hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 27 April 2015

Hongerwinter: Operations Manna and Chowhound

Alphen, Netherlands. 27 April.  Hongerwinter. It was perhaps the first true humanitarian military intervention.  On the morning of 29 April, 1945 a Lancaster bomber called Bad Penny took off from its base in eastern England on a test mission to drop food to the Dutch people that would eventually see 11,000 tons dropped from the skies in a little over a week.  It is hard to believe sitting here in prosperous, modern, comfortable Netherlands that seventy years ago today some twenty-one million people were facing starvation with thousands dead or dying. Indeed, between 18,000 and 22,000 Dutch civilians had already died during the infamous 1944-45 “hongerwinter” (hungry winter). The threat facing the Dutch people prompted perhaps the most remarkable ‘bombing’ campaigns by the Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force of World War Two - Operation Manna (RAF/RCAF) and Operation Chowhound (USAAF).  

By early April 1945 Field Marshal Montgomery’s 21st Army Group had isolated German forces under General Johannes Blaskowitz in the western Netherlands, effectively cutting them off.  On 9 April, Churchill and the British war cabinet discussed the need for urgent action to alleviate the suffering of the Dutch population. 

Montgomery allocated two divisions, mainly from the Canadian First Army (General Crerar) to feeding the Dutch people, even though much of the territory remained under German occupation.  Churchill proposed approaching the head of the German occupation, the notorious Reich Commissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart, to seek a ceasefire.  However, he added a the warning that, “…if they refuse [to co-operate], we shall hold all German troops left in Holland responsible for it”.

Seyss-Inquart initially refused any threatened to blow the Dutch dykes and flood much of the country between Allied and German forces.  However, hedging his bets Seyss-Inquart also suggested that a ceasefire may be possible if the Red Cross brought in the food.  It was a face-saving manoeuvre and by the end of April a deal was agreed. Thereafter, as part of the biblically-named Operation Manna between the end of April and 7 May the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force flew 3928 sorties over the Netherlands delivering some 6680 tons of food.  Operation Chowhound saw the USAAF fly an additional 2268 sorties dropping some 4000 tons of food. When that effort proved insufficient a land operation began delivering food often behind German lines and often with the tacit approval of the Wehrmacht.

One 170 Squadron RAF Lancaster was tasked with dropping food over the town of Vlaardingen. Rear-gunner Denis Thomson recalled, “People were waving and shouting.  The nurses were lying on the sloping roof of the hospital, waving and cheering us as we flew over. We were only about 600 feet in the air and supplies were dropped in crates with no parachutes.  People ran to gather the food – I was really worried a crate would land on their heads”. 

Bob Upcott of 115 Squadron, Royal Air Force, recalled: “All our bombers were flying at low altitude so as not to damage the food parcels. On one of our Manna missions we flew over a hospital on our way back from the drop zone. We saw a nurse there unfold the largest Union Jack we had ever seen.  It was a remarkable gesture – and a brave one. German soldiers looked on in bemusement”. 

German forces in the Netherlands surrendered on 5 May, 1945.  Amidst the horror and the suffering there were lighter moments.  One of the main architects of the drops and the eventual peace was the German-born Dutch Prince Bernhard, husband of then Princess Juliana, who was part of a four man negotiating team.  Bernhard was a chain smoker and was forced to step outside of the meeting each time he craved a cigarette.  The moment he appeared Dutch civilians would start singing the Wilhelmus, the Dutch national anthem.  After hearing the Wilhelmus countless times Bernhard vowed to give up smoking.

Operations Manna and Chowhound marked the beginning of the transition from war to peace at the end of World War Two.  It also marked the moment when the brave, quiet, resistance of the Dutch people saw them claim their country back from the Nazis.  For the British, Canadians, Americans and others who took part in Operations Manna and Chowhound it was one of those wartime events which crystallized the need for the terrible struggle to drive Nazism from Europe.   

The Netherlands would not be the country it is today but for the stout resistance of the Dutch people and the courage of the Allied servicemen who liberated the Netherlands.

Lest we forget!

