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29 January 2024

Putin “is keeping one eye open” for Trump and hoping for loss of momentum, says former Secretary of State for Defence

King’s hosted a pre-screening of the new BBC series 'Putin vs The West: At War,' bringing together its production team, academics, and the former Secretary of State for Defence, Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP.

Putin (editorial use)

In a discussion following the screening, Ben Wallace, who features in the BBC series and was the Secretary of State for Defence at the time of the invasion, said continued assistance from the international community is crucial, as Putin “is keeping one eye open for Donald Trump and is hoping and looking for cracks, loss of momentum.”

He shared his experience of being alerted to the invasion and how Britain had led the coordination of the international response ahead of US involvement.

I don’t think we should underestimate how much Britain led on this. Britain was the first with tanks, the first with long-range artillery, really the first in Europe to make moves, and all the way through that process.

Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP

He pointed out that while Russia still poses a significant threat to global order, they have endured substantial losses since the invasion.

Russia has actually lost the entire force it sent in initially to Ukraine. That is a staggering military failure in anyone's book.

Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP

The screening took place earlier this month and offered students from the Department of War Studies a first look at the BBC series. It follows last year’s three-part episode on the decade leading up to the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The new series provides an account of the first year of full-scale war, narrated by Presidents and Prime Ministers, including Volodymyr Zelensky and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The series traces the invasion's profound impact on European security and the West's response.

The first episode opens with leaders and top officials sharing their reactions as the news of the invasion breaks, including members of the United Nations Security Council who were in session when Russia launched their attack. Until that moment, according to Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations Sergiy Kyslytsya, “many of my colleagues sincerely believed that a full-scale invasion was not possible.”

The documentary shares reflections from members of the UN Security Council and NATO. Boris Johnson stated that there is “deep institutional guilt” in NATO over not putting “Ukrainians on a proper path to membership.” In the panel discussion, Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, commented on the difficulties Ukraine faces in becoming a NATO member.

NATO has its only preoccupations, its own interests, and its own needs that do not always coincide with Ukraine’s, and that, I think, is the tension that you see come out [in the documentary].

Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman

On the threat posed to NATO members by Putin, Ben Wallace stated, “Don’t be taken in by the Russian narrative that this is all about NATO.” Citing Putin’s essay ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,’ he shared his view that the invasion was grounded in Putin’s theories on ethnic nationalism.

NATO has been successful for its members. If you look where we are now, Putin doesn’t have the means nor the intent, I think, to go outside Ukraine and broaden it into NATO.

Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP

During the panel discussion, award-winning filmmaker Norma Percy and series director Tim Stirzaker shared some of the challenges of making the documentary. These included convincing global leaders to reflect on a war that was ongoing, the integration of opposing narratives, and the need to operate quickly as access to senior officials was sometimes given at short notice. This included a last-minute interview with the Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzy.

'Putin vs The West: At War' is available to watch on BBC 2.

In this story

Lawrence Freedman

Emeritus Professor of War Studies