control very difficult. Western special operations capabilities could assist the insurgency, but this comes with great risks of provoking Russia and the insurgents being beyond control.

Russia has form in terms of ethnic cleansing and brutal treatment of civilians to force compliance – but it is unclear whether the Russian army, a quarter of whom are conscripted and many of whom see Ukrainians as neighbours and friends, will be willing to carry that out. The country is heading into “a bumpy quagmire,” the General said.

Great power conflict is back – but it’s different this time

The West has been comfortable for 30 years, believing in the endurance of the rules-based international order. The return of conventional military warfare and Russian nuclear weaponry pointed at Europe is a “vivid, visceral illustration of the world running to a different tune.”

The West has never been less prepared to deal with Russia. Putin sees the West as weak and disunited, with no stomach for war. “Until recently,” the General said, “he was probably right.”

It now has to fundamentally reset geopolitical relationships – not least because China is closely watching what happens. The task is to mobilise all the levers in Europe – the USA is likely to be disengaged – to dictate to Russia what its place in the world must be.

That can be achieved through fusing public and private sector levers – the UK’s greatest power lies in the influence of the private sector, commercial and cultural. Its weapons are primarily sanctions and information. If many Russians feel the full impact of the economic war with Europe and the disaster unfolding in Ukraine, they will ultimately oust Putin.

Shifting to a war footing is costly but necessary

It will require significant investment to boost the resilience the UK has lost since the end of the Cold War – for example, to build ammunition stocks and move military command and control back below ground. But this is a whole of society requirement now: deterrence requires societal resilience as much as military.

The digital age has already changed how we live – it will now change how we fight. The military will invest in more unmanned and autonomous weaponry, as well as data, massive synthetic environments, networks and cyber.

Defence spending should be boosted to 3 per cent of GDP for the next 5 years, to fill back major legacy holes and kick-start transformation.

For most people in the UK, these changes will be marginal – felt in their pockets – but overall, they will be essential to restoring the UK’s defence and security in a much more challenging world.