Julian Lindley-French

Sunday, 26 April 2015


Alphen, The Netherlands. 26 April.  Churchill wrote, “The price to be paid in taking Gallipoli would be heavy, but there would be no more war with Turkey”.  A century ago yesterday the Gallipoli Campaign began, Churchill’s great grand strategic folly.  Six years ago I stood atop Mal Tepe, the summit of Gallipoli, with Suvla Bay far below to my right, along with a group of cadets from the Netherlands Defence Academy I was leading on a visit to Turkey. This was shortly after having paid our deep respects at the Kemalyeri Memorial and Sehitier Abidesi, the memorial to the Ottoman fallen, along with hundreds of rightly-proud Turks.  One can get no sense of the enormity of the challenge that British Empire and French forces faced in taking the Gallipoli Peninsula unless one stands atop its highest point and surveys the scene Kemal Ataturk saw.  It is a breathtakingly beautiful and dangerous place. 

The Gallipoli campaign was pure Churchill – the grand strategic out-manoeuvre to end all grant strategic out-manoeuvres.  Churchill’s intention was to oust Turkey from the war by forcing British and French warships through the Dardinelles Straits into the Black Sea. Churchill, who was then First Sea Lord, was then an ‘easterner’ (as opposed to a ‘westerner’). He believed success in the Dardinelles would better support Russia and force the surrender of Constantinople, Imperial Germany’s Ottoman ally, thus relieving pressure on the stalemated Western Front.  When the effort to force the Dardinelles failed with the loss of ships and men, due mainly to superb Turkish defence and Allied command incompetence, the aim then switched to taking the Gallipoli Peninsula which dominate the Straits, and which were key to the Ottoman defence.

Before climbing to Ataturk’s lofty command post we had first visited Cape Helles, the British Memorial, before going to ANZAC Cove where Australian and New Zealand forces landed.  From ANZAC Cove we than began the ascent, thankfully with Turkey’s very generous support rather than under Ottoman fire, up the narrow track to Lone Pine where the Australian Memorial is situated.  One gravestone stuck in my mind.  It simply read, “He was a good bloke!” Pure Aussie.  We then climbed further to Chunnuk Bair and the New Zealand Memorial.  Only by making that fateful climb can one begin to grasp the courage of the ANZAC forces as they struggled to gain the heights critical to campaign success.  And, only be looking down from on high can one begin to grasp the courage of the Turkish defenders who eventually stopped them but only at great cost.

Gallipoli was the first in many respects.  It was the first truly maritime-amphibious operation.  It was the first truly Allied operation.  However, perhaps of more lasting importance Gallipoli was the place where Australia and New Zealand forged their modern national identities.  It was also the place where in many respects modern Turkey was forged and the Kamalist Consitution which has sustained that great country to this day.

After repeated attempts to gain the heights culminated in the August 1915 offensive the campaign failed and so did Churchill’s grand strategic attempt to end World War One at a stroke.  Equally, one only has to stand head bowed at the New Zealand Memorial at Chunnuk Bair to realise how close ANZAC forces came to forcing the heights and with it a decision.  On 9 January, 1916 the final Allied forces were withdrawn from the Peninsula after a skilfully concealed evacuation.

Allied losses during the Gallipoli Campaign were 252,000 of which there were 34,000 British killed, 9,768 French, 3,709 Australian, 2,721 New Zealanders, 1,378 Indians and 49 Canadians.  Ottoman losses are believed to range between 218,000 and 252,000. 

This modest blog is in honour of all the men on both sides who gave their lives during the Gallipoli Campaign.  The best that can be said for ‘Gallipoli’ was that it paved the way for a new form of warfare.  It also showed what happens when military vision, command and equipment fail to match either strategic vision or miltary-strategic reality, something upon which our own leaders should spend more time pondering…but do not.  The price paid was indeed heavy but war with Turkey continued.

My trip to Gallipoli was also memorable but not just for my tryst with World War One history.  It took place just at the moment an unpronouncable volcano in Iceland decided to go explosively uppity and ground all air traffic in Europe.  The Turks saved the day.  Ankara offered us a coach and two drivers. We then drove back across Europe from Gallipoli to the Netherlands via the Western Front battlefields. Somehow it seemed fitting.

