Tom Spiller: It’s time to get real about Russia’s threat to Britain’s cyber security

9 Dec

Tom Spiller is the former President of the Conservative National Convention and chaired the 2017 party conference.

It is rare that a month goes by without the Russian regime broadcasting its noxious brand of propaganda, over-flying somewhere it shouldn’t, or harassing boats at sea – one might very-well be forgiven for telling them that they should shut up and go away.

Most recently, Russia’s activity in Ukraine puts into stark context its usual day-to-day energy diplomacy and acts of trespass. It is more immediate, more worrying and, sadder still, threatens to cause a significant number of deaths. No doubt President Putin has been emboldened by the naïve behaviour of Angela Merkel who approved Nordstream 2, but this article is not about that.

It is about something far more damaging that threatens our way of life here in Britain. I am talking about “ransomware as a service” or, to put it simply, Russian state-sponsored cyber criminality on an industrial scale.

Every day Russian cyber criminals look for ways to infect British businesses (the Labour Party has now been hit at least twice) with malware to prevent them from functioning until a ransom is paid, often in untraceable cryptocurrency.

This is no mere opportunistic and undirected crime. It is a sophisticated industry and our best guess is that it has cost the British economy several hundred million pounds a year since 2017.

The sophistication is clear from the structure of the industry.

The creators of ransomware operate a franchising system. They create and maintain top quality products, advertise their wares and provide all possible support to their franchisees, whose role is to identify targets, infect target IT systems and then negotiate ransoms in cryptocurrency.

The ransom transfers back to the franchisor, is laundered and divided between the criminals. Perhaps the most perverse part of this whole business is the brand-protection element. Ransomware brand names are ruthless in ensuring their affiliates remove malware upon the payment of ransom – after all, no one would pay an organisation that didn’t.

As with all significant organised crime, this level of sophistication is only possible where the criminals have safe territory in which to organise and protection from a host state. And they have found a home-base in Russia, a country which is seemingly immune from ransomware attacks.

One could draw a comparison to the British privateers of the Elizabethan era and the industries that supported and supplied them. The difference being that, if Drake hijacked a shipment of Spanish jewels at sea, it wouldn’t cause a hospital to immediately stop functioning. Food deliveries wouldn’t be disrupted on a nationwide scale. Power stations wouldn’t cease to operate. Entire borough councils wouldn’t grind to a halt.

Recent events (take your pick: panic buying, Covid restrictions, gas market disruption) have taught us that our economy has a sophisticated but fragile supply chain. It is a fragility that bad actors in Russia are keen to exploit. They live in luxury in Moscow, drive to work at offices in the most desirable sky-scrapers in the city’s financial district in fluorescent Lamborghinis and channel criminal money through Russian banks.

By some estimates there are 50 crypto-exchanges which serve to facilitate the conversion of ransom payments to cash. The Americans are certain of this and have sanctioned the worst offenders, who don’t try to hide their activity.

Predictably, Russian law enforcement has a standard, smirking line when asked to arrest these criminals: no Russian law has been broken so we cannot act.

Both the Russian state and the criminals that operate from Russian territory are ambivalent to the destruction that they cause. That is because they consider themselves to be at war. And this activity is surely what is now referred to as “war by other means”, or asymmetric warfare, to use an older phrase.

I have already listed some of the more jaw-dropping potential effects that cyber criminals can have – and we know that they targeted the NHS (and other European healthcare systems) during the peak of the pandemic – but just look at the headline figure. This activity is having an impact on a huge scale and is plainly designed to harm and drain our economy. To disrupt and damage our way of life in tangible ways that have an effect on British soil.

This brings British policy in this sphere starkly to light. In the world of crypto-currency the state’s efforts are focussed on introducing sufficiently robust anti-money laundering checks to attempt to separate the illegitimate actors from the crypto-pioneers.

In the slightly older world of ransom payments, the state’s policy is more akin to “don’t-ask-don’t-tell”, which leaves crypto-exchanges and insurance companies paying ransoms in an uncomfortably grey legal area.

The reality is that whatever steps we take to regulate activity on our own territory, the criminal cryptosphere (and of course the agencies of the state itself) in Russia will provide all of the services that the criminals need to steal money from hard-working British businesses and enjoy their ill-gotten wealth.

Surely it is time to now recognise the continuum that exists between Russians actions in Ukraine and cyberspace?

The level of Russian hostility towards us has been under-estimated. Now is the time to admit the significant threat that the state-sponsored Russian cyber criminals pose to us and disrupt them in the same way that we do drug cartels and terrorists.

Today, Russian cyber-warfare is sub-contracted to modern-day privateers but, if Russia were to take this activity in-house and use malware without seeking a ransom, the results would be truly crippling, and would cause injury and loss of life on a significant scale.

It is time to get real about this threat and to respond accordingly.

Peter Franklin: I’m pro-mask, pro-vax and pro-lockdown (if necessary). But against compulsory vaccination. Here’s why.

6 Dec

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

I’m a Covid hardliner: pro-vax, pro-mask and — if the circumstances demand it — pro-lockdown. I’ve listened to those who think otherwise, but haven’t been convinced by their arguments.

So when a colleague warned me last year that compulsory vaccinations were on the way — plus second-class citizen status for the unvaccinated — I thought he was exaggerating. Things like that might happen in China, but not in the West.

Well, he was right and I was wrong. Last week, Germany followed Austria by singling out the unvaccinated for lockdown. The two-tier society the sceptics warned us about is happening.

But even worse is the prospect of compulsory vaccination. According to Angela Merkel (and her successor, Olaf Scholz) they’ll be coming by February.

