We must watch the reckless Russian bear like a hawk

The release of the much anticipated ‘Russia Report’ by the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) was met with a rather flat response. There was no smoking gun linking the Brexit referendum to Russia as so many on the Left had masochistically hoped for. Instead what was presented – after several months delay – was a report that highlighted the long-standing concerns and frustrations of the intelligence community. In particular that the West has, for a long time, been complacent when it comes to Russia.

The most insightful conclusion put forward in the report was as follows:

“Following the end of the Cold War, the West aspired to partner with Russia. The threat posed by Russia was considered to be diminished and the proportion of effort allocated to countering the threat decreased accordingly. As can be seen from the figures above, there was a marked drop in allocation of effort. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 was perhaps the clearest indication that not only had reconciliation failed, but Russia was once again just as hostile towards the West, and towards the UK. However, by 2006, operational effort was being directed to the fight against international terrorism: in 2006/07, MI5 devoted 92 per cent of its effort to counter-terrorism work, with SIS and GCHQ at 33 per cent. The remaining resource was thinly spread across a number of areas – Hostile State Activity being just one, and Russia being just one of the hostile states. This is understandable: the threat from international terrorism at that time – just a year after the 2005 terror attacks which claimed the lives of 52 people – had to be the primary focus.”

This section of the report clearly demonstrates what many of us have feared for a long time – that we allowed ourselves to become complacent at the end of the Cold War because we had convinced ourselves that beating Communism was enough. We failed to recognise two things – first that we did not do enough to build democracies in those countries where Communism had been defeated and secondly that we had not done enough disarm Russia in the event that it should ever rise as a power again. And it did rearm. 

In the vacuum left in Russia – we have seen the rise of a new autocratic regime headed by someone who has an intimate understanding of how the security world works. After all, we all know that Putin used to work for the KGB in East Germany – but very few people realised what that meant for his style of governance and his approach to foreign policy. Certainly, his rise to power was only enabled because we in the West failed to support the growth of participatory democracy in Russia in the same way that we did in the Baltic States and Central Europe.

For every country that has been brought in from the cold, one has been left out. Whilst Poland became a member of the EU and NATO – Ukraine was left behind. When Romania did the same – Moldova was abandoned to fall into decline. As Estonia grew into one of the most modern democracies in the EU – Belarus fell into dictatorship. And for every country that we have left behind – Russia has been given yet another opportunity the spread its influence.

In the first two decades after the end of the Cold War this frankly did not concern the West – who as the report also states were much busier dealing with the threat from Islamism in the Middle East. Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Tajikistan, Armenia, Georgia and others all seemed like faraway places. However, whilst we were pre-occupied elsewhere Putin and his new regime were busy consolidating power both at home and abroad. In Russia, Putin has turned former enemies into friends and strengthened his existing alliances. Chechnyan separatists were brought on side when the son of the rebel leader was made the governor of the region as a member of Putin’s party.

Equally – oligarchs who dissented from the orthodoxy in Moscow have found themselves forced into exile as the regime’s power consolidated. And even then, they are not safe from Moscow’s grasp. In November 2019, oligarch Dmitry Obretetsky was killed in a traffic incident whilst walking his dog near his home in Surrey. His friends claim that it was deliberate. In 2018, Nikolai Glushvok – a former director at Aeroflot – was found dead in his home in London with signs that he had been strangled. Only a week earlier Sergei Skripal had been poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury. For those who criticise the regime – nowhere is safe.

It is when actions like those above are carried out on British soil, with no regard for the consequences, that it becomes clear that Russia is not a distant threat anymore, but a real and near one. And it is not just the UK that has for too long ignored Russian interference and the threat posed by our Eastern neighbour.

Energy politics and naivety on the issue has also given Russia the upper hand over central Europe. Germany’s increased dependence on Russian gas – as it shuts down its nuclear and coal fired power stations – puts the whole of Europe at risk. Because of its dependence on Russia, Germany has been slow to respond to aggression against Ukraine and Georgia. They fear that standing up to Russia on human rights or geo-political grounds could result in the taps being turned off.

But further to that – Germany has been slow and reluctant to acknowledge that two of its largest parties have been influenced by Russia. Both the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the far-left Die Linke have been connected to Russia and promoted pro-Kremlin messages, especially when it comes to the war in the Donbas. The same influence has been noted in the ISC report in relation to the Front National in France.

Most importantly on this point – the ISC Report has highlighted the constant threat from Russian misinformation. Even since the report was drafted, there have been numerous active cases of Russian disinformation being spread across Europe in relation to the Coronavirus crisis. Notably in Germany where supporters of extremist movements listen to Russian backed news sources instead of the mainstream press. These Russian sources have put out stories to create disorder, in some cases claiming that Coronavirus itself does not exist and the lockdown is just state over-reaching. Many of these sources look convincing and even ordinary people can be misled by them.

Additionally, Russia depends on borrowed legitimacy in the West, for example using politicians such as Alex Salmond or George Galloway to host shows on RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik – two state-owned channels. Russian state-run media also allows them tailor messages for both sides of the divide. In any given day, RT could run stories that are pro-migration and anti-migration, pro-multiculturalism and anti-multiculturalism or pro-trade and anti-trade; regardless, the point is to create as much division as possible.

And this is the key thing that we have missed in the West, Russia no longer has a coherent set of aims when it comes to foreign policy. There is no grand strategy built around a permanent revolution as was the case with the USSR, but rather they are opportunists. If Putin’s Kremlin think they can weaken the West in any way that could at the same time strengthen Russia, then they will pursue it. The ISC report makes this fragility clear:

“Russia is simultaneously both very strong and very weak. The strengths which Russia retains are largely its inheritances from the USSR and its status as a victor of the Second World War: nuclear weapons, a space presence and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council… Despite its economic weakness, it nonetheless heavily resources its intelligence services and armed forces, which are disproportionately large and powerful. Moreover, Russia is adept at using its apparent weaknesses to its advantage: for example, its poor national brand and lack of long-term global friends appear to feed its enormous risk appetite – perhaps on the basis that it thinks it has nothing to lose;.”

It is this reckless approach to foreign policy that we have overlooked – whilst we have been trying to find their strategy, they have been trying to find our weaknesses. And this is why we in the West have failed to deal with Russia properly. We have allowed ourselves to fall for their tricks and committed great acts of self-harm by weakening our institutions.

As conservatives we have not done enough to support and strengthen our institutions in a way that can counter this threat. We must learn from the mistakes of the past and take the warnings put forward in the ISCs report seriously, otherwise we risk everything.

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