Nicholas Morgan considers how Russia could pose a greater foreign policy threat to Britain in the context of increasingly subversive warfare.
For years now, there has been a steady chorus of voices describing the present state of relations between Russia and the West as a “New Cold War”. Since the crisis in Ukraine began, with the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, ties between both blocs have significantly deteriorated. From accusations levied against Russia for being behind cyber-attacks across Europe and the United States to the attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, one can be forgiven for perceiving this state of affairs as resembling the world of the Cold War. The Skripal plot as well as the diplomatic expulsions and economic sanctions that followed it has undoubtedly contributed to the sense of tension in the United Kingdom. Listening to the comments made by senior U.K security officials in the military and intelligence services undoubtedly carries a tone reminiscent of the “containment” doctrine that characterised the Cold War.
The Chief of MI6 (known internally as ‘C’) Alex Younger delivered a speech at the University of St. Andrews in which he warned Russia against further attempts to destabilise the U.K, while Andrew Parker, Director General of MI5, described the Russian government as the “chief protagonist” among hostile states for the U.K. The harshest criticism arguably came from General Mark Carleton-Smith, the country’s highest ranking military officer. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, General Carleton-Smith minced no words when he described the threat from Russia as being greater at present than that posed by the extremists of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Such rhetoric might be expected from those tasked with defending the U.K from security threats, but the question remains: how accurate is it to say that Russia is the main challenge to British security, especially when compared to other threats? The reason for General Carleton-Smith’s comments coming across as alarming is simply because of the huge fear inspired by ISIS terrorism in recent years. In 2017 alone, followers of the group killed 36 civilians overall in Manchester and London, a death toll higher than anywhere else in Europe that year. Additionally, terror arrests have markedly increased while the overall threat level to the U.K has remained “severe”, the second highest category possible.
However, that was yesteryear’s terrorism situation, and British authorities appear to have adapted. Arrests from terrorism have fallen this year by 31% according to the Home Office, and 2018 has seen no successful terrorist acts committed so far, despite the threat level staying constant. ISIS is still under pressure in Syria and Iraq, reducing the will of British citizens to risk travelling to join their ranks as they had in previous years. In spite of the danger posed by returning fighters from the war, or the increasing risks of the far right, Britain appears to have taken better control of its terror threat.
What about among nation-states? According to the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, the U.K does not even recognise any other nation than Russia as a threat beyond a few minor references to the North Korean regime. Unlike their counterparts in the United States, the U.K does not frame China as a threat; instead, the Review consistently highlights areas of potential cooperation. This signals the allure of Chinese investment in the spectre of Brexit: China has already signalled interest in negotiating a free-trade agreement with the U.K after it leaves the E.U. While authorities display increased scrutiny of Chinese acquisitions in sensitive industries as well as of technologies, Britain recognises that it has more to gain from working through issues with China in comparison to dealings with a more isolated Russia.
However, we shouldn’t forget cyber-security. The British security services surely recall the 2017 WannaCry worm, considering how much damage the ransomware caused to the National Health Service, including taking its systems offline and denying access to patient data. According to the National Crime Agency (N.C.A), the ability of individuals to enter into a life of cyber-crime has only decreased and the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to cyber-attacks has remained high.
Even with the cyber threat to the U.K, the “bear in the room” is still the Russian state. For years, Russia has expertly used cyber-attacks to meet its goals from taking power stations offline in Ukraine to hacking the Democratic National Committee during the American presidential election. Even in the U.K, there are worries that the Russians may have attempted to interfere in the Brexit referendum through the internet. Between sophistication and intent, Russia has proven itself to be a challenge to confront in cyber-space, whether it be spreading fake news or hacking nodes in the power-grid.
Despite all the ways in which Russia has remained at the centre of British attention from a security perspective, is it still accurate to call them the main threat? The answer is yes, but not because of an immediate direct threat to the U.K. Russia, even when antagonising the U.S or European countries via cyber attacks, has been keen not to do more damage than they need to for achieving an objective. Russian efforts to destabilise the West have been more covert just so that they don’t avoid large retaliation. Even in the Skripal case, Russians failed to anticipate the way in which Britain would rally her allies in order to expel Russian diplomats and impose new economic sanctions. Russia itself is already under countless sanctions, so further isolation is not in its interest.
If Russia’s wars in Ukraine and Syria are indicative of anything, it’s that the Kremlin prefers to engage forcefully in only two scenarios: first, if the threat is viewed as particularly dire to the regime, which is why Russia continues de-stabilising Ukraine as a means to discourage dissent at home. Second, if the rewards outweigh the risks, as is the case in Syria, where the Kremlin has preferred a largely hands-off role through airstrikes and deploying mercenaries.
For Britain, the real threat from Russia comes less from incidents like Salisbury than in its subversion campaigns. While Russia has shown itself to be very sophisticated in terms of its military tactics and hardware, this could be from what is a necessary need to economise. Russia has seen its defence budget fall by a fifth because of its weak economy and Western sanctions, and this is reflected in how it has relied on “dumb bombs” in Syria and small units or mercenaries in Ukraine.
Russia obviously has no interest in conflict with NATO, so it chooses a combination of hacking, propaganda and subversion that is more cost-effective and deniable. Britain already seems to recognise this reality to some degree by increasing funds to counter-propaganda efforts and sharing intelligence with allies to highlight Russian wrongdoings. While a deployment of British troops have been sent to the Baltic and Arctic in response to Russian aggression, these forces are the least likely to deter them or protect the U.K. Instead, Russia’s methods, while disruptive, should be managed in a similar way to how terrorism has previously been contained.
Russia is the most pressing challenge Britain faces today, but the times have changed since the age of the Soviet Union. Nowadays, conflicts can remain undeclared and the means of waging war are not always kinetic. Just as Britain was viewed as a difficult target for Russian interception half a century ago, today it can recapture that title by using its sanctions, intelligence expertise and strengthening its own institutions for protection. It may be difficult, but if the goal is to prevent future incidents like Salisbury, Britain has to keep Russia in perspective and avoid misrepresenting the actual danger it presents.