I wonder how the German authorities intend to enforce the new policy? As far as I know, there are no plans for physical coercion. Unwilling citizens won’t be literally held down while somebody forces a needle into their veins. However there are other methods of persuasion. The state doesn’t need to use violence if it wants to ruin your life.

There’s the prospect of indefinite lockdown, for instance. Or what if a refusal to get vaccinated becomes grounds for dismissal — and not just in hospitals and care homes?

Direct financial penalties could be another weapon. The Greek government is already introducing fines of a hundred euros of month for older people who fail to get jabbed.

At this point I’d like to stress that getting jabbed is a very good idea. Vaccines work — and the evidence on the efficacy of booster shots is encouraging. And yet the decision must remain that of the individual. A vaccine mandate is not like a mask mandate. In penetrating the body it literally crosses a line — the one between you and the rest of the world.

I’m more relaxed about the frontiers of the state rolling forward than a lot of Conservatives are. But all the way into my bloodstream? Not without my say so.

But just how absolute is the principle of bodily autonomy? Imagine a serious outbreak of, say, Ebola somewhere in Europe. Should the authorities do everything possible to contain the threat — including compulsory isolation and medical treatment? I think that most of us, a few libertarians excepted, would say “yes”.

The uncomfortable fact is that very few of our liberties are entirely beyond question. There are circumstances in which most of them can be reasonably taken away from us by the state. However, that is precisely why governments need to wield such power with the utmost restraint. And therein lies the problem.

In my experience, most politicians are not in fact power-crazed maniacs. However, they are desperate to prove their relevance. One only has to look at Ursula von der Leyen’s intervention on vaccine mandates. At a press conference last week, the President of the European Commission advocated an EU-wide policy: “How we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union? This needs discussion. This needs a common approach.”

It really doesn’t. As this pandemic has proven time-and-time again, patterns of infection differ between countries (even neighbouring ones). Therefore they require country-specific responses. To filter these decisions through the EU’s unwieldy power structures and then impose them as a one-size-fits-all policy across the continent is the last thing that Europe needs. Wasn’t the debacle of the EU’s vaccine procurement programme warning enough?

Not for the first time, the British can count themselves lucky that we’re not part of this anymore. But can we be sure that vaccine mandates won’t cross the Channel?

Laurence Fox was among those horrified by Oliver Dowden’s reassurances on the matter. Asked, by Julia Hartley-Brewer to rule out German-style policies for the UK, the Conservative Party Chairman said “It’s not something we want to do or plan to do in the United Kingdom. And the reason why we… won’t hopefully have to do any of that is because of the booster…”

Leaping upon the ambiguities in Dowden’s answer, Hartley-Brewer pressed him to unequivocally rule out and condemn the German approach. You can judge for yourself, but I don’t think he did — though he did his voice his disagreement with compulsory vaccination “in principle”.

Hartley-Brewer wasn’t satisfied with that. She wanted a categorical statement that the government would “never, ever under any circumstances bring in mandatory jabs and never put in a lockdown for those who are unvaccinated.” Indeed, she pronounced herself “stunned that politicians across the board in this country aren’t making that statement.”

I’m not. If we can’t rule out a scenario in which the choice is between locking-down the unvaccinated only and locking-down the whole country, then we can be sure that our leaders will want to keep their options open.

Profile: Emmanuel Macron, grandstander over fishing. A campaigner of genius – but not a man to be taken literally.

3 Nov

The theatre of politics has few more brilliant performers than Emmanuel Macron. In 2017, he became, at the age of 39, the youngest ruler of France since Napoleon.

He now intends to seize, with characteristic boldness, the leadership of the European Union. As Sabine Syfuss-Arnaud, world editor at Challenges, the leading business weekly in France, told ConHome yesterday:

“For Emmanuel Macron the timing is perfect to project himself as the leading personality of the European scene. A lot of strong voices are gone: Boris Johnson, swept away by Brexit; Sebastian Kurz, by a corruption case; Mark Rutte, by an internal political crisis; Viktor Orban, by his authoritarian attitudes.

“Moreover, Angela Merkel, for years considered the most important European leader, is leaving power, and her likely successor, Olaf Scholz, is known neither for his charisma, nor for his ability to wax lyrical, which the French President loves doing and is very talented at.

“The year 2022 is full of challenges and opportunities for Macron. France will hold the rotating presidency of the EU for the first six months, which will be the perfect stage for ‘Macron the European’, as the French press has been nicknaming him since 2017.

“In April he will face his most important test, the presidential elections. He will be counting on Europe, European achievements and foreign policy successes to give him a decisive advantage over his opponents.”

The fight Macron picked with Britain over fishing rights has nothing whatever to do with the merits of the case. It is simply an opportunity for Macron to grandstand in defence of French fishermen.

Here was an irresistible chance for Macron the European to prove he is also Macron the Frenchman, standing shoulder to shoulder with his brave compatriots in their small boats as they defy the might of the Royal Navy.

But this week Macron was determined also to grandstand at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, so he toned down the fishing row. His sabre had been rattled loudly enough to reap a rich harvest of headlines, and he does not wish, by escalating hostilities, to impoverish the far larger number of people in Calais and other parts of northern France whose livelihoods would be damaged by a trade war. Nor is he likely to end the close co-operation on defence between France and Britain.

Recent polling indicates that Macron has good chances of victory in next April’s presidential elections. The French Left is at present hopelessly divided between a number of different candidates, and so is the Right.

And Macron himself is a campaigner of genius. This observation is not meant to imply that he deserves to win, but simply that he is extraordinarily good at attracting attention to himself, and thus denying it to his opponents, who face an unenviable choice between being sane but invisible, or else insane but unelectable.