However, whilst I deeply respectful of the Turkish and other Allied forces who fought at Gallipoli I am writing this blog first and foremost out of respect for the ANZAC forces who came halfway round the world to help defend the then Mother Country - Britain. As I stood on ANZAC Cove I sent an email to an Australian general expressing my respect for the achievement of his forebears right where I stood.  Australians and New Zealanders are a bit like we Yorkshire lads, not big on pomposity.  So, let me finish this blog in a typically Aussie/Kiwi way. 

“Good on yer, mate!”

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Why the British Election Matters

Yorkshire, God’s Own County and all that. 22 April. “We Yorkshire folk love our political jokes.  It’s just a shame we go on voting for them.”  Back in my home county of Yorkshire, place of my birth which is gripped by election fever…not!  Regular victims of my musings will have had pause to note that not much International Relations theory ever pollutes my blogs. This is mainly because most IR theory (not all) is complete drivel – the semantic and the unintelligible in pursuit of the turgidly theoretical.  There is one particularly school of IR theory that really gets my Yorkshire goat; rational choice positivism. Rat choice positivists believe one can explain all international relations without any recourse to domestic politics.  Come 7 May and the British general election and proof positive will emerge that demonstrates that domestic politics really does matter. One of the world’s more powerful states is about to vote itself into being one of the world’s weaker states and gthe consequences will be profound.  A weak British state on the edge of Europe and the wider West will have the most profound implications for international relations.

Why and how?  Over the past twenty years British politicians have handed so much power away to Brussels and every other part of the United Kingdom except England that not only do they hate each other (normal) but most of them are hated by the people.  Consequently, the political landscape has fractured with the result that ‘Yorkshire folk’ have a whole plethora of ‘jokes’ from which to choose, but very few in which they actually believe.  The 7 May election is thus unlikely to decide a clear winner.  Therefore, the next government will either be a continuation of the current Conservative-led coalition or some form of mutual murder-suicide pact between the Labour Party and the UK-busting Scottish Nationalist Party or SNP.

Britain is also facing the perfect domestic political storm.  First, austerity-driven budget cuts, an ageing population, mass/hyper immigration, and a rising population have combined to destabilise the British state.  Second, the EU’s “Europe of the Regions” policy has served to further weaken the United Kingdom to the point where disintegration remains a very real political possibility.  Third, to mask their failure politicians have drained Britain’s foreign and defence budgets to fund domestic structures, such as the National Health Service.

Marxist Bertold Brecht once said that it would be ‘simpler for the government to dissolve the people and elect another”.  This general election certainly smacks of Brecht’s justified cynicism. The political class have attempted to avoid responsibility for their collective incompetence by simply avoiding the issues which reflect their failure – immigration, Europe and defence.  In spite of there being clear evidence that such issues remain high on the policy wish-lists of a majority of voters.

A charitable analysis would be to suggest that if a Cameron government is re-elected then Britain will remain out of the line of international relations for a further five years and then re-engage.  If a Miliband-led government is elected it will spend two years trying to act like a Syriza-lite mob before common sense and the bond markets re-impose some rationality, much like the 1981 Mitterand government in France and President Hollande today. 

So, what will that mean for rat choice positivists and international relations?  At the political level neither Cameron nor Miliband show any aptitude for international relations whatsoever beyond the politics of “gesture aid”. At no time has either of them offered a vision for Britain in Europe or Britain in the world. In other words, there is a profound strategic malaise in Britain’s political leadership, add that malaise to the coming chronically-instable government of whatever political hue eventually emerges and to employ a technical ‘IR’ term Britain is stuffed.

Britain's retreat could not happen at a worse moment.  With the Greek debt crisis about to kick off again far from being a rock of stability in an unstable Europe Britain will vote itself into being another European political basket-case.  The implications for the American-led West are dire.  With the effective loss of Britain as a serious international relations actor, a top five world economy and military actor, a large black hole will appear in the heart of the West marked by a large sign which will read, “Here Britain once stood firm”. Consequently, even more strategic pressure will be placed on an already over-stretched America. The world will be made even more dangerous and at some point the US Congress will say “enough”.

