Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Founded by the Duke of Wellington in 1831, the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall can muster the shiniest of top brass from the world’s armed forces to take to the stage.
On Monday, military chiefs and security bosses made way for Andrey Kurkov, one of Ukraine’s leading writers. His recent book, Diary of an Invasion chronicles life in the build-up to war and the impact of conflict.
As he describes, the hunger to be informed – and perhaps to have some sense of being in control – led to many Ukrainians becoming military experts in the weeks before 24 February 2022: “I already know an advancing army loses manpower in the ratio of 10 to 1.” Wondering if it’s a fake, he studies a screenshot of a Russian government procurement website with a tender for 45,000 “pathological-anatomical” bags.
The theme for Kurkov’s talk was the Spirit of Resilience. Most expected that the conflict in Ukraine would be all over by (the Orthodox) Easter, with a Russian puppet installed in Kyiv; few had anticipated the inspirational leadership of Volodymyr Zelensky or the courage shown by Ukraine’s military volunteers.
As Kurkov spoke, a pro-Israel rally was being held on Whitehall opposite the Downing Street gates. The crowd of perhaps a few thousand, waving blue and white Israeli flags, amassed near the Women of World War II monument. One young woman carried a homemade banner proclaiming “My heart belongs to Israel”.
Less than three miles away, supporters of Hamas were gathering near the Israeli Embassy in Kensington. Similar rallies took place across the country. As the Editor explored on Tuesday, such overt shows of support in Britain for a proscribed terrorist organisation presents politicians and law enforcement agencies with a problem – while causing disquiet among the silent majority.
Few in middle Britain are familiar with the tangled history of Israel-Palestine. Then came Saturday’s unequivocal wrong: the illegal, illegitimate, unjustified attack by Hamas terrorists on Israel. It was as inhuman as it was counter-productive, leading to the forfeiture of sympathy for the cause of the Palestinians in whose name it was carried out.
Mass murder, including the massacre of children at the Kfar Aza kibbutz, rocket attacks, rape, arson, hostage-taking; Binyamin Netanyahu spoke of “savagery not seen since the Holocaust”.
After the 9/11 attacks just over two decades ago, George Bush gave the world a binary choice: “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists”.
On Monday, scenes usually associated with the so-called Arab Street came to Kensington High Street and elsewhere. All that was needed was a round of gun shots fired into the air in joy.
To celebrate the murder of 260 festival-goers in Israel is as bad as partying following the death of 22 people resulting from a suicide bomb at the 2017 Ariane Grande concert in Manchester. Hamas’s useful idiots whooping it up across Britain should be condemned; if foreign nationals, they should be deported. They are anathema to the majority.
Defence spending is no guarantee of citizens’ security. The pro-Hamas demonstrations would have alarmed many in Britain’s Jewish community, some of whom gathered in Whitehall.
Since Saturday, a mirror has been held up to British society – and what was reflected back is troubling. A shaming level of anti-Semitism has been revealed. (Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it is unlikely that politicians would have allowed police officers to stand by and tolerate Irish Republican Army sympathisers publicly celebrating a “spectacular”, as the IRA called a successful bombing.)
“We are at war and we will win.” The Israeli prime minister’s pledge could have consequences far beyond Gaza. On Wednesday, NATO’s defence ministers met in Brussels: on the agenda was not only Ukraine, but Kosovo (where the frozen conflict is heating up) and the Middle East.
Confirmation that Hamas was in league with Iran-backed Hezbollah will ratchet up regional tensions. Meanwhile, Iran-Russia cooperation continues, reflected not least by Teheran supplying the Shahed 131/136 drones which have been deployed against Ukraine. With its recent $6 billion ransom deal, the Biden administration has been sending mixed messages about its posture towards Iran.
The attack on Israel is as shocking as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Major war is currently about three hour’s flying time away from Britain. Even those not remotely interested in current affairs will probably know that Ukraine has won Eurovision three times; Israel four.
To paraphrase Neville Chamberlain, neither are faraway countries of which we know little; a reminder of not only how inter-connected our world is, but that national defence is an insurance policy – and the premium must be paid.
The UK’s defence capability has helped Ukraine’s. Launched in June last year, Operation Interflex is a five-week intense training package. By the end of this year, our Armed Forces and those of our allies will have helped train 37,000 Ukrainian recruits, in addition to the £4.6 billion of other military assistance which has been committed by Britain.
As US warships headed to the eastern Mediterranean as a deterrent to escalation, NATO’s Secretary General stated that the alliance had the capability and strength to address different challenges at the same time, including in the Middle East. Support for Ukraine would be stepped up and sustained: “It is in our national security interests that Ukraine prevails.”
As Kurkov spoke on Day 593 of his country’s war, cheers, clapping and singing from the pro-Israel rally outside could be heard inside RUSI’s main hall. In his Diary, he wryly observes that war has made Ukraine popular, with international demand for its flag exceeding supply. “… In the war of narratives within Europe, Ukraine has already defeated Russia.”
Hamas supporters take note.