Anyone who saw Macron in action at the Rome summit, or in Glasgow, will have been reminded of his ability to attract attention to himself. The French President is always in play, always engaged in daring feats of oneupmanship and brinkmanship, always ready to swear eternal friendship or eternal enmity.

If Peter Sellers were still around, he could play Macron to perfection, as a politician who is at one and the same time cunning, witty, naive and triumphant.

“But what does Macron believe?” the reader may ask. “What is his ideology?”

The authors of a new book about himLe Traître et le Néant (The Traitor and Nothingness, a title which echoes Sartre’s celebrated work, L’Être et le Néant, Being and Nothingness) say it remains impossible to know what he believes: “Macronism is deliberately indefinable.”

Even to try to define it is to make a mistake. Here is a man who is very quick and very clever, surrounded by people who like him went to France’s top universities. He is impelled by the desire to win and to retain power, but is vulnerable to the charge that he does not know his own country.

And always he has to play a double game: to be the great European, but also the great defender of France, down to its most humble fishermen. In him are found all the vanities and insecurities of his nation, its grandeur and decadence, its hope of glory and fear of being left behind by Germany and by the English-speaking world, unable even to persuade immigrants of the superiority of French civilisation.

Emmanuel Macron was born on 21st December 1977 in Amiens, his mother a physician, his father a professor of neurology. He was sent to the local Jesuit Lycée, where at the age of 15 he fell in love with a teacher, Brigitte Auzière, who was 24 years older than him and was married with three children.

His parents, hoping to break the attachment, sent him to finish his education in Paris. Here he studied philosophy – his thesis was on Machiavelli and Hegel – followed by the training at Sciences Po and the Ecole nationale d’administration required to become, as an Inspector of Finances, a high-flying civil servant.

In 2007 he married Brigitte Auzière and the following year he bought himself out of the civil service, and instead joined the French branch of Rothschild, where he became a successful investment banker.

In 2012, he changed tack again, and joined President François Hollande as a senior adviser at the Elysée. Two years later, he was made Minister of Economy, but in 2015 he let it be known he was no longer a member of Hollande’s Socialist Party, and should be regarded as an independent.

Macron pursued, certainly, an increasingly independent political course, and in April 2016 launched his own political movement, La République En Marche!, which was said to be neither of the Left nor of the Right.

In August 2016 he resigned from the Government, and in October he criticised Hollande for wanting to be a “normal” President, and asserted that a more “Jupiterian” presidency was required.

He was by now attracting crowds and media attention of which his numerous rivals could only dream. His eloquence and charisma were undeniable, so were his brains and love of French literature, and he promised he would reform the French economy, but his runaway success was still a bit of a puzzle.

As Patrick Marnham observed in The Spectator in February 2017,

“If Macron’s unique selling point is unclear, his unique talking point is that he married his former school teacher, a lady 24 years older than him. This startling fact, when first encountered, tends to bring political discussion to a halt, while all pause for a few moments of profound reflection.”

In the course of writing this profile I was surprised to be told by an Englishwoman:

“From a woman’s point of view I wouldn’t say no to dinner with Mr Macron.”

Perhaps he is among other qualities more attractive than his rivals. He had certainly positioned himself very astutely, avoiding the extreme positions taken up by some of his competitors as they strove to profile themselves, and in May 2017 he won a decisive victory over Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election.

On the night of 18th January 2018 I happened to be passing the Victoria and Albert Museum and saw, in the middle of a crowd of spectators, the small figure of Macron making for a black official car.

There was something dramatic but also comic in his demeanour, and I let out a loud laugh, whereupon he turned his head and looked for a moment directly at me, alert and involved and somehow a star.

When I related this encounter the next day to an elderly shire Tory, she said:

“I think he’s quite devious. One’s got to be jolly alert with these foreigners.”

Her sentiments are ably reflected in the British press as it follows the twists and turns of the fish dispute. But while we should certainly keep a close eye on this heroic defender of France’s fishermen, we should not make the error of taking him literally.

Garvan Walshe: Germany’s new government may be tougher on Russia and China. Which would suit our own. But there’s a snag.

30 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Foreign policy rarely features much at election time, and Germany’s election last Sunday was no exception. It scarcely appeared during the three Chancellor candidates’ debates, conducted against a background of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Franco-American spat over AUKUS. The result, however, sets the stage for an change in German foreign policy to which the UK will need to adapt.

The centre-left SPD came out narrowly on top with 26 per cent of the vote and 207 seats in the Bundestag. Their Olaf Scholz is likely to move to the chancellery once coalition negotiations conclude.

Angela Merkel’s successor-to-be, Armin Laschet, suffered a true shocker. He gave his CDU/CSU Uniuon their worst ever result ever (24 per cent of the vote and 196 bundestag seats).

Next came the Greens, up a third to 15 per cent and 118 seats, and the liberal FDP (92 seats and 12 per cent).

The far right AfD and far left Die Linke got 10 per cent and five per cent respectively, as their core electorate of elderly former GDR residents dwindles. Fans of the Schlewsig-Holstein question will be delighted to observe the seat won by Stefan Seidler of the Danish minority SSW.

The big electoral shift is not so much the revival of the SPD, up a fifth on their 2017 result, or unmet expectations of the Greens, who did not do as well as their early summer polling suggested, but the decline of the CDU/CSU. This was partly down to an uninspiring and gaffe- prone candidate, but also because of its difficulties in keeping its vote together at a time of electoral fragmentation.