Let us hope that by some miracle the British people defy the polls and vote for some form of stable government and let us hope that the strategic political lightweights vying to ‘lead’ Britain can concoct some form of credible foreign, security and defence policy beyond the new appeasement both Cameron and Miliband espouse in their various ways. Don’t hold your breath. Indeed, 2015 British General Election could well mark the moment Britain ceased to matter on the world stage.  Worse, the effective loss of one of the West’s two historic anchor states and the West itself will cease to exist. Who could possibly benefit from that?

Britain's General Election matters, not just to the British...but to you too!

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 15 April 2015


Alphen, Netherlands. 15 April. Seventy years ago this morning elements of the 11th Armoured Division, British 2nd Army (Lt. General Miles Dempsey) liberated the notorious Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.  What the British soldiers discovered upon arrival was hell on earth. Twenty of the eighty remaining guards were immediately executed on the spot, "for mutiny".  The Camp Commandant was arrested and later that year hanged with five other members of his command group.

It is unclear how many were murdered in the typhus-ridden camp but it certainly numbers in the hundreds of thousands at least. The British Army erected a sign which read, "This is the site of the Infamous Belsen Concentration Camp liberated by the British on 15 April, 1945.  10,000 unburied dead were found here. Another 13,000 have died since.  All of the them victims of the German new order in Europe and an example of Nazi kultur".

Commentary: modern Germany is utterly aware of the dark eloquence of this dark past which continues to inform its present and rightly so.  No European must ever forget what happened for the holocaust is and must be seared into the European soul.

However, perhaps the most eloquent commentary came from a simple British sergeant when some of the SS guards refused to help bury the dead.  "You f...... bastards created this mess. You f...... bastards can clear it up".

Never again!

Julian Lindley-French

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Little Britain: The Death of the Sspecial Rrelationship?

London, United Kingdom. 14 April.  Is the Special Relationship finally dead?  This city of cranes, this monument to super-wealth, in which new gilded towers soar ever upwards on every street corner in the pursuit of Mammon, is the very picture of prosperity and Britain’s still extant global interests.  And yet behind the cathedrals of plate glass that surround me all is not well.  Britain’s Little Britain politicians in their Little Britain election campaign seem to care little about the real world beyond their rhetoric and understand even less.  Instead, every ingredient of substance is tossed like a French omelette for the sake of narrow political gain. Yesterday, it was the turn of the Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship’ to be given the Chicken Little sky-is-falling-in electoral treatment by the Press.  They may have a point.

The Times ran a story entitled “America reconsiders special relationship with Britain”.  Normally we Brits always tend to use the upper case for the Relationship, whilst the Americans (and The Times) see the relationship very much in the lower case.  It concerned a paper completed for the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in Washington by Derek E. Mix entitled, “The United Kingdom: Background and Relations with the United States”.  Indeed, I have it here before me with my notes scribbled all over it.  Now, I have known its author for many years and like the work of friends I have known and worked with at CRS over the years, such as Stan Sloane and Dick Grimmett, Derek’s paper is the very epitome of balance and carefully-considered wording.

The paper makes every effort to consider the Sspecial Rrelationship in the round. Britain remains an important trading partner of the US, and there is no question that the intelligence relationship is ‘Sspecial’ given the extremely unusual closeness of the UK’s SIS and the US’s CIA/DIA/NSA.

However, it is the ‘defence-strategic’ Rrelationship which is the very pith of the Sspecialness of the Rrelationship.  When Churchill coined the phrase “Special Relationship” back in 1944 he understood both its strengths and weaknesses.  From the very first meeting of the joint chiefs of staff in January 1942 the Americans were in charge. However, Britain (plus Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand et imperia al offered immense power).  Those days are long gone but the central principle of the Rrelationship was and is that Britain remain the most militarily powerful American ally, in return for British influence over American policy and strategy.  In other words, the Americans make the securing of Britain’s global interest implicit in the City here cost-effective.

