In an episode of Yes Minister, Sir Humphrey and a defence advisor explain the Soviet ‘Salami Tactics’ to Jim Hacker. Taking a slice at a time, so that by time the Soviets had taken over West Germany, it would be quite unnoticed, quite impossible to oppose and far too late in any case.
At present, life imitates art. Putin has been cutting slices along his border for well over a decade. Putin marches his troops over a border, and waits to see the West’s response. The cost has never been sufficient. We can shout until we’re blue in the face that Russia is illegally occupying territories, and yet the Russian tricolour flies over Sevastopol, and the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet has ready access to the Mediterranean.
The first threshold for sanctions is likely to be reached today (Tuesday). Putin met yesterday with his Security Council where he received unanimous support to recognise the so-called independence of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. This action must invite consequences.
It goes without saying that these two ‘republics’ are nothing of the sort. They are being recognised as a convenient tank-park for Putin’s army – without regard for the Ukrainians who live in Donetsk and Luhansk. And the entrance of Russian troops into Donetsk or Luhansk still represent an invasion of Ukraine – and must be recognised as such.
The obvious first step is sanctions on those oligarchs who finance and protect Putin. However, we can go beyond this, and should if we need to, by blacklisting Russian banks and the accountancy and law firms who protect Putin’s kleptocrats. Alongside this we should ban the City from servicing Russian state companies whilst we reduce our dependency on Russian gas.
But further meaningful costs are likely should Putin continue to escalate, or worse, invade.
We should encourage our Turkish allies to restrict Russian Naval access to the Bosphorous, meanwhile agreeing a NATO Black Sea training exercise. NATO tactical and intelligence support must continue, alongside support for any Ukrainian resistance in the form of defensive capabilities and intelligence. Finally, cyber strikes on Russian electrical and telecommunications companies, and Government, should remain firmly under consideration. The ejection of Russian banks from SWIFT should also be on the table.
Civil society, and the Government working with the US, have effectively de-classified military intelligence and exposed false flags and disinformation efforts by the Kremlin. This must continue to prevent plausible deniability regardless of escalation or de-escalation. Because information is a weapons system. When Russia invaded Syria in 2015, I convinced my civil service colleagues across Government that we needed to launch an operation to ‘own the truth and industrialise it’ – to expose Russian activities on the ground and ensure that the reality was known across the world. Russia had not planned for any expose-operations, and that is precisely why they worked. In the worst case scenario, we should also increase the cost to Putin domestically with offensive information operations into Russia.
Amidst all of this, while we focus on preventing further escalations, there are already real victims of Putin’s ambitions: Ukrainian soldiers killed, but also the people living in territories illegally occupied by Russia who have been forcibly displaced by Putin as a propaganda tool. They are sadly just the first. Intelligence suggests Putin has already drawn up lists of Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following any military occupation. This would be a conquest – not a ‘liberation’ of Russians under an imagined ‘fascist’ Ukrainian regime.
The time to stop discussing what we can give Putin to prevent an invasion has come. It’s clear that we have not been good enough at unpicking authoritarian influence in democracies. We must do so, tendril by tendril and Rouble by Rouble to preserve democratic states and the liberty of all our peoples.
Alongside action internationally and at home, in Parliament we urgently need the Counter Hostile States Bill brought forward – to give us a legal framework to take the fight to the authoritarians, and protect our international rules-based order. And we need new treason legislation to deal with cut-outs and illegal actors.
Putin has already relegated a once-great nation to pariah status. Any invasion must damage Russia irreparably, because it will threaten our way of life from Kharkiv to Coventry. The time for sanctions is now – not when Russian tanks roll into Kyiv.