Author and freelance writer. Sometimes in London more often elsewhere




Persuasive writing


By James Maclaren, Mar 14 2018 11:20AM

Following the brazen attack on a former Russian spy on the streets of an English city which to date has not provided the inspiration for an espionage tale, the UK and with less enthusiasm its allies ponder how to respond to an act of state terrorism. The reason for outrage is obvious: the use of a highly specialised nerve agent on the streets of a city better known for its dreamy Cathedral spire and traditional country market raises the bar on the murky intelligence sparring with the Russian state which has either decided to operate outside of accepted international rules of behaviour or, possibly worse, has lost control of the most deadly of weapons a class of which it continues to develop and refine.

The UK is bracing itself for the usual reciprocal expulsion of diplomats and will find a catalogue of measures which they hope will satisfy domestic demand for a tough response while making its anger at the Russian action clear. The Government is keen not to repeat the debacle of the Litvinenko affair where its slow steady reliance on judicial process simply confirmed the Kremlin’s opinion that Britain has become a weak state vulnerable and easily bullied. It will have noted the decline in the strength and capability of its armed forces, the political divisions which prevent unified action and the slow integration of financial and economic links which make decisive reprisals difficult to swallow.

It is no longer the binary age of the Cold War and the last twenty years have seen a progressive economic integration into western markets which make many of Britain’s allies uneasy at the prospect of moving beyond the ritual declarations of outrage and support. It seems likely that whatever package of punitive measures are put in place, the problem of a long-term strategy as to how to deal with a Russia which is willing to operate outside of international standards remains.

Russia remains a deeply insecure nation that demands respect and needs attention. It craves the empire it never really had and feels deeply the humiliation inflicted upon the country by foreign powers following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its grievances include, the expansion of NATO up against its borders, a string of western military interventions undertaken with scant regard for Russian opinion and a desire to be free of the encirclement it feels, despite the vastness of its lands. An encirclement made more obvious by the rise of the nations of the Far East and in particular China whose wealth and power now dwarfs that of Russia.

In Putin it has a leader who is an unreconstructed product of the old order, when Soviet power, weight and influence, in particular by the United States, could not be ignored. As he engineers a further landslide victory in the forthcoming presidential elections, his grip and hold on the Russian establishment is stronger than ever. Despite the western mockery of pictures of a bare chested middle-aged man riding horseback in the Urals or fishing on a Siberian lake, to a Russian people who enthusiastically believe their own propaganda he is all-powerful.

In truth, economically Putin has been a failure. The economy continues to perform badly compromising the autocratic leader’s strategic ambitions for Russia. The economic marginalisation that is coming for Russia is set to one side while the state-owned media machine whips up the scapegoats of western sanctions to explain poor economic performance and generates support for foreign adventurism, which includes the seizure of Crimea, intervention in Syria and meddling in US and other elections.

The reconstruction of Russia’s military capability is a priority for Putin and represents a source of national pride. The rusting and rotting hulks in the harbours at Vladivostok and Murmansk must have been a source of irritation to the Russian leader and the reclaiming of Russia’s status as a great power begins with investment in the military tools that accompany such standing. As a Cold War era aircraft carrier chugs steamily through the English Channel and analogue non-precision cluster bombs are directed onto Syrian suburbs there is some way to go to achieve the military might that Russia clung onto during the heyday of the eighties. But we are back to Tupolev bombers circling Norway and the British Isles, submarine probes of the Swedish coastline, development of the modern domains of warfare such as cyber and of course as the events of Salisbury remind us, Russia has not lost its affection for the development and use of chemical weapons.

The real response to a Russia that will not conform to international standards of behaviour is to challenge it where it feels strongest. Russia adopts the tactic of the street gang-leader who demands respect with shows of strength and aggression. In the Cold War President Reagan recognised this and did what should always be the approach with bullies, he stood up to them. In the case of the Soviet Union he simply outspent them, forcing Soviet defence expenditure to over 15% of its GDP, a share that no countries economy could ultimately afford. It did so without the US economy having to pause for breath. Since then defence and security priorities have changed. The US and NATO have transformed themselves in a world police, focussed on the defeat of Islamic based terrorism and undertaking stability operations. With misgivings and warnings from some, military capability and force structures have moved away from the ability to conduct state on state conflict to meeting transnational threats. This may have to change.

So, what does this mean for Britain and what should the longer term British response to Russia be?

Britain is able to demonstrate some leadership by responding to the development of the Russian military capability in kind. It has a far bigger economy than Russia which could easily find the necessary defence budget increases to demonstrate to Russia that it cannot throw its weight around unchallenged. It can use the increase to fill the gaps in conventional warfare capability which have emerged as the UK’s armed forces have been hollowed out in favour of other political and domestic priorities. The arbitrary defence of meeting the NATO minimum GDP spending should be thrown out. It is in any case a spending limit which reflects a different set of strategic challenges.

Britain has to do this because it is unlikely that any other European nation has the mettle to go beyond statements and words that are as weak and feeble as those from Moscow are sneering and scornful. With a US that has returned to a position which follows national self-interest, there is no other credible western power with the capability and will to show the leadership the European Continent requires. In time its allies will realise that a resurgent Russia suppressing its fundamental weaknesses is a threat which must be addressed. Without leadership and example this will be a slow tortuous route to understanding that will be characterised by crisis and appeasement as Russia flexes its muscles. There will be no good news for many years.

