Cold War II

Lord Hannay on the invasion of Ukraine


You couldn’t hope to speak to someone more qualified to discuss current international affairs than Lord David Hannay. His career as a diplomat was spent in the highest profile roles dealing with the European Union and United Nations. Hannay was in the negotiating team for Britain’s accession to the EU in the 1970’s. During the first referendum in 1975, he was working in the European Commission for Sir Christopher Soames, one of the UK’s first two Commissioners. After that he served as British Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the EU during the Single Market negotiations. He finished his full time career at the FCO as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN at the time of the Gulf War and the wars of the Yugoslav succession.

All this gives him a wide historical context for the diplomatic crises of today. What’s more, Hannay has been a highly active crossbench peer since 2001. He’s served in multiple committees on European and international affairs.

I met Hannay on 24 February, just after he had just given a powerful speech in an emergency Lords’ debate on Ukraine. Indeed, as we walked through the Palace, Hannay spoke to multiple peers to congratulate them on their input in the debate or discuss it and to explain why the CoCom international system on strategic exports could be more effective even than Swift. He is clearly a peer of exceptional insight and influence.I began by asking him whether the West could have seen this coming.


Lucy Kenningham (LK): Could we have predicted the invasion of Ukraine?

Lord David Hannay (DH): We did! We predicted every single step. Some weeks ago we (along with the Americans) made a conscious decision to publicise our intelligence. it turned out to be right: we predicted they were going to invade from Belarus, the Donbas and Crimea, as well as how many troops there would be and how many tanks they had.

Intelligence matters a hell of a lot. It’s not perfect because you’re trying to pry behind a very thick curtain that your adversary is trying to keep closed. Yet nowadays there’s a huge amount of open source materia. A lot of the material in this case was available by simply pressing a button on your computer. You could have got it, although you might have found it a bit difficult to interpret seeing as you need to be a specialist to look at an overhead picture and identify fifteen T-72 tanks and x number of self-propelled guns. That’s where you can hire an expert.

Now that is a complete antidote to the people who said that nobody would ever believe intelligence again after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was based on false information. Anybody who says that today is pretty silly, because the intelligence proved to be exactly right.

LK: If we predicted it then why are people so shocked?

DH: They were shocked that Putin launched an all-out war. There was speculation that he might just try to take a bite out of the western Donbas area. But the reality was that he was militarily configured for a full-scale invasion and unless you saw the configuration as a deception, you would have been a bit silly to dismiss it .

What you could say – and what lots of us did say – is that he hadn’t taken a final decision to do it yet. Remember, we are dealing with a dictator and an autocrat. I suppose we probably should have paid more attention to that 5000-word essay he wrote last summer about Ukraine [in which he claims it is not a legitimate country] and some of his other ramblings and ravings.

But would it have made any difference if we had known for certainty what was going to happen and when it was going to happen? The answer is probably not because we were never prepared to use force in Ukraine.

LK: So is there anything we could have done to prevent the invasion? 

DH: We could have actually dipped our hands in the blood and set out the list of sanctions: the pipeline, Swift, named all the banks… We could have compiled all these things in a tabular list, but a lot of the people concerned didn’t want to until something had happened to justify it.

Although such a list may have helped a bit, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference in the end – judging by Putin’s rather emotional and paranoid attitude.

LK: What do you think motivates Putin?

DH: This course of events has demonstrated what people like Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum have been saying: this is not about Ukraine’s potential future membership of Nato. It’s about the danger posed to Putin by a successful and democratic Ukraine curing itself of corruption and becoming a close European ally. That is clearly real catnip for him, because then people can say, “Why can’t that happen in Russia?”

It’s exactly the same in China. If you want to ask “Why do the Chinese clamp down on Hong Kong?”, it’s perfectly simple. If you’d had a fully democratic Hong Kong, which is part of China, then a lot of Chinese would say, “Why can’t we have that?” The way to prove it can’t is to ensure it doesn’t happen in Hong Kong.

I’m not trying to draw the analogies too closely, but there are considerable similarities and I’m quite sure that’s what motivates Putin. If Ukraine continued to get better and better and gradually clamped down on corruption, then people in Moscow and St Petersburg and anywhere across Russia will go: why do we have to be ruled by an autocrat who simply hands out all our resources to his friends and puts them in his own pocket?

LK: How responsible are citizens for the actions of their leaders?

DH: In Russia, not at all because of the police. On the first day of the invasion they arrested 1,700 people who demonstrated. They’re not allowed to demonstrate. There were some very nasty moments back in 2012 at one of the elections where it looked as if his hold might be slipping. You take your life in your hands if you protest. You’re liable to end up in a gulag for an unpredictable amount of time. As you saw with Navalny.

The people around him are all spooks and policemen and they’re not going to let Muscovites or people in St Petersburg go out on the streets in their thousands and demonstrate.

Putin may have miscalculated on this occasion, and a lot of people think he has. We’ll see. The fact these demonstrations took place was quite a surprise. The feeling produced after what happened with Alexei Navalny was that Putin had got it so that protest wouldn’t happen. But they went out and demonstrated in quite significant numbers, so it could slip out of his control although it hasn’t yet. Something will give one day. Alas, probably violently.