In his report Derek is also scrupulous in his acknowledgement of the continued strength of the Rrelationship. “U.S. and UK officials, from the cabinet-level down, consult frequently and extensively on many global issues. American and British diplomats report often turning to each other first when seeking to build support for their respective positions in multilateral institutions or during times of crisis…” 

However, there can be no doubt that the defence-strategic core of the Sspecial Rrelationship is under the most intense pressure.  In a January 2015 meeting President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron went through the usual rituals of ‘Sspecialness’, reaffirming mutual love and respect.  Privately, President Obama pushed hard for Cameron to commit to the NATO base defence-spending guideline of 2% of GDP.  In spite of Cameron having lectured all other NATO members about the need to meet that commitment at the September 2014 NATO Wales Summit, Dave refused.  The reason is now clear; Cameron is making huge, unfunded domestic spending pledges (£8bn for the NHS) as part of his Little Britain election campaign, has protected so many other areas of government-spending from spending cuts AND at the same time has promised to remove Britain’s £90bn budget deficit by 2020 that something has to give.  That ‘something’ is Britain’s defence budget.  To be fair Ed Miliband is little better.

Cameron’s tenure as prime minister has been pot-marked by strategic illiteracy.  Indeed, ever since then Foreign Secretary Hague’s May 2011 speech which asserted there would be no “strategic shrinkage” under Cameron’s administration, Britain has been ‘shrinking’ alarmingly.  Unfortunately, Cameron neither gets, understands, nor seems to care about Britain’s place in the world, its influence or indeed the maintenance of Britain’s ‘strategic brand’ essential to the country’s security and defence.  Indeed, at no point in this election campaign has he even mentioned Britain foreign and defence policy.  It is one of those areas off-limits, like Europe and immigration. As for a Cameron vision of Britain in the twenty-first century world – forget it.  This is bordering on criminal for a country that is still one of the world’s top five powers. It is as though Cameron and his cronies not only accept decline as given, but welcome it.

In the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review Cameron made a contract with the British armed forces.  Accept the 8-10% of funding cuts and the 30% cuts in operational capability and from 2015 on real investment will take place in the Future Force.  Let me tell you now; if Cameron is re-elected that contract will be broken in SDSR 2015 and the next comprehensive spending review.

But here’s the rub; Britain’s security and defence strategy pre-supposes a close relationship with that of the United States.  An increasingly over-stretched America facing a burgeoning China, a revanchist, unstable Russia and the rise of the Islamist anti-state is looking ever more to its allies to ease the burden.  Just at the moment America needs Britain, Cameron’s Little Britain is in danger of going AWOL. 

Perhaps the most telling comment in Derek’s excellent report is this: “In an increasingly “G-20 world”…the UK may not be viewed as centrally relevant to the United States in all of the issues and relations considered a priority on the U.S. agenda”.

Cut Britain’s armed forces further, Prime Minister and you will not only kill the Sspecial Rrelationship, you will effectively remove the central assumption implicit in British security and defence strategy – relevance to Washington.  Indeed, here’s a bit of ‘Strategy 101’ for you, Prime Minister.  The reason for strong British armed forces is not to rule the world but to influence Washington and to keep NATO relevant to the Americans.  You are about to destroy both, if of course you are re-elected.

Little Britain: the death of the Sspecial Rrelationship? Prove me wrong, Prime Minister! Commit to NATO's 2%!

Julian Lindley-French 

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Strategic Risks of Devaluing Nuclear Weapons

Alphen, Netherlands. 10 April.  The Little Britain general election campaign drones on with blown-up, strategically-illiterate little politicians daily offering irrelevant political gimmicks to an uninterested and unimpressed electorate.  Little or no mention has been made thus far of Britain in the world, and no vision whatsoever of a strategic Britain in a strategic twenty-first century.  It really is dire stuff. Indeed, if one adds up all the extra-money daily promised to the all-consuming National Health Service and subtract that from the cuts necessary to reduce the structural deficit then by 2020 Britain will have to change its name to “NHShire”, because that is all that is going to be left.  At least Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent (and its successor) got a mention this week, but only as ever in the form of politics pretending to be strategy.  Defence Secretary Michael Fallon accused Labour leader Ed Miliband of planning to scrap the deterrent so as to do a power-confirming deal with Planet Scotland’s very own Scottish National Party.

