Telegraph: Dispatches

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Every weekday the Telegraph sends a Newsletter focussing on the war in Ukraine to registered readers. I’m including some of my contributions here for your interest. To make sure you receive the whole thing, please register with the Telegraph. We’re also presenting a live Twitter Space at 1pm London time which is scrubbed, given added content and released as a podcast called Ukraine: The Latest at around 6pm London time.

WEDNESDAY MARCH 30

Who wants to fight for a man like that?

Dominic NichollsBy Dominic Nicholls, DEFENCE AND SECURITY EDITOR
For an organisation that takes pride in the uniformity of its training, language and doctrine, the British army expends a lot of energy trying to be as individual as possible when it comes to matters of, well, uniform.

Soldiers go to varying lengths to strike a note of individualism, usually expressed literally through their shirt-sleeves. Badges, personally-bought kit and trimmed rims of jungle hats are other recognition features.

Looking cool in the army has a name: it’s called ‘being ally’.

Quite who or what ‘ally’ was has fallen into British military history, but the idea endures: looking good on the outside reflects a higher level of professionalism on the inside.
The phrase is mostly to be heard in the ranks of the Parachute Regiment.

A senior Para commander I served with in Afghanistan even coined the phrase “ally-ness saves lives”. (He was so ally he chased an insurgent down an alley and was shot in the chest by a rocket-propelled grenade, only surviving because he was so close to the launcher the weapon hadn’t had time to arm the warhead before it hit him. I’ll shut up now as he’s still serving and in a VERY senior position in the army.)

The Russian mercenary outfit called the Wagner Group is in Ukraine.

These fighters are usually called ‘shadowy’ but they’re actually nothing of the sort, given their apparent delight in appearing on social media. This is where we’ve seen them using civilian 4×4 vehicles, models not known for their protection against high-velocity rounds.

Images on social media have reportedly shown Wagner vehicles in Ukraine riddled with bullet holes (‘brassed up’ in ally language).

A Western official said on Tuesday around 1,000 Wagner fighters are in the east of the country.
“Due to the heavy losses and largely stalled invasion, Russia’s highly likely been forced to reprioritise Wagner personnel for Ukraine at the expense of operations that they would be undertaking in Africa and in Syria,” the official said.

It is doubtful the Wagner troops are going to change the tide of operations in the Donbas, given Ukraine has at least 20,000 of their best trained and equipped soldiers in the area.

The Western official said Wagner’s “fearsome reputation” was largely one of “not adhering to the rule of law and the law of armed conflict”. The official said Putin was showing a “degree of desperation” by turning to them for help.

Video clips from Ukraine have also shown Toyota pick-up vehicles being repurposed as mobile gun platforms. The prominent ‘Z’ on the sides of the vehicles suggest they’re Russian.

The vehicles, like the Wagner fighters, are grubby, not standard issue and reek of individualism; thereby almost perfectly fitting the bill to qualify as ‘ally’.

But there are two crucial aspects missing which mean they will never acquire such revered status.

First, they’re not very good at soldiering. Standing around firing guns at civilians, yes; mixing it with a credible military force, no.

Second, as the Western official said: “If you’re reaching for a thousand Wagner troops thinking that is going to be crucial to success in operations in the Donbas, it should give you pause for thought as to how capable your broader force is.”

Putin is not ally. He would not be able to wear the coveted berets of units holding ally status. Consequently, he would be known in the British army as a ‘crap hat’.

And who wants to fight for a man like that?





TUESDAY MARCH 29
There’s value in a liaison between enemies, even in the worst of times

Dominic NichollsBy Dominic Nicholls, DEFENCE AND SECURITY EDITOR
Have you heard about Brixmis?

The clunky abbreviation stands for the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to Soviet Forces in Germany (BRItish X – denoting a command headquarters – MISsion).

This rather excellent liaison scheme, part of a wider initiative between the Soviet Union on one side and Britain, the US and France on the other, lasted from 1946 to 1990.

It acted as a touch point between the newly adversarial nations. Each was allowed to travel, unescorted but in uniform, in the other side’s territory. The British team numbered around 30 people at any time.

The mission was designed to ‘test the temperature’ of the Soviet Union and act as a channel of communication when more formal, political relationships were strained. Of course, a lot of spying – mainly photographing equipment – went on as well, with modified cars and gadgets worthy of a Bond novel.

Nothing could be written down, for fear of compromise.

On one occasion, having come across a previously unseen Russian infantry fighting vehicle (a BMP-2, in service today in Ukraine) with no Soviet soldiers around, an enterprising Brixmis member jumped onto the turret and pressed the apple he was saving for his lunch into the barrel. The resulting imprint was later assessed by intelligence staff to determine the calibre (30mm, since you ask).

Although ostensibly enemies, the military units regularly met at such things like remembrance events, often going against political direction, to mark their shared history of fighting the Nazis; a common foe.

The value of liaison between enemies, even in the worst of times, is well understood. Touch points still exist.

Fast-forward to today and picture a (no doubt overly complicated) phone sitting on a desk in the Ministry of Defence in London.

The phone is used to keep open a line of communication between the ministries of defence in London and Moscow. The line is tested, verbally, every day by officials talking to each other.
The purpose of the call is to confirm it would be possible for the very highest levels of the defence establishments in Russia and Britain to speak in person should an emergency situation demand it.

The daily interactions, I’m told, have been cool and rather brief affairs of late. No time to deploy the infamous British small talk.

Nevertheless, like Brixmis, it is a means of reaching ‘the other side’.

Face-to-face peace talks between Ukraine and Russia resume today in Turkey after a two-week gap.

Turkey, with links to both countries, sees itself as an honest broker. Breaking the diplomatic impasse and saving civilian areas from yet more indiscriminate shelling would boost the credentials of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Prime Minister, who seeks to position himself as a major regional power.

Hopes for a breakthrough are not high. Like the morale of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, trust is in short supply. The situation is made worse by reports today of mysterious poisonings afflicting previous meetings.

Is there a mechanism similar to Brixmis or the hotline for Ukraine and Russia? A way of reaching out, explaining, defusing tension, and acknowledging, perhaps, a shared history?
I sincerely hope so.

The two countries’ negotiating positions are a gulf apart. A lot of talking needs to be done before they get even close to comparing apples with apples.


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