Resilience of a nation – some personal reflections
Robert Hall is the outgoing Director of Strategy at Resilience First. Here he offers a private view of our reactions to the Ukrainian crisis and its messages for better national resilience.
One can’t help but admire the Ukrainian people for their opposition to the Russian invasion of their homeland. They are being truly resilient and deserve our fulsome respect. Their resistance shows that at the heart of resilience, it is the will and motivation of people over infrastructure, systems and processes that really count in a national crisis.
Yet, do supportive articles (like this), applause and speeches in the centre of our democracy, unprecedented international sanctions, and the delivery of small arms to the Ukrainian forces, match our good intentions? Perhaps, it is all too easy to sit in the comfort of one’s home or office and lend token support without asking the question: ‘If my property or business were under similar threat, would I be as determined or robust?’ This is not to diminish the sentiment behind the support – and the frustration in our inability to make a difference – but we do need to reflect on the nature and volume of that support when we choose to stay out of the fray. There is something disingenuous in the support when it is distant.
It is also premature to say that by our actions as part of NATO we have succeeded in avoiding a Third World War. We already have the makings of one of global dimensions. The Russian invasion has to date generated over three million refugees into western Europe – the largest migration of people since the Second World War and one which is overwhelming the ability of many countries to cope. Fossil-fuel prices have rocketed to unprecedented levels, with siren calls of a coming global recession. Shortages of basic food stuffs like wheat, barley and sunflower oil that are usually grown in quantity in Ukraine will result in food price rises for many and food shortages in the most fragile countries around the world. The danger of nuclear, chemical or biological release could go well beyond Ukraine’s borders. Even a stray missile fired by a Russian fighter aircraft could land on a NATO base across the border with Ukraine. Hence, it doesn’t need a Russian toe cap to tread onto NATO’s territory before we witness an international conflagration. Add in fighters from Syria and Nigeria joining the Russian side and there is the globalization of war.
Deterrence of Russian actions (either by the threat of denial or punishment) has not worked for Ukraine or the western alliance. Punishment is being delivered retrospectively by brave Ukrainians. Sanctions will have an effect on Russia as well, although will bring the threat of reprisals and blowback. An effective deterrence posture can help create national resilience by showing mettle but it does rely in advance on a mutual and logical acceptance of the severe potential consequences – as in the ironically named policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). The logic seems to have left the equation in the Ukrainian crisis and illustrates the point that perceptions of an enemy are not always right or that the opponent acts rationally. When that opponent is in a corner, rationality (in western minds) tends to disappear and escalation is on the cards.
National resilience also requires a population to be prepared. We in the UK have been fortunate not to have a real threat posed by an adversary since 1945. This has allowed us to become complacent in contrast to perhaps the Scandinavian or Baltic countries which have a menacing presence close and constant. We should learn from these countries on how to prepare our citizens, communities and corporations for a large-scale crisis, whether that be for a kinetic war, Covid Mk2 or climate change, any of which could be existential. It certainly requires a national effort, a national strategy and national resources to create resilience in a population. Knee-jerk reactions to managing refugees or finding PPE at a late stage are not sensible measures of a mature state.
Again, it is people that need to be prepared in both practical and psychological ways. The Ukrainian tragedy has shown that many citizens in the UK feel anxious and powerless from the stories and pictures emerging from the destruction of a modern European country and the harm to its inhabitants. It is hard to be unaffected. This anxiety is not necessarily dissipated by fine words or political declarations. The failure to use, and subsequent destruction of, over two million posters with the slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ at the start of the Second World War because they were deemed patronizing and divisive shows that we must be careful not to trivialize the message of support or – more importantly – underestimate the supportive actions necessary to effect positive change. A renewed and serious focus on national resilience and the preparation of a civil-protection capability should start as soon as possible whatever the outcome in Ukraine. The forthcoming National Resilience Strategy for the UK Government should recognize this.