My friend and colleague Paul Schulte of the University of Birmingham recently wrote a fascinating piece entitled “The Strategic Risks of Devaluing Nuclear Weapons”.  His essential thesis is that the current debate, particularly in Western countries, is more informed by political conceit than strategic rationale.  In a sense, Schulte confronts the essential paradox of deterrence – how does one prove a negative?  How does one prove that the existence of nuclear weapons prevents their use? 

Implicit in the piece is another set of questions concerning the political utility of such weapons. Unstable, revisionist states, such as Iran and North Korea, seek such weapons for purposes of regime prestige or to create the space for an aggressive foreign policy which could at some point involve the use of large-scale conventional force and/or proxies to foster their respective regional-strategic ambitions.  Big revisionist states with third and fourth generation nuclear weapons, such as China and Russia, see them as leitmotifs of power and of national influence.  Even the US and France maintain some belief that nuclear weapons have a political utility beyond a purely deterrent role.

Of the established Nuclear Weapons States only Britain has a significant part of the political class that believes Britain’s deterrent should be scrapped because of cost and/or for the sake of ideological purity.  However, at no point in the British debate has there been or is there any real sense of the strategic value of the British nuclear deterrent.  Worse, Schulte warns that the political devaluation of nuclear weapons is only likely to increase and much of that devaluation driven by the most parochial of political conceits. 

To be fair, those that espouse unilateral disarmament also espouse a a legalistic rather than a power concept of international politics.  Much of the political Left in Britain believes (not unreasonably) that scrapping Trident would strengthen arms control regimes such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  They can certainly point with some conviction to the paradoxical hypocrisy of the Nuclear Weapons States who as recently as the 2010 NPT Review Conference re-affirmed their determination to “achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons”. However, a further British retreat into a legalistic foreign and security policy would take place just at the moment power is making a big comeback.  

Another ‘reality’ implicit in Schulte’s argument is that given the contemporary state of world politics general and comprehensive nuclear disarmament is as unlikely as nuclear weapons being disinvented.  Therefore, those that advocate scrapping the British nuclear deterrent fail to understand that their arguments about morality are irrelevant and their arguments about cost valueless.  By unilaterally disarming Britain would a) signal a final and irrevocable British retreat from strategic influence and realism; b) demonstrate a profound strategic malaise at the heart of the Western unity of effort and purpose; c) tip the balance of power in favour of states which are led by people it is reasonable to assume are less rational about the appalling, horribleness of nuclear weapons.  In other words, if Britain unilaterally scraps its deterrent it would help make nuclear war more not less likely.

Trident is in fact a metaphor for Britain’s role in the world, much like most British politicians are a metaphor for leadership.  Those who believe Britain is a serious power in a dangerous world tend to believe that Britain must retain a minimum deterrent as an ultimate agent of stability.  Those who believe Britain should abandon such weapons believe the UK has little or no independent, international role to play anymore beyond the self-satisfying disbursement of copious amounts of British taxpayer’s money in the form of aid. 

Given the world into which Britain and the West is moving it would be utter folly at this moment to abandon the British nuclear deterrent on a whim without a proper assessment of the strategic implications and its impact on friend and foe alike.  Such an act would also reveal (yet again) the extent to which much of Britain’s political class lacks any understanding of the real world or of the role a state as powerful as Britain could and should aspire to play.

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Beware Greeks Seeking Russian Gifts

Alphen, Netherlands. 8 April. To paraphrase and corrupt my Virgil, “I fear the Greeks, even when they seek gifts”.  Today, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will meet with Russia’s President Putin. The talks will apparently focus on energy and on joint infrastructure projects.  However, the timing could not be more auspicious.  With the seventieth anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany but a month away Athens has provocatively (I would say outrageously) delivered a €341bn ($371bn) bill for more war reparations in addition to those settled by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1961.  Moreover, with Greece due to repay €460m ($505m) tomorrow, and negotiations for a further bail-out of €7.2bn ($7.8bn) from fellow Eurozone partners at a very delicate stage, by meeting with Putin Tsipras is playing a dangerous game and clearly indicating to Berlin and Brussels that Athens seeks alternatives.  Greece must be careful seeking Russian gifts for President Putin will certainly want something very strategic in return.  What will that be?

