14 March 2018

The UK should accept that it is in a new Cold War with Russia


It’s becoming likely that the Russian state has been involved in another killing in Britain. Regardless of the detail, Russia has malign intent to this country. We should respond in three ways; accept, understand and act.

First, we need to accept that we are in a new Cold War with the Russian Federation. This is not a pleasant fact. We may not think we are in conflict with the Kremlin, we may not want to be, but the Kremlin believes it to be in a struggle with the West. Both UK and US have tried resets with the Kremlin. It hasn’t worked.

By way of recap: since 2000, Russia has: conducted concerted subversion of the Ukrainian state, engineered the 2008 Georgian War and subsequently annexed Georgian territory, annexed the Crimea in 2014, and instigated a proxy in the eastern Ukrainian war, conducted a failed putsch in Montenegro in Oct 2016 and attempted to manipulate the 2016 US Presidential Elections. This is all against a backdrop of daily subversive information campaigns waged via Kremlin-controlled media, subversion and threat in the Baltic, very significant acts of violence against civilians in Syria, occasional murders in the UK and continual cyberattacks on multiple Western targets.

Why is this happening? Putin and the security clique around him believe the West collapsed the USSR. He believes that the Internet is being used to subvert the Russian people and that the Colour Revolutions were CIA-instigated. Putin wants to undermine Nato. He wishes through disinformation campaigns and the tools of subversive warfare to make a mockery of our own institutions, leaders and values. He wishes to damage and replace the liberal world order, hence the hatred of gay Europa.

Did the West make mistakes in our dealings with Russia? For sure. We ignored the Russians for too long and enraged them in the 1999 bombing of Serbia. We could and should have done more.  However, the fundamental problem remains that Putin, an ex-KGB operative, thinks the Soviet Union was a good thing, its collapse a catastrophe and the KGB – an organisation drenched in the blood of its own people – representative of Russian greatness. It is difficult to reconcile that belief system with anything remotely liberal.

Next, we need to understand. The FCO and the MoD need to reopen something similar to the ARAG Advanced Research and Assessment Group (ARAG) which studied Russia. It was shut a few years ago to save money. Those bits of government that study Russian online penetration of the UK need to coordinate better. The word is that they don’t.

Just as in the 1970s and 1980s, we also need to expose Russian disinformation and subversion. In the US, the Senate Intelligence Committee did ground-breaking work. We need something similar, under government or Parliamentary remit, with the power to call witnesses under oath, and a wide remit to investigate Russian activity across the full spectrum of malign activity, at home and abroad. The best way to inoculate our societies against subversion is by the light of truth, or the closest we can come to it.

More generally, we need to understand that assassination is part of Russia’s complex new form of conflict. The Kremlin has taken the old KGB’s methods, known during the Cold War as Active Measures, and updated them. These were the range of disinformation, subversion, political fronts, agents of influence, compromise, blackmail, as well as espionage and assassination. Russia has added new tools such as cyber. Around this subversive war Russia has wrapped the full array of state power in a flexible and relatively seamless way; not so much a new military art but a new strategic art. The North Atlantic alliance, and the states of Europe and North America, are the targets.

Finally, we need to act. Russia uses 60-80 tools across the full spectrum of state power. We need to think holistically about our response. Let’s continue with dialogue with the Kremlin to do what we can to avoid the situation worsening, but we also need to relearn the art of deterrence. Russia’s is a brutal regime which combines globally criminality with state power and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. They are not going to be teary if Prince William doesn’t attend the World Cup or if we kick out a few surly, ill-mannered diplomats.

Here are some ideas, both to keep our system honest and deter the Kremlin.

On the media front, increase funding for the BBC Russia Service TV and radio. It needs to be the voice of truth in the Russian language, for now and for the historic record. Let’s also put the World Service TV (BBC World News) and radio on a secure, long-term footing to challenge well-funded global broadcasters backed by authoritarian states.

Second, let’s work with the US on a new sanctions list. Let’s use Unexplained Wealth Orders and other tools. We need the highest standards. Government delay and obfuscation on transparency rules are indefensible.

We also need to demand higher standard of disclosure for members of the House of Lords to prevent influence peddling. I’d extend that to PR companies operating on behalf of Russian corporations and individuals. We need to see Russia’s agents of influence in the open.

At home, we need to dramatically improve cyber security.

In Ukraine, let’s use DFID money and work with the US, Canada and the EU, to offer a grand bargain to strengthen the country and develop its civic society. In the east Slavic states of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, only Ukraine resembles a functioning democracy. Let’s support Kiev become the democratic model in the eastern Slavic world, one which will eventually influence Russia and Russia’s external colony, Belarus, too. Failure to do so will mean more violence, subversion and instability.

More broadly, if the EU is serious about the Russian threat it needs to become less dependent on Russian energy, as Poland and Lithuania have done. Western European consumers and businesses are paying for Russian rearmament. Finding alternative sources of power will take years, but it will send powerful signals of intent now and encourage Russia to recalibrate.

We need to work with Nato to find a way to counter Russia’s military planning in eastern Europe. Russia’s General Staff seeks military dominance over its neighbours, missile dominance and tactical nuclear dominance in Europe. At every level of escalation, Russia is planning dominance.  Once this happens the Kremlin will ratchet its subversive activities further. We probably need to match this conventional power-play. This implies more defence spending and new US weapons systems in central and eastern Europe.

Finally, we need to think about future Russian collapse. The Kremlin wants Russia to be a nuclear superpower. It has an economy the size of Holland’s and a dependence on carbon energy exports. This is not sustainable. Both an arrogant and overbearing Russia, or a weak collapsing one, represent a threat to the UK. Avoiding conflict with Russia, whilst firmly and reasonably deterring, is the most important foreign policy aim of the UK and the West for the next 20 years.

For all the above, we need to relearn the art of strategy. We are living in a more dangerous world again. The era of gesture politics is over. Our foreign policy needs to be about protecting our people and our interests against those authoritarian states who would harm us.

Robert Seely is Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight and sits on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.