The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior; its discarded cape and helmet and rifle; the everlasting flame framed by the massive red walls of the Kremlin is a stunningly moving and beautiful memorial to the foolishness and pointlessness of war. It records the hundreds of thousands of deaths of young men in the war against Hitler, and neighbouring stones commemorate the great battles – Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Odessa, Stalingrad, Minsk and so many more. I was strangely moved by the thought of these thousands of young men from a far distant land who died in a war against our common enemy.
I was in Moscow for a couple of days with the Commons Defence Committee for discussions with the Russian Government, journalists, NGOs and foreign Ambassadors about how we can lessen current tensions with NATO; about the annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, about tensions in the Baltic States and around Kaliningrad. The fact of the matter is that tensions between Russia and the West are now running higher than at any time, and the risk of a (perhaps accidental) military exchange is very real. Even more chilling is the Russian view that ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons may reasonably be used to de-escalate a crisis. All of this will be central to the NATO Summit in Warsaw in July, when it is very likely that the West will increase its military presence in Poland, Latvia and elsewhere in reaction to increasing Russian militarism and expansionism.
Our mission was to try to open channels for greater dialogue with the West with a view to de-escalation, or at least some degree of mutual understanding. But I have to admit that I detected little enthusiasm for doing so at least from the Russian side. And there are some pretty hawkish messages coming from NATO too. So we can expect further military skirmishes, like the two Russian planes who illegally and dangerously buzzed the USS Donald Cook in the Black Sea recently; we will see more Bear bombers testing our defences over UK airspace; we can expect Russian submarines exploring new waters, Russian paratroopers exercising at the North Pole as they did last week.
These are dangerous times indeed, and military escalation of the kind we will see in the next few months can do no-one any good. We must talk and talk; Jaw, jaw, jaw, not war, war, war. And if they won’t talk, then a degree of ignoring them may well be an alternative route to de-escalation. Masterful strategic inaction, perhaps?
Those who would tell us that the only thing that President Putin understands is military strength, and who argue therefore for substantial re-armament, especially in the East and North of Europe, should take time out, as we did, to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, and contemplate the senseless loss of life which all warfare entails. Round the eternal flame, a motto (in Russian) reads “Your name is unknown; your deed is immortal.” Let their immortality be a remembrance of the awfulness of war, and a renewed determination to avoid it.