An important strand of the CDU has come to think that a hard-boiled national conservative politics could consolidate the right-wing vote by winning back supporters lost to the AfD. Friedrich Merz, who narrowly failed to become CDU leader after Merkel’s successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was forced out, epitomised that thinking. This week’s results put its futility beyond doubt. The CDU picked up 80,000 votes from the AfD this time around, but lost almost three million to the SPD, Greens and FDP. If even ultra-moderate Laschet was too right-wing for that many CDU voters, it is hard to see how an AfD-lite offering could not have done even worse.

This election has moved German politics in a liberal, pro-European, pro-green direction. Norbert Röttgen is the CDU man best placed to take advantage. Yet after its battering, the CDU/CSU is now divided about whether even to take part in coalition negotiations. Though Laschet claimed a mandate to enter talks with the Greens and the FDP, many in his party, including the influential Bavarian sister party leader, Markus Söder, are wary. After sixteen years in power, an exhausted Union could do with some time in opposition to refresh itself.

Though a CDU-led government remains an outside possibility, the most likely coalition will be the so-called “traffic light” made up of the SPD (red), FDP (yellow) and the Greens. In a savvy move, the smaller Greens and FDP have decided to forge a joint neogtiating platform (together they acccount for 210 seats, four more than the SPD) that they will then put to the bigger parties’ leaderships.

And although Greens and FDP differ on economics, their positions on foreign affairs are much closer than might be expected. With the Green co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, tipped for the foreign ministry, German foreign policy is not set for radical revolution (this is Germany after all), but it can expect to receive a sizeable shove.

Both parties want to see more foreign policy made at the EU level, and by qualified majorities (rather than unanimity as it is now). The FDP are explicitly in favour of a European army. And while the Greens have a pacifist inheritance that makes them skittish about anything involving nuclear weapons, they have come around to multilateral military deployments abroad. Watch for an effort to change the EU’s treaties to bring all this about. If the new coalition is with the SDP, policy towards Hungary and Poland will also toughen.

Beyond Europe, both these parties are also tougher on Russia and China than both the SPD (whose former leader works for a Russian state oil firm) and the CDU, more focused on human rights, and less on industrial exports. Though they are unlikely to be strong enough to stop the Nordstream 2 pipeline in Germany, expect them to push to have it subjected to tougher EU-level regulation.

Overall, this is an agenda with which the UK can work well — provided it realises that the new government will be even more disposed to conduct its foreign policy through the EU. Bilateral relations will remain polite, of course, but London will find it much easier to pursue its interests if it comes to terms with the growing EU foreign and defence establishment in Brussels and engages with it.

Tim Montgomerie: Lessons for ideology-free Johnson – and the Conservatives – in ideology-free Merkel’s legacy

29 Sep

Tim Montgomerie is the founder of ConservativeHome and is a contributor to Reaction.

‘He is the most remarkable politician of our age’. ‘The most formidable of election winners’. ‘His recipe of extra showbiz and a small side of policy fits our celebrity age perfectly’.

‘The economy’s iron lady’ of 40 years ago might famously have been against turning, but Boris Johnson prefers to see himself as the voters’ ‘flexible friend’. Oozing self-confidence, he does not feel restrained by the rules that Margaret Thatcher laid down, and which inhibit ‘principled, conviction politicians’ who – bless them – see ideas and policies as defining their mission.

And, electorally, he is fundamentally right that turning towards target voters is rarely a bad thing in this age of consumerist-programmed minds. Brits, increasingly used to getting precisely what they want from their shopping platforms; or in their entertainment, travel and leisure options; and even, perhaps especially, in their bedroom activities, like this servant leadership/ political pragmatism/ naked opportunism. (You can choose what to call it!).

Average voters are certainly more keen than the many newspapers and pundits who sell themselves as partly ideological, truth-telling products.

If, therefore, you are a politician who tends to be shamelessly, relentlessly obsessed about retaining power, then shuffle, shift, switch and even somersault your (dizzying) journey through elected office.

And all that s-bending is especially plausible for politicians who, happy days, via one big issue (like Brexit) already possess a loyal core of voters, and can consequently enjoy greater licence on almost everything else (as long as that litmus first big impression stays intact).

Four decades after the Iron Lady, our Flexible Friend in Number 10 isn’t relaxed about how he shifts his shape, however. This Downing Street’s u-turnery is almost scientific in its precision.

Directed by a government polling operation that is so gargantuan, pricey and relentless that it would make Blair and Clinton blush, ‘The Boris Offer’ is sold as ever-fresh and usually one step ahead or, at worst, barely one step behind opposition parties, and their ever more uphill search for issues that will give them an advantage over the Government.

So, in short, the Boris approach is an electorally effective one but – of course there is a but. The shape-shifting eventually becomes all that there is. The ruling party and government loses its principles and character. Incoherence can follow. Commitment from allies weakens. It stops attracting candidates and thinkers who aspire to be more than door-to-door salesmen. Policy innovation dries up as donors give up on think tanks who are unable to devise policies that can readily survive a run of bad focus groups or negative newspaper splashes.

The thinner set of policies that do succeed in getting to drafting stage in government don’t benefit from the Rolls Royce-style lab and road-testing that (allegedly) the civil service once lavished on them. And who can blame a seasoned Sir Humphry, government backbencher or even expert outside volunteer for judging that any time they give to the nurture of ambitious projects will very likely be wasted. Because ambitious almost always means risky, and risky – in any government that fears short-term unpopularity – equals project termination.

Angela Merkel, and last Sunday’s collapse in her party’s vote, is something of a cautionary tale for the British Conservative Party in these early years of “flexibility”.

Mutti’s innate caution might have been the main driver of the German experience – rather than the same BorisInc desire to turn politics into a branch of market research – but the basic inoffensiveness of pitch, and therefore the consequent lack of big mission, are shared features.

