Failure to back NATO is a weak response to Russia

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Skripal poisoning. This blatant and shocking attack on British soil was carried out in broad daylight by brazen Russian operatives. The chances that the assassination attempt on the former KGB agent was not ordered by the highest levels of the Kremlin, or at least known, are slim to minimal to non-existent. Moreover, it was not and is not an isolated incident – there have been as many 12 unexplained deaths of Russian exiles on British soil in recent years – notwithstanding the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

Russia has always been an aggressive state with ingrained territorial ambitions, but it is clear that the threat that Russia poses to Europe and NATO has moved beyond theory and possibility. Putin’s Russia is a nation that engages in deliberate military provocation and encroachment as well as territorial expansion. It carries out overt and direct acts on foreign soil with flagrant disregard for international norms and possible casualties.

Russia has no respect for words or ineffective sanctions unless they are supported by clear military capacity. Putin does not fear international condemnation, but he does fear international co-operation and Russian isolation. Although isolation and encirclement suit his political narratives, he still has a realist outlook on geopolitics, and there is an obvious difference between a political narrative and the hard reality of actual encirclement.

Russia’s actions in the Ukraine have been a clear example of this strategy. The Crimean annexation was aimed at securing access to the Black Sea, as Ukraine had started to move away from Russia and towards the EU and NATO. The Kremlin made the accurate calculation that if it acted now, it would not face an EU or NATO military response, whereas doing nothing would make its Black Sea ports more vulnerable and harder to secure in the future. Moreover, the lack of an adequate response has emboldened Russian aggression. It is now difficult to see how Ukraine will ever recover its territory in the East or prevent Russia absorbing the separatist regions.

It is similar strategy that has driven his support for Assad. If, as expected, Assad prevails against the rebels in Syria Russia will have state in the fractious Middle East that owes its survival to Russian aid and military support. The lack of effective Western aid to the Syrian rebels and his unwavering assistance has allowed Putin to carry out what may turn out to be a geopolitical masterstroke. A consolidation of Assad’s regime is likely to allow a far greater capacity for Russian influence in the region through both an increased Russian military presence and a clear example of the benefits that Russian support can give you. This will mean that Russia will have secured a permanent foothold in the Middle East.

Turkey seems to have recognised the implications of a strengthened Assad as a full “client” state. Erdogan’s decision to move troops into Syria is an interesting one, as it creates a problem for Putin. Turkey can prevent Assad from military success and yet is also close to Russia. Putin could walk the tightrope of managing both sides or he could come down fully in support of Assad. At the moment, it seems to be a managed approach but if Turkey continues to attack Syrian positions do not be surprised if there are increased Russian “warnings” or the decision to jettison Assad.

We may not share the same outlook as President Putin, but we must acknowledge his worldview. This is the only way that we can take appropriate steps to defend our interests and prevent both escalation and further aggression. NATO is essential for maintaining peace in Europe and to do so, we must continue to ensure that we have sensible levels of funding, with all members actually reaching the 2% minimum spend, and to increase the preparedness of our armed forces through military exercises. Anything less is a weak response to Russia and a shameful betrayal of those who have died at the hands of Russia.

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