LK: Do you think we’re seeing a shift in the global world order?

DH: First of all, we are now in Cold War Two. Just as we had World Wars One and Two, we now have Cold Wars One and Two. We’re going to be living through that for years, if not decades.

Putin has torn up every international treaty that exists, including a large number of ones he’s signed himself. The end may only come about by change of regime in Russia when Putin dies or is overthrown or whatever it is. It may come about through ways which I can’t perceive – but what’s certain is that it won’t come about soon.

Meanwhile a Cold War has costs, for us as well as for him. The trick is to make sure the costs are greater for him than they are for us. But don’t kid yourself, there will be costs. Whether that’s gas prices or foregone exports. It’s a price worth paying, or that’s what we thought during the first Cold War, and we were proved right.

LK: What do you think of sanctions?

DH: Sanctions matter. They work because they are a step up the escalatory ladder before the use of force, but we can’t get sanctions that bite without the EU. We desperately need to work very closely with Nato allies but also with the EU, because they control sanctions.

Unfortunately, instead of being at the table advocating, say, cutting the Russians out of the Swift arrangements for financial flow and financial arrangement, we’re not there. We can say (as the government does) that we’re in favour of cutting them out of Swift, but Swift is a cooperative of 1,000 banks established in Belgium so it can only be sanctioned if the EU sanctions it. We’re essentially shouting from outside the room, hoping someone left a window open so that they can hear what we’re saying.

LK: What would you say to people who call sanctions “useless”?

DH: If you say that then you’re left with nothing more than hand wringing or using force, and that’s a pretty awful choice. So yes, sanctions are important. They can be made to work. They did work pretty well with Iraq in 1990 at the time of the Gulf War. They pretty much crippled Serbia when it was waging a war of aggression against Bosnia.

But they don’t produce instant results and there are no clear cut outcomes. They’re usually shades of grey. They did work pretty well on Gaddafi as a result of his blowing up those two planes and we got him to do a lot of things including abandoning his ‘help the IRA’ programme and his nuclear programme. That’s because we pretty much brought him to his knees through UN sanctions. That was when I was at the UN.

LK: Was that more possible because Libya was a smaller country?

DH: Yes, that’s right. Libya’s a small country which depends totally on external trade. It grows nothing and it produces nothing. It gets money from oil but has to import a huge amount. It was very dependent on tourism, so when we interfered to prevent any civil aircraft flowing to and from it, that worked.

LK: Was it a unanimous decision then to sanction Libya?

DH: We got a pretty big vote in the Security Council; I think one or two countries abstained but that was 1992 and the Russians and Chinese were quite cooperative at that time.

Gaddafi had, slightly unwisely, blown up two international airliners so that altogether there were 72 countries whose nationals had been murdered. So that was a good start because nobody whose nationals had been murdered in those planes was going to vote against them. It would have been enormously destructive domestically… I’m sure he didn’t think of that when he blew them up.

There’s not a black-and-white answer on sanctions. You always come back to the fact that it’s a very important step up the escalatory ladder. If you take that option away or say it’s useless, you’re left with a very very miserable choice. One of which is just ringing your hands and saying bad boy and the other of which is using force. Which, if you’re dealing with a nuclear armed state, is not a particularly attractive prospect.

LK: Do you think Nato will emerge stronger from this international crisis?

DH: Yes, of course. It’s already recovering from a very bad period when Trump was the president. Trump disrupted and despised Nato and didn’t understand it. He rather liked all these strongmen like Putin – just look at what he’s saying now, “genius”. If we had more geniuses like that there wouldn’t be any life left on this planet.

People held their nose during the bad years with Trump and we just squeaked by. Who knows what would have happened if we had a crisis like this whilst he was there. We could either be in World War Three or we could have conceded everything because he was so erratic.

Biden’s behaviour is strengthening the alliance and making people realise we all hang together or we all hang separately. Nato did alright last Cold War, although it was painful and lasted a long time.

The only thing we have to remember is that it’s our security that’s at issue, not Ukraine’s. If Putin invades Ukraine, he’ll nibble off something else. Possibly one of the Baltic states. Nato’s deterrence is what enabled us to win the Cold War. Once that deterrence has been destroyed, anything can happen.

LK: What do you think the Chinese are thinking?

DH: I think the Chinese are very uneasy about what’s happened. They don’t like any expansion of Nato, but the Chinese will not wish to agree that Putin invading Ukraine is a jolly good thing, because it has implications for them. Lumps being taken off Ukraine – what, then, about the Uighurs or the Tibetans? Perhaps they might like self-determination. That’s not something the Chinese are going to encourage.

The West’s job now is to find ways to make sure we make it clear we are not in a similar adversarial position towards China that we are towards Russia. We may be in a rather competitive position with the Chinese in some respects, but we are not necessarily in a Cold War with them.


Look out for the full interview with Lord Hannay including why the European Union was easier to reform than the House of Lords and how he was at one point the only British diplomat speaking to the North Koreans, published in our spring print edition (published April 2022)

28th February 2022