Political popularity appears to be broad and sustained but, when it eventually is exhausted, the falling away of support is dramatic. No one is loyal to you because you weren’t ever loyal to much that – at core – they really cared about. The popularity may be of long duration for ‘flexipols’ like Johnson and Merkel, but the list of big achievements ends up being pretty short. Big geopolitical problems like the rise of authoritarian China or dependence on energy from a gangster state like Russia only tend to grow even bigger.

During Merkel’s 16 years, Germany’s Christian Democrats ceased to be adequately distinguishable from the leftish Social Democrats. But it’s not too late for the Conservative Party to fight to stay robustly Conservative.

On tax, free markets, support for the family, basic civil liberties, the essential equality of the four Union nations, and in the fundamental character of our foreign and defence policies, the early sense of drift is real. The electoral operation and philosophy behind Johnson are formidable, but they should serve our mission and not, bit by bit, supplant it.

Those rightist scribblers in newspapers and online who have recently – and in chorus –  written obituaries for conservatism and/or Thatcherism are premature. The warning signs are real though. And the fightback must become real too.

AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific. A tilt to it, yes. A lunge, no.

20 Sep

In a chapter of their book on Britain’s defence capability, White Flag, our proprietor and Isabel Oakeshott describe “Operation Tethered Goat”.  It sets how in the event of a Russian incursion a small NATO force would attempt to defend a 65-mile stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border “straddled ominously by Kaliningrad to the west and the Russian satrapy of Belarus on the east.”

“If Russia were to attempt to close the gap, NATO’s only option would be to punch north with the US-led brigade based here. Until then, it would be up to the Baltic states to hold their ground, supported by small detachments of NATO forces stationed inside their borders.

“One of those forces would be headed by a small but fierce battalion of UK troops stationed in Tapa, Estonia. Some 800 troops from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh are here, supported by smaller deployments from other member states”.  The isolation and vulnerability of our troops gives rise to the operation’s grim nickname.

This is the background against which to see the Americo-British-Australian deal over nuclear-powered submarines, the wounded reaction of France, and the new security pact between the two countries: AUKUS.

Further war in eastern Europe is relatively unlikely, for all the recent tangle between Russia and Ukraine.  But were it to happen, it would directly affect Britain and the alliance on which our security has depended for the best part of three-quarters of a century: NATO.  It would be war in our back yard.

Conflict in the South China is perhaps more likely, but would affect the UK less directly.  We wouldn’t be bound by our NATO obligations to participate.  And whatever may be said of the South China Sea, it is not in our neighbourhood.

None of which is to say that either the new deal or the pact is a bad thing.  Their core for us is the transfer of material – including in “cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities”, as Boris Johnson put it last week – not that of troops, for all the recent journey of the Carrier Strike Group to the South China Sea.

As he went on to say, “this project will create hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK, including in Scotland, the north of England and the midlands,” including perhaps the Red Wall-ish areas of Barrow and Derby.

The deal also shows how fast time moves and frail attention spans can be.  Only a month ago, Joe Biden’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan raised the prospect of an isolationist America withdrawing into itself.  Any prudent British government should be alert to the possibility and what it could mean for the future of Europe.

AUKUS is a sign that, whatever else might happen elsewhere, the United States is commited to the Indo-Pacific and that, as in Afghanistan, there is continuity between what Donald Trump did and what Biden is doing.

There has been a startling shift there in attitudes to America within the last five years or so – just as there has been one here since David Cameron declared a new “golden age” in Anglo-Sino relations.  That was before Brexit.  Of which there is a point to be made about the pact and the deal.

In the wake of Biden’s Afghanistan decision, Remain obsessives raised our exit from the EU, suggesting that it was responsible for Johnson failing to persuade Biden to delay the withdrawal, because Washington no longer listens to us.

Never mind that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel took much the same position.  The boot is now on the other foot.  Some of our fellow Leavers argue that were it not for Brexit, Britain would never have abandoned France for America and Australia – just as, were it not for our exit from the EU, the Government wouldn’t have summoned up the nerve to get on with our own Covid vaccine programme.

Like other counter-factuals, this one is unprovable.  And the lure of new jobs, plus the tug of Anglo-American and Anglo-Australian relations, might have been enough to lure some other Prime Minister in an EU member Britain to make the same decision.

What can safely be said is that our relationship with America carries on as before, regardless of Brexit, and that Britain remains a member of the UN Security Council, the G7, NATO, the Commonwealth, and is one of Europe’s two armed powers, a top five aid donor, and in the top ten influential nations list on any reckoning.  All of which Leavers spelt out during the referendum campaign.

The Global Britain slogan has been ridiculed but, whatever one’s view of leaving the EU, it touches on a fundamental reality which AUKUS, that G7 membership, that Security Council presence and all the rest of it helps to illustrate.

Liz Truss is straight out the traps banging that drum, but it is worth pondering Global Britain, as suits that spherical image, in the round.  Europe is part of the globe.  It is a lot closer to us than Australia, if not in kinship than at least in distance.  And, as we have seen, a conflict in our continental hinterland would disturb us more immediately than one in an Asian sea.

Which takes us to France, and an entente that at present isn’t all that cordiale.  It’s scarcely unknown for Macron to withdraw its ambassadors when piqued: in recent years, they were brought home from Italy and Turkey.

But he will be very bruised, not least because the deal and the pact seem to have been firmed up in private between the three powers during the recent G7, while he was talking up France’s relationship with America (plus its interests in the Indo-Pacific), and taking potshots at Britain over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The real-life cast of The Bureau – i.e: the French intelligence services – may have been asleep on the job, and there is certain to be an inquest.  British crowing at the Gallic cockerel’s embarrassment is inevitable.

