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.