Showing leadership in confronting Russia reflects Britain’s historical past in being prepared to do what is right rather than selfish or popular. The international community will respond, and Britain will not be alone in ensuring Russia learns to conduct its affairs within the accepted codes of behaviour or it will face consequences it cannot ultimately afford.

By James Maclaren, Nov 25 2015 08:05PM

Opposition debates in the House of Commons are rarely remarkable events which recieve great attention.I listened with interest to one such debate yesterday. True the debate was not on Government time, the Chamber was markedly empty except for the SNP whose enthusiasm for unilateralism is legendry and the real person everyone wanted to see, the Leader of the Opposition was predictably otherwise engaged. Nevertheless the motion was an important one; a warm up, probably for a more meaningful exchange of views and opinions which will come as the main gate review of the project to replace the United Kingdoms' s fleet of Trident submarines approaches, probably in December. The debate was not so much memorable for the lack of partcipation, as for the lack of quality of the views expresssed - surprising for a group of people who feel passionate about the subject but somehow one feels should really know more about the subject.

Rapidly the debate became fixed on the economics of the issue. Certainly the capital cost, but more depressingly about workforces, skills, jobs and regional impact. Of course such things have their place but in themselves make neither a case for or against replacing a fleet of strategic ballistic missile submarines. The issue whether or not to have a strategic nuclear deterrent is too important for regional interests. The local economics was interspersed with some amateurish ideas about grand strategy, Britain's place in the world and how Britain would never be allowed to act independently because the Americans would never allow it! Much of the wimsy regarding how Britain should both defend itself and play a part in the global security structure came from the SNP. No doubt their views have the quality of conviction, however, their ideas lack both coherence and understanding. The inability of any of the members to articulate the strategic framework around the requirement for the United Kingdom to have or not have the deterrent was striking.

So lets try and put the strategic context straight.

Trident represents a weapon of complete last resort. Its use would only be contemplated in the most extreme circumstances of national survival. To attempt to rationalise its use in the current range of serious security challenges that confornt this and other countries is to completely miss the point. It could only be used if the threat confronting this country was so dire and so immediate that in order to preserve the last vestiges of our nation no other salvation is possible. It is inconceivable that that threat exists now, but it has in the past and it could in the future. The many references of members to the just published national defence and Security Review and the lack of a role for a Trident or similar system simply emphasises the misunderstanding that abounded in the debate. Of course its role is more limited at present, but a capability such as Trident takes many years to develop and operate, the current capability not just the in-service systems reach back through airborned delivery delivery via the V bomber fleet and reflect many years of developing enabling and targetting technology as well as an extremely sophisticated command and control system. It is meant to be in the background while nations and opponents rise and fall, come and go.

On Trident opponent attempted to link use of the missile system with the British catastrophe at Suez. His theory ran that if the Americans could prevent British military action during that situation, then the operational independence of the current Trident system is fiction. But to compare Suez, an out of area intervention operation undertaken during the decline from Empire, with a war of national survival is frankly ludicrous. More recent history in the case of the Falklands has shown that national action is not always and under all circumstances subordinate to US decision making. Deep down the British know that such a reliance is flawed. After all the Americans have a very selfish approach to conflict preferring only to undertake military action when their own interpretation of national interest is at stake.

A further opponent of Trident from north of the border contributed the view that nuclear deterrence had not stopped the Russian annexation of Crimea. Clearly it escaped him that that is precisely the point. had Ukraine possessed a nuclear deterrent whose flag would be raised above Sevastopol now? Arguably not the Russians. The Cold War created a conventional arms build up in Europe which favourded the then Soviet Union at just about 10 to 1 in everything except aircraft. thee are various views, almost all now academic which question what would have happened if Russia had used their superiority in a conventional conflict on the central front or the NATO flanks. None of them suggest that NATO conventional forces could have resisted more than days or a few short weeks. While no one can conclusively prove that the presence of strategic nuclear forces deterred the leaders of the Warsaw Pact from such an attak aganst the western alliance, it seems reasonable to assume that trading Moscow for pieces of West Germany would not look like success. While memories quickly fade and our politicians begin to lose sight or never experienced what the world looked like during the Cold War, NATO has retained its perspective. All of the NATO countries agree to be part of and welcome the nuclear umbrella provided by the nuclear capable members. Fortunately for the SNP their theory that they could benefit from the protection of a nuclear capable alliance while claiming to have nothing to do with such weapons never had to be explained in detail to their electorate and the NATO member states.

Finally lets be clear, Trident is a political instrument not a military tool. It only works because at the strategic level it is credible in the face of nation state agression. It is credible because it can deliver the lethal power that will always make the price for aggression too high; it is credible only if there is an intent within our political leadership that if the country is ever pushed to the point where national survival is in doubt it would be used and it is credible because it is national and not contingent upon any other government or organisation whose view of national interest and survival may be very different from our own.

Trident is the burgler or fire alarm you have on the side of your house. You hope it never goes off and you hope anyone who eyes your property enviously can see it.