But while your own neighbour next door may eventually move out, France won’t be going anywhere, and it isn’t in our interest for this complex relationship to cool further.  France is our only major military partner in Europe (and elsewhere: see Mali), a top five trading one, home to up to 400,000 Brits, the source of most of those channel boats, and tortously intertwined with our culture and history.

Nord 2 has brought Germany closer to Putin’s orbit.  The former’s election takes place soon.  Whatever the result, France will feel the tug from Germany, as will the whole EU.  We don’t want to see the latter plump itself up as a potential rival to NATO.  But it would help us, America, and Europe itself for our neighbours – bearing that Russian presence in mind – to spend more on defence.

Their unwillingness to do so (Mark Francois recently set out the figures on this site), Germany’s passivity and a certain strain in French thinking suggests a drift into the Russian orbit.

De Gaulle’s ambivalence about the old Soviet Union, on which he blew cool post-war and warmer later on, had its roots in a French cultural antagonism to America and periods of alliance with Russia.  The ghost of the General will believe that AUKUS proves him right: that when push comes to shove, Britain will always throw its lot in with its American cousins.

We should turn a new page with France, or at least try to  – and remember that while a tilt to the Indo-Pacific is a one thing, a lunge there would be quite another.  Putin hasn’t “gone away, you know”. And Islamist extremism hasn’t, either.

Ben Roback: Biden’s Afghan pull-out represents the rash decision making we had expected from Trump

25 Aug

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Who has failed the people of Afghanistan more spectacular, the United States or the G7? Both have made a compelling case of late.

When the G7 nations met in June under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership, the group issued a customary Communiqué. The urgent priorities were clear and indeed perfectly logical – the Covid recovery, vaccinations, and “building back better”.

The middle priorities of the lengthy to do list were at times perplexing. Cyber space and outer space, a “values-driven digital ecosystem for the common good that enhances prosperity in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, transparent and human-centric”, and open societies.

Eventually, at point 57, the G7 remembered Afghanistan:

“We call on all Afghan parties to reduce violence and agree on steps that enable the successful implementation of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and to engage fully with the peace process. In Afghanistan, a sustainable, inclusive political settlement is the only way to achieve a just and durable peace that benefits all Afghans. We are determined to maintain our support for the Afghan government to address the country’s urgent security and humanitarian needs, and to help the people of Afghanistan, including women, young people and minority groups, as they seek to preserve hard-won rights and freedoms.”

With the benefit of political hindsight, was the Communiqué a clear sign that, just 10 weeks ago, the international community had such a miserly grasp of what was about to unfold despite the known deadline imposed by the United States?

Or being critical and almost certainly more honest, did it prove that the G7 countries were too caught up with their own agendas and so forgot about a weak, propped up government that was inevitably going to fall the moment the US initiated its withdrawal?

The chaotic scenes that have followed are a demonstrable failure of diplomacy and military intervention. In the first instance, it is the Afghan people and those who served in uniform and alongside them who will suffer the most.

The case for the White House: Putting an end to the ‘forever war’

There is no equivocation or discussion whatsoever about President Biden’s motivation for withdrawal. He wants to pull out American boots on the ground in advance of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

He does not want to become the fourth president to phone the grieving parent of a soldier lost in Kabul, Kunduz or Kandahar. In that respect, he aims to “succeed where others have failed” given President Bush started the Afghan war and it dogged the Obama and Trump administrations subsequently.

The human and financial costs illustrate the domestic rationale. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that since 9/11, 7,057 US service members have been killed in war operations, whilst 30,1777 US service members have committed suicide.

The cost of caring for post-9/11 American war veterans will reach between $2.2 and $2.5 trillion by 2050. The only way to stop that tide of misery, the White House argues, is to get out of Afghanistan. But at what cost to Afghans and the United States’ reputation abroad?

The White House might also argue that, whilst the eyes of the world are on the Middle East, the Vice President is in the Far East. Kamala Harris completed a three-day trip to Singapore where she fired warning shots about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Did anyone notice? The international community remains entirely focused on the more pressing problems in Afghanistan. At home, Parliament was recalled from its summer recess to discuss saving lives, not the Spratley Islands.

The case against the White House: Biden out-Trumps Trump and hangs the world out to dry

Could we have expected such a gargantuan gaffe from President Biden? After all, this was supposed to be the president who returned America to a state of relative normalcy after four years of Trumpian volatility in the pursuit of “America First”. On the world stage, Biden’s message to historic allies has been clear: “America is back”. Is it?

Biden cannot reasonably claim a lack of foreign policy experience. 36 years in the Senate having been elected before his 30th birthday. 12 years as Ranking Member or Chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Eight years as Vice President, in which his White House bio now even boasts that “Biden played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign policy and describes how he was point person for US diplomacy throughout the Western Hemisphere and led the effort to bring 150,000 troops home from Iraq.

The Afghan pull-out represents the kind of rash decision making devoid of any consultation with military allies that we had perhaps expected from President Trump. But for all of Trump’s bluster and wildly unpredictable rhetoric, he did not deliver the hammer blow to US foreign policy that many had expected.

It had started to look like death by a thousand paper cuts, but the capacity to do further incremental damage was limited by being a one-term president.

It is Biden, not Trump, who has shocked US allies. “Sleepy Joe” has sleep-walked the United States into its biggest foreign policy debacle for a generation.

From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”

Where does this leave Joe Biden and his administration’s relationship with the very same allies it sought to reassure after the Trump presidency? Johnson and Emanuel Macron led the call for President Biden to extend his self-imposed deadline of August 31 for the complete and total withdrawal of US forces.

