Belfast Telegraph

Simply wrong to wind down our defences as Putin flexes his muscles

By Nelson McCausland

The incursion by Russia into Ukraine in the spring of 2014, the annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine serve to remind us of how naive some Western politicians were about the threat from Vladimir Putin's Russia. The war in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 6,000 lives and has left more than one million people homeless.

In its 1998 and 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews, the United Kingdom government assumed that the threat from Russia was over and that Russia had become a busted flush.

The 2010 review therefore recommended that the British Army would be reduced by 23 regular units and by 2020 would number just 112,000 soldiers, of whom 82,000 would be regulars and 30,000 would be reservists.

However that was before the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and the sight of Russian tanks trundling through the streets of Donetsk.

With the collapse of the old USSR, the Soviet Union, many politicians imagined that the Russian menace was over and that it was a thing of the past. They believed that the direction of movement in Russia would be towards greater democracy and liberty and that our foe would eventually become our friend.

The bumbling alcoholic Boris Yelstin was the first president of the Russian Federation, from 1991 to 1999, and he became a figure of fun. However his successor Vladimir Putin has proven to be a very different figure altogether.

Putin (below) was formerly an officer in the KGB, the Russian government agency which acted as internal security, intelligence agency and secret police.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 Putin entered politics and started out on his road to the top of the Russian Federation. He moved to Moscow in 1996 and joined the administration of President Boris Yeltsin.

Putin became acting president on December 31, 1999, when Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned, and he won the subsequent presidential election in 2000.

He has a self-proclaimed mission to reclaim Russia's 'lost glory' and he described the loss of the Crimean peninsula as a 'historic injustice' that had to be corrected.

That is why the annexation of Crimea, which officially became part of Russia on March 21, 2014, was so important for Putin. It was part of that mission of rebuilding a Greater Russia. Crimea and eastern Ukraine are just the start of Putin's ambitious plans for expansion and those plans are a threat to world peace.

At times Putin may appear as a ridiculous figure, posing like a film star, stripped to the waist and on horseback. But there is nothing funny about Vladimir Putin and the people of the Ukraine know that only too well.

Yet in recent years we have seen a Conservative-led coalition government slashing the defence budget and reducing our military capability.

That is something I never envisaged would ever happen. Traditionally the Conservative Party was a party that was strong on defence but that has changed.

In its document The Northern Ireland Plan, which was published last week, the DUP states: "We want Westminster to commit to the Nato target of spending 2% of GDP on defence." At a time of increased international instability that makes good sense.

Conservative MP Bob Stewart, a former British Army officer and UN commander in Bosnia, is a man who knows more about military affairs than either Prime Minister David Cameron or Defence Secretary Michael Fallon.

Recently he wrote: "The Cold War seems to be warming up again. Perhaps we should note that in our next SDSR. The world is more dangerous now than I have seen in my lifetime."

Recently too Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6, warned that Russia posed a "state-to-state threat" and that dealing with it would require defence spending.

I fear that their assessments may well be right and that is why it is so important that the United Kingdom meets the Nato target on defence spending.

Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

Belfast Telegraph

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