Most European analysts and commentators are sanguine suggesting that Moscow is itself in no position to offer Greece gifts.  Russia’s economy is also weak, they say.  That is to entirely miss the point of President Putin’s grand strategy – the application of all Russian national means in pursuit of all-Russian, i.e. Putin’s national interests.  It is precisely because Russia’s economy is relatively weak that Moscow has embarked on an expansionist grand strategy.

This was clear to me during my visit to British forces in Cyprus.  Moscow approached Nicosia with a proposal for a new Russian air and naval base on the island to counter the British (and American) presence, which includes highly-sensitive listening stations that reach across the Middle East.  Indeed, the Russian presence was palpable and very apparent with Russian money clearly influencing EU member Cyprus and its leaders.  A couple of weeks ago when I was in Serbia Russia’s presence was also clear and apparent.  Indeed, wherever I see a Gazprom sign at an airport it is clear Russia seeks influence.

Russia is a sophisticated state with sophisticated analytical capabilities.  In recent months Moscow has undertaken a root and branch reassessment of the strengths and weaknesses of NATO, the EU and the respective European powers.  Moscow would not be so crass as to demand of Athens a veto over EU or NATO in return for investment and funding.  Rather, Moscow seeks to undermine the strategic unity of effort and purpose upon which both NATO and EU cohesion are built and force European states to treat individually with Moscow rather than collectively.

Furthermore, if one looks at a map of Europe the strategic reason for Russia’s salami-slicing power-politics becomes apparent - an implicit but nevertheless real greater Russian sphere of influence.  Critically, Russia is seeking to extend its influence on a line from Cyprus in the Mediterranean, through Greece, Serbia, Hungary and Ukraine, via Belarus into the Baltic States.  The chosen method is a mix of co-option, coercion and the maintenance of non-frozen ‘frozen conflicts’ across Central, Southern and Eastern Europe.  The aim is to force states across the region to look to Moscow as much as they look to Berlin and Brussels simply by the facts of power and presence and to keep Berlin off-balance.

It is an effective strategy. First, faced with European irresolution such strategy could achieve Moscow’s strategy aims at a relatively low cost. Second, because Moscow is correct in its assessment that Germany, the key European power, is unable and unwilling to play classical power politics.  Third, of the other major European powers France is much-reduced and Britain has made itself entirely irrelevant.  Fourth, the Eurozone crisis and the community model of European politics implicit in the Euro have been much weakened by the Eurozone crisis with so-called ‘solidarity’ threadbare at best.  Fifth, Greece is ripe for the taking.  Always somewhat semi-detached from both NATO and the EU Greece could indeed fall into a Russian sphere of influence, something which Moscow has repeatedly sought since at least 1945. 

There is no room for complacency in Europe or the wider West about any accommodation between Athens and Moscow at this time of crisis with a Greek government that is both desperate and non-conformist.  Sadly, most European commentators have repeatedly misunderstood both the strategy and the outcomes Moscow seeks because so mired are they in the false certainties of the European Project that they cannot bring themselves to believe either Athens or Moscow are capable of action that does not conform with EU conceits.  It is like distant relatives who turn up to a genteel family reunion, get drunk, pee in the plant-pot and ruin the party – it simply cannot be happening.  It is.

Therefore, Berlin and Brussels must stop seeing the Greek government as a problem child and the Greek debt crisis as a technical matter solely to be resolved within the Eurozone ‘family’.  It is that but it is also a systemic struggle about who decides what and how in the EU and what power and influence Russia has over NATO and EU members and by extension over European stability and security.

Beware Greeks seeking gifts, especially those on offer from Russia’s Trojan Horse.

Julian Lindley-French