At present, that has fallen on deaf ears trained solely on a domestic audience. News outlets report the president will not extend the deadline, agreeing with the Pentagon’s assessment. An imminent detailed report by Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State. could yet reshape the decision.

The president has acknowledged that a completed withdrawal by the end of the month will be dependent upon the Taliban’s continued cooperation. The very same terror force the US entered Afghanistan to drive out is now needed to get Americans out of the country.

The administration has hinted at some flexibility. But each time Biden has spoken at the presidential podium since the fall of Kabul, he has doubled down on the decision with even greater tenacity. To alter course now would be political humiliation. From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”.

Perhaps the most striking remark the president has made since the Taliban takeover was when he said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building”. Really? Twenty years training and serving alongside the Afghan military. Two decades propping up a western-style government.

It begs the question: on what basis will the US intervene abroad now, if not to nationbuild? Just under 30,000 US troops remain stationed in South Korea, as the threat of war on the Korean peninsula looms perpetually.

But there is no nation building to be done in Seoul; will those troops be brough home next? Over 35,000 US troops are stationed in Germany; Chancellor Merkel needs no help maintaining her own democracy.

The Biden administration has rolled the international dice to take a domestic political gamble

The President, Defence Secretary, Secretary of State and National Security Adviser all clearly believe that most Americans do not care about the fate of Afghanistan or its people. According to YouGov America, at any one time only 0.5 per cent of Americans have ever though that the war in Afghanistan is a top issue facing the country.

They care more about a seemingly endless war in which too much American blood has been spilled. That is understandable with a domestic hat on, but deeply depressing when thinking globally.

Maybe Biden will be proven right. But at what expense? The fall of a nation into the hands of terrorists. It would be the most pyrrhic of all political victories.

Garvan Walshe: Just as in Hong Kong and Belarus, the UK has a duty to stand up for freedom in Tunisia

5 Aug

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

As in Belarus and Hong Kong, democratic freedoms are under attack in Tunisia. But 10 years after its revolution, the powers that be are weaker, and strong foreign support for Tunisians’ freedoms can tip the balance.

“I will not become a dictator” insisted Kais Saied, the Tunisian president, as he shut down parliament, put the army on the streets and stopped Al Jazeera broadcasting.

Not since Egyptian general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared in military uniform in the summer of 2013, denying that the events which would make him president were a coup, or when Jeremy Corbyn said he was “present but not involved” at a wreath-laying ceremony for terrorists, has North African denial been so implausible.

Tunisia is the last survivor of the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, but a decade on, its democracy is looking shaky. Ten years of fractious politics haven’t yielded the economic progress freedom was supposed to bring. The pandemic, and the disruption of the vital tourist industry it produced, has made things worse.

Tunisia is supposed to have a political system where power is shared between parliament and the president, but last week the president, a former academic who doesn’t belong to any political party, invoked emergency provisions of the constitution to suspend parliament for 30 days. But while the constitution allows periods of emergency presidential rule, they are conditional on the parliament being in session to keep an eye on him.

A constitutional court would have reaffirmed this, but one hasn’t been set up yet. In its absence, Saied, despite being a former professor of constitutional law, just used the security forces under his command for a power grab. Though he likened himself to de Gaulle, it would be fairer to compare him to Cromwell dismissing the Rump.

Nonetheless, unlike Sisi’s in Egypt, Saied’s coup looks far from a foregone conclusion. Elected with 72 per cent of the vote in 2019, Saied’s approval ratings have fallen to around 40 per cent, and it’s best to describe him as the single most popular figure in a crowded field.

The successor pparty to the old regime, known as the Free Destourians, heads the polls with around 30 per cent support, followed by the genuinely moderate post-Islamist Ennahda, with 20 per cent. Various left-wing and secularist groups, and Islamist groups make up the rest.

This contrasts with Egypt, where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood were extreme, saw democracy as a means to an end, and against whom the Army was the only force in society capable of standing up to them. Unable to win on their own, Ennahda, who now describe themselves in as “Muslim Democrats” in conscious analogy with Angela Merkel’s CDU, have become moderate (a hardline faction split off to form its own “Dignity” party). Though Saied can argue that his opponents are dysfunctional, there is no threat of an Islamist takeover in Tunisia.

Islamist weakness has been reflected in the US position, with Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser, insisting that Tunisia return to the “democratic path.” The US may also be motivated by concerns about increasing Chinese influence in the country, which is only 200 miles from Sicily.

The Foreign Office has so far been rather more perfunctory, issuing a statement so anodyne it is worthy of the department’s caricature in Yes, Prime Minister. There is a need to get a grip on the situation, and the Foreign Secretary should use the opportunity to lead.

Just as in Hong Kong and Belarus, the UK has a duty to stand up for freedom in Tunisia. It has been heavily involved in the democratic transition since 2011, supporting civil society, offering practical assistance and considerable sums of aid. Unlike France it is not burdened by colonial baggage there. And it has an opportunity to outflank the EU which is hampered by the requirement for unanimity in foreign affairs. The UK has an opportunity to convene a response by the world’s democracies.

The most important task is the resolution of the constitutional crisis and a return to the normal democratic process.

In the first instance, the army should be taken off the streets, and journalists be allowed to report openly. Parliament should be reconvened (after all that is what the Tunisian constitution requires even during an emergency), and the parliamentarians that have been arrested freed immediately.

In the medium term, agreement is needed on a constitutional court, and measures to ensure full international observation of future Tunisian parliamentary and presidential elections to ensure their legitimacy.

