Drop your Tsarist ambition to invade Ukraine or face sanctions, Ben Wallace warns Vladimir Putin

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, made his comments after high-stakes talks this week between Nato and Russia - Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, made his comments after high-stakes talks this week between Nato and Russia – Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images

Ben Wallace has accused Vladimir Putin of Tsarist ambitions as he said there will be “severe economic sanctions” if Ukraine is invaded.

The Defence Secretary made his comments after high-stakes talks this week between Nato and Russia failed to find a solution to the Kremlin’s increasingly threatening behaviour towards its neighbour.

Citing a 5,000-word essay that the Russian president wrote last summer entitled “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, Mr Wallace said that he had been unable to “separate” himself from Mr Putin’s belief that “Ukraine really is Russian”.

“I’m concerned that what this is really about is President Putin’s legacy; that is about a false vision, a Russia that even the Tsars failed to create and consolidate – that is the Russia of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia,” he said.

In a stark warning, Mr Wallace said that this “motto of the tsars for the Russian Empire” had “far deeper consequences for the security of Eastern Europe, because it doesn’t stop at Ukraine”.

He likened Mr Putin’s further ambitions to “ethnonationalism”, cautioning that “in our history of Europe, ethnonationalism has led to some of the worst conflicts in the last millennium”.

Vladimir Putin told: ‘The world is watching’

Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia - Mikhail Metzel/TASS via Getty Images

Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia – Mikhail Metzel/TASS via Getty Images

The Defence Secretary added that “the consequences for Russia invading a sovereign nation need to be taken seriously, because the world is watching, the Chinese are watching”.

He said if Mr Putin were to invade, then any economic sanctions and consequences would be “severe” and “go way beyond the sanctions of 2014”, when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

It is understood potential economic sanctions that are on the table as punishment if Russia does invade include trade restrictions, including limiting the right of Russian nationals to trade in the financial hubs of G7 countries.

Mr Wallace spoke to The Telegraph as part of a whistle-stop tour of Stockholm, Helsinki and Oslo this week in a bid to show solidarity with Nordic countries who are all too aware of what an encroaching Mr Putin is capable of.

Mr Wallace explained that the purpose of travelling to northern Europe was to offer reassurance from the UK that “we are here for you, we are next to you, we are in Europe”.

“Countries like Sweden and Finland are genuinely worried about the current behaviour of Russia and the consequences of an invasion of Ukraine,” he said.

Britain has ‘not left the security of Europe’

The Kremlin last month demanded that Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc nations never join Nato - Pierre Crom/Getty Images

The Kremlin last month demanded that Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc nations never join Nato – Pierre Crom/Getty Images

He added that it was important to stress to these countries that while the UK has left the European Union, “we have not left the security of Europe and that we both want to find a solution and de-escalate and to allow Russia to move forward in a way that their people can benefit from”.

After the Nato talks ended on Wednesday – which were held against a backdrop of a 100,000 strong build-up of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border – Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary general, warned of “a real risk for a new armed conflict in Europe”. Russia described the talks as having culminated in a “dead end”.

The Kremlin last month demanded that Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc nations, including Finland and Sweden, never be allowed to join Nato and that the alliance should withdraw its troops from Eastern Europe. However, the bloc has rejected both proposals.

Mr Wallace said: “Freedom to choose is actually more important than what you choose,” as he cautioned that any conflict risked an unwelcome legacy for Mr Putin that could leave him remembered as the “Russian president who got Russia into another Chechnya or Soviet Union in Afghanistan”.

He warned Mr Putin that “the world is watching” and “the West won’t turn a blind eye to what he [Mr Putin] does”.

“Russia risks getting bogged down in a conflict that potentially will cost the lives of young Russian men and they should not underestimate the Ukrainian people’s desire to protect their sovereign states,” he added.

Fear of people being killed ‘plays on my mind’

Mr Wallace, who has served as Defence Secretary since July 2019, is no stranger to the threat of war and the consequences of its aftermath. Only recently, he oversaw Operation Pitting, the UK’s effort to rescue 15,000 people from Afghanistan.

The mission was personal for Mr Wallace, a former Scots Guardsman. In one interview during the height of the airlift, he broke down in tears as he admitted that “some people will be left behind” following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.

Today, it is this fear of people being killed if war breaks out between Russia and Ukraine that plays on his mind.

“My biggest fear is that President Putin miscalculates and it leads to a massive loss of life on all sides of the country,” Mr Wallace said.

The concern of miscalculation is that Mr Putin “thinks either he could get away with this, or that he thinks the Ukrainians won’t fight, or that he thinks this somehow strengthens Russian security, rather than the fact making more people anxious and therefore more people taking security steps, that escalates”.

Mr Wallace added that “as in 2014, any invasion would have the opposite of the desired effect”.

‘Highly unlikely’ British troops will be sent to Ukraine

Ben Wallace Defence Secretary Finland - Dave Jenkins/Ministry of Defence

Ben Wallace Defence Secretary Finland – Dave Jenkins/Ministry of Defence

Previously, he has said it would be “highly unlikely” that the UK would send troops to defend Ukraine in the event of an invasion.

Reflecting on the question again, Mr Wallace said: “Nato members would be most likely to reinforce or deploy new forces. The UK would consider carefully all Nato requests in light of such actions by Russia.”

While Mr Wallace said “Putin risks being completely isolated in Europe” through its aggressive behaviour, he stressed that the UK is not “anti-Russian”, citing historic partnerships from medicine to military as being “deep” that had lasted for hundreds of years.

“No one is out to get Russia,” he added.

Asked if he had a message for Mr Putin, Mr Wallace said: “This is not the way to resolve your perceived fears. Massing forces on borders and threats will not fix the problem. Potentially, it could create more fear and more response by countries who need to protect.”

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