13 April 2017

Britain is finally getting serious about the threat from Russia


Don’t be fooled by Boris Johnson’s floundering failure to get the G7 summit to agree sanctions on the Kremlin. For all the negative reaction the Foreign Secretary arouses personally among his European counterparts, and despite the difficulty the Government has in articulating its approach, the outlines of a new Russia policy are taking shape in Britain.

Belatedly, it is tough, cautious and pragmatic. To use the lexicon of the Cold War, the aim is containment, not rollback.

Gone are the days in which we thought we could influence developments inside Russia.

Instead, the aim is to protect our allies – chiefly Estonia, where 850 British soldiers have been deploying in recent weeks as part of a new Nato push to reassure the frontline states and deter Kremlin aggression.

This is, in many respects, the most important British military expedition since the Falklands. Unlike our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or our peacekeeping ventures in ex-Yugoslavia, our forces are up against a numerically much stronger adversary with advanced weaponry.

In a sense, the parallel is even grimmer. Had we lost the Falklands war to Argentina in 1982, we faced humiliation, but not obliteration. In the Baltic, we are up against a nuclear superpower who could destroy Britain in a matter of minutes.

Moreover, Argentina was not a potent threat to the internal security of this country. It did not mount propaganda attacks, inject clandestine money into our political system, or use the internet to attack us. Russia does all of that, and more besides.

Britain has woken up to the threat. But much of the change under way is not visible. British security policy is like a vast ocean freighter. Though on the bridge, the captain has swung the wheel over hard, the bows are still moving round only slightly.

Yet at the rear of the ship, there is a maelstrom as rudder and propellers push the vessel onto a new course. All over Whitehall, long-forgotten skills are being hurriedly sought and revived: countering subversion, understanding Russian military doctrine, Kremlinology and so on.

This is much harder and costlier than it should be. For 25 years, knowledge of Russia, especially when combined with hawkish views, has been a career-killer. Many of our best Russia-watchers were unceremoniously tossed overboard in the Blair years, as Britain put trade and investment ahead of security.

Now the tide is running the other way. The 80-year-old mother of a friend of mine, a mighty Cold Warrior in her day, was delighted when her old office recently requested that she come and help train new recruits.

Despite its clownish Foreign Secretary, hollowed-out defences and atrophied security capabilities, Britain has plenty of cards to play. For nearly 30 years, the City has feasted on Russian money. That has allowed Russia to buy influence in Britain. But it also means that Britain can, if it wants, exert a tight grip on the Russian elite in just the place where it hurts most: their pockets.

David Cameron’s government took some important early steps to clean up the financial pestilence of corporate anonymity. After a slow start, Theresa May is following on. The Criminal Finances Bill now includes a clause allowing the authorities to freeze the assets of human-rights abusers – which could include almost anyone in power in Russia.

Although the Putin regime likes to trumpet its anti-Western views, it is in the West that its members educate their children, go on holiday, seek medical care – and launder their ill-gotten gains.

Britain can also use its diplomatic heft to marshal opposition to Kremlin mischief-making in Europe, at a time when American leadership is waning.

Britain is not just a big economy with strong armed forces (and nuclear weapons). It is also Europe’s intelligence superpower, chiefly thanks to the hackers and code-crackers of GCHQ, and their ties with America’s NSA. Intelligence gems command a stonking price in countries which have no ability of their own to mine them.

It would be tempting, but mistaken, to assume that Brexit has thrown a spanner in all this. Certainly leaving the European Union is going to be time-consuming and messy business.

But since the Brexit vote, British policymakers are trying extra hard to show that their country is still engaged in European security. We are leaving the EU, but not Europe, goes the mantra in Whitehall.

We will maintain close cooperation with other European countries on counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence and in dealing with organised crime. And we will play a more active role than ever in Nato, particularly in the Nordic-Baltic region, where the Western alliance’s credibility is most starkly exposed.

A startling nuance in the British position is the willingness, if necessary, to act independently of America. The hope in Downing Street is that the “adults” in the Trump administration will continue their ascent. People such as HR McMaster, the national security adviser, James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, and Rex Tillerson at the State Department are cut from the same Atlanticist cloth as their counterparts in every previous administration in living memory.

But what about the man at the top? Mr Trump – erratic, ill-informed and cloth-tongued – remains an unknown quantity. His decision to launch cruise missile strikes on Syria in retaliation for the regime’s chemical weapons attack is a welcome shift from the Obama administration’s “lead from behind” (or not at all) approach.

What is not clear yet is whether he and his administration is really willing to follow through. Airstrikes can be an important symbolic move, but they do not constitute a policy.

According to White House officials, the administration knows what to do, but is not choosing to announce it yet.

That may be a canny move: a bit of ambiguity and uncertainty help keep opponents off balance. For the past 20 years, Russia has enjoyed jangling Western nerves, and paid little price for doing so. Now it is experiencing a dose of its own medicine.

Yet after disparaging Nato and other alliances during the campaign, will Mr Trump really throw America’s full weight behind containment of the Kremlin?

If so, life becomes a lot easier for Britain.

Edward Lucas writes for The Economist