Memorial lecture for The Right Honourable The Lord Carrington, KG, GCMG, CH, MC, PC, DL by The Right Honourable The Lord Robertson of Port Ellen KT GCMG PC FRSA FRSE
Monday 17th October 2022
Lord Robertson delivered the Carrington Memorial Lecture on 17 October. He paid tribute to Lord Carrington, "a truly great British figure and a man of enormous distinction, honour and achievement." He referred to Carrington's lifetime of public service, as a decorated warrior, a High Commissioner, Defence and Foreign Secretary, Party Chairman and Secretary General of NATO (and, of course, President of the Pilgrims Society).
Robertson used Carrington's example to refer to events in Ukraine today. In his memoir, Carrington quoted Lord Palmerston: "Russian expansionism is like water running downhill. Checked it may find another way, but it can be checked…to check it requires adequate strength and evident will. NATO provides both, and continues to do so. It will be a long haul – the Russians think historically, and they take a long view." Robertson said those were prescient words and the sentiment applies again today.
Robertson speaks from experience. As NATO Secretary General in 2002, Robertson chaired the Rome Summit, at which President Putin shared the table with 19 NATO leaders. "I wasn't the only one round that table in Rome who harboured the thought – maybe the hope, that we might just have found that other way to check Palmerston's downhill water and that Russia under Putin might perhaps have the vision to be part of a new spirit of cooperative security. Indeed, I stood beside Putin that same afternoon at the Press Conference and heard him say these words: 'Ukraine is a sovereign, independent nation state and it will choose its own path to peace and security.'"
But Putin started to develop the classic signature of authoritarian leaders. Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman describes it in his new book 'Command', as the 'familiar theme of autocratic decision making, of leaders supremely confident in their wisdom and insight, egged on by sycophantic courtiers'. They make decisions easier, Freedman says – but also much worse. As indeed the Ukraine adventure is proving.
Robertson wonders whether there was a considered decision by Putin to go to war with the West. Also debatable is whether Putin actually has a Grand Strategy for his actions or rather a series of tactical manoeuvres designed mainly to disrupt and gain attention and 'respect'. But he believes Putin was quick to capitalise on failures of Western will: to enforce the redlines in Syria over the use of chemical weapons and the chaotic withdrawal of allied forces from Afghanistan last year. "For Putin, who I saw at close hand several times, there is a burning ambition to recreate the respect for Russia he believed was given to the second super-power, the Soviet Union. The emotional side of his character I saw occasionally across that long white table has now stewed into a messianic demand for equality with the US and the assimilation of Ukraine to be no more than a province of his 'Greater Russia'."
Robertson said the war Putin is waging is new - hybrid, multifaceted, under-the-radar, insidious. "…every day he systematically penetrates the cracks and fissures in our democratic life. In disinformation, election meddling, corruption, organised crime, extra territorial assassination, supply chain disruption and cyber interference, he inserts his poison. Some of it is overt – but much of it is more subtle…Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee's Report of 2020 was explicit. "The UK welcomed Russian money, and few questions – if any - were asked about the provenance of this considerable wealth."
Robertson summed up by asking what we need to do about this assault on our liberal democratic west and in particular the heroic battle for survival of the Ukrainian people? He said that first we need to recognise that either Putin is defeated, or we are. If Putin wins in Ukraine, he will not stop there. Hence we must accelerate supplies of weapons and ammunition to the front line. President Putin must realise the miscalculation he has made and he needs to know that Ukraine will get the help it needs for as long as it needs it. Second, we must stand up to the dangerously loose talk from the Kremlin on using nuclear weapons. Russia is not being attacked; we are only helping Ukraine. There is no required defence of the 'motherland'. Third, we have to permanently wean ourselves off Russian gas – and as is less well known, Russian wheat. Fourth, we need to remind the countries of the Global South that the changing of borders by force is not a European regional dispute issue but rather a fundamental issue of significance to many in South America, Africa and in South East Asia. Fifth, we need to step up the messages to the Russian people that this war is Putin's and that we have no argument with them.