In the longer term, reforms are needed in Tunisia’s army, intelligence services and police, to ensure oversight by all elements of Tunisia’s political system, as is normal in presidential democracies. They may be under the command of the president, but need to be subject to laws enacted by the parliament compliance with which is monitored by parliament and enforced by the judiciary.

Finally, priority should be given to Tunisia’s economic recovery. The country is still extremely poor, despite reasonable levels of education, a large French-speaking population and a geographical location extremely close to the European market. A good investment climate and the rule of law should put it in a position to leapfrog its neighbours in Algeria and Morocco. Further aid needs to be made conditional on progress towards a stable, and free, political and business environment.

The only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab revolutions needs our help. Unlike in Hong Kong and Belarus, autocratic forces lack a powerful patron. Unlike in Egypt, choice isn’t between authoritarianism and Islamism. And unlike in Lebanon, the country has not been overtaken by sectarian dysfunction. We can make a difference in Tunisia. It would be unforgivable to take our eye off the ball.

Off the football field, Laschet assures the Germans they can continue to pretend to be weak

29 Jun

This afternoon’s football match between England and Germany will be seized on by both sides as a welcome distraction from the pandemic.

When German politicians want to avoid controversy, they often talk, in a most expert manner, about football.

But the greatest of those politicians are also capable of talking about politics in such a way as to avoid controversy, or indeed to avoid saying anything at all.

From her earliest years, Angela Merkel mastered the art of giving nothing away about her personal opinions: a skill which was indispensable to her as the child of a Lutheran clergyman in Brandenburg, in what was then East Germany.

Armin Laschet, chosen by the Christian Democrats as their candidate to succeed her as Chancellor, possesses also that skill, albeit developed over a long period under quite different circumstances.

He is from Aachen, on the far western border of Germany, close to Belgium and the Netherlands. While Merkel speaks excellent Russian, he speaks excellent French.

She was Lutheran. He is a devout Roman Catholic, which is normal for a leader of the Christian Democrats. In the words of a penetrating observer from the German Left,

“He’s a nice fellow, but he is not a strategic person. He is not a second Konrad Adenauer. He is not even a Boris Johnson.

“He is part of the Catholic opposition against the Prussians – a very funny opposition of weak, small people who fight with all their humour against the people at the top of society.

“He is a very charming and weak person who is always laughing at himself. People like him but nobody thinks he is a leader.”

The press, fed up with sitting through numerous occasions when Laschet gave them nothing to report, tends to write him off as a bore.

That does not do justice to him. He has a subtle gift for making not having a stand-up row, indeed not making a decision, sound reasonable. His intonation is delightful: he speaks as one might imagine an unresentful friar would speak, at ease with the whole world.

He stands accused of being too friendly towards Russia and China, but professes friendship towards everyone.

At a recent appearance at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, he was asked what he would change in Germany and the European Union’s policy towards Russia, and what his attitude is towards Nord Stream 2, the Baltic pipeline which will bring Russian gas direct to Germany, cutting out Ukraine.

He replied in a mild tone that he would not change anything, for the joint German-French declaration in Minsk offers a good way out of warlike tensions – it has not yet achieved final success, but a big war, a big conflict has been avoided.

As for Nord Stream 2, he recognised that behind this question lay concern about the geostrategic effect on Ukraine – would Ukraine’s energy security be endangered, would it become more dependent on Russia?

No, he insisted in his sweetest tone, it would not be, for the position of the German Government is that the position of Ukraine must not be affected by the pipeline.

Whether any reliance can be placed on that assurance is doubtful, but Laschet behaved as if it settled the matter.

Germany, it was pointed out to him, has despatched a frigate, the Bayern, to the Indo-Pacific region. Will Germany be sending more frigates there?

Laschet raised his hands in a pacific gesture. This, he explained, is just a part of Germany’s relationship with China, for which the European Foreign Ministers have developed “a good formula – China is partner, competitor and rival”.

If German voters wish their next leader to be all things to all men, which it appears that they do, Laschet is their man. He is almost ten points ahead of his nearest rival, the Green candidate Annalena Baerbock, a former trampolinist who is laughably inexperienced, as one can see when she gives straight answers to straight questions.

She is against Nord Stream 2, pro-American, has an economic policy which German business thinks is disastrous, and has recently been found to have doctored her curriculum vitae.

Like most German politicians, Laschet is in favour of “a stronger Europe”, which “must end in treaty changes”, and in “a European Constitution which is close to the people”.

But when it was put to him that this must mean he favours a common European budget and the pooling of European debt, he replied at once, with a smile, that he had been “misunderstood”, and that was not what he meant at all.

With imperturbable good humour, he indicates that he will take care of everything. It is a beguiling prospectus, for a Germany which is determined to go on pretending to be weak.

Adrian Lee: Nord Stream 2. How Russia could turn off half Germany’s gas supply – and so threaten our collective security.

21 Jun

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Some political issues – such as Climate Change, female circumcision and African debt relief – become truly internationalised over the passage of time. Gatherings of world leaders see these subjects set high on the agenda for discussion and the press released closing statements at such events are dominated by worthy platitudes calling for greater global action.

By contrast, other matters with the potential to change the world order draw far less attention. One issue that has largely failed to focus the comment of the media pack is the imminent opening of the Nord Steam 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

On the Friday 11th June – ironically, the very day that the G7 leaders arrived in Cornwall – commissioning works to fill the pipeline with gas began. Whilst many have vaguely heard of the controversy, few realise the possible impact of Nord Stream 2 upon the defence of the United Kingdom.

Nord Steam 2 starts at Vyborg in Russia, threads its way through the Baltic Sea, passing Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and