Should we be worried about Putin’s Russia? For fifteen years, the establishment answer has been ‘no.’ Despite a Russian-backed cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007, despite the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, despite the assassination of Litvinenko with radioactive plutonium in a Chelsea hotel by the Russian secret service in 2006, Russia has often been treated as a promising ally. Three days before Russia annexed Crimea, the British parliament was assured that it would never happen.
Then Russia took Crimea, and Russian backed separatists shot down a passenger plane and killed hundreds. Again the West predicted that Russia would apologise and pull back. Instead Russian television, and the websites under Kremlin control, insisted that a Russian minority was under threat from ‘‘Nazis’, convinced anti-Americans in Europe that Russia was only defending itself against America, while telling Euro-sceptics that they were defending themselves against the European Union. Meanwhile, Moscow-based Special Forces and intelligence officers ultimately backed by conventional Russian forces seized Eastern Ukraine. And Putin’s popularity ratings climbed over 80 per cent.
Britain and the United States had convinced Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons, and promised to defend it from attack. We did nothing. Instead, some of us defended Putin, arguing that even Ukraine was ‘really part of Russia’. Really? Almost every one of the 15 independent states of the former Soviet Union could be described as ‘really’ part of the old Russian Empire. Our NATO allies, Estonia and Latvia, contain significant Russian populations. And Russia is not the only European country that has a ‘historical’ or ‘ethnic’ claim to part of its neighbours. Would we allow the same claims from Prussians in the Baltic, Hungarians in Romania, Romanians in Moldova, and Germans in Czechoslovakia?
Putin has now committed to spending a further $720 billion on upgrading his military equipment – particularly his nuclear arsenal. He is paranoid about being ‘encircled’. What will Putin do next if he feels his position is under threat in Moscow, and he or a successor need to appeal to nationalists to bolster their position? Putin has insisted that Estonia – like Crimea – is ‘not a real country’; and that the Baltic governments, are fascist sympathisers who oppress their ‘Russian minorities’. What conclusions will other regimes draw when they see Putin violently annex neighbouring territory, and ‘get away with it’?
Britain can help to minimise these dangers. But we must begin by acknowledging the threat, instead of hoping it goes away. The Advanced Research and Assessment group which tracked Russia for our Ministry of Defence was shut down in 2010. The Ukraine desk officer post was chopped in 2012, and by early 2014, defence intelligence had only two individuals studying Russian military policy. Our policy will only ever be good as our understanding. We should bring back the people who understand Russia. And among them should be a team, continually prepared to challenge us and present the Russian point of view and the Russian tactics: however uncomfortable and unwelcome they may seem.
Putin has relied on cyber attacks, and propaganda. So Britain must invest much more heavily in NATO centres of excellence for cyber defence (where we currently have only one member) and in strategic communications (where we have none). We need to provide high quality, entertaining and objective BBC World Service programming, as an alternative to Russian propaganda in the Baltic. And we must show – sensibly and clearly – that although we have no aggressive intentions towards Russia, we are entirely committed to defending NATO members on Russian borders. NATO troops need to be brought to a higher state of readiness, they must undertake much larger scale exercises, and develop better contingency plans for defence against planes, submarines, and tanks (none of which were owned by our enemies in Afghanistan or Iraq).
Above all, the time has come for Britain and its NATO allies to demonstrate that we are serious. Russia – which is currently defining the narrative in Syria, holding cards in Iran, manipulating Armenia, intimidating the Baltics, and destabilising Ukraine – is a country with an economy smaller than Britain’s. But it spends more than twice what Britain does on Defence. We may not want to match Russian spending, but we should at the very least commit to not cutting our spending below our current level of 2 per cent of GDP.
Until Putin’s actions, Ukraine – for all its complex history and tensions – had at least been peaceful for sixty years. Then Russian Special Forces intervened, seized military bases, and armed separatists. Now we have civil war – rockets plunging into cities, volunteer militia groups sprouting up, thousands killed and maimed, a shattered economy, and hatreds that will not be quelled for decades. In the process, Russia has created a ‘safe-haven’ for a new breed of insurgents with Russian military training and equipment. These men did what no Taliban or ISIL fighter has been able to do – shot down a civilian passenger plane, flying at 30,000 feet. They killed more foreign civilians in a single attack than in any ‘failed state’, since 9/11. And they did so in a European country, directly bordering NATO, and the European Union. If you want to understand why Britain helped to create the UN and NATO, why we have a defence budget, and why we must defend international borders, then just look at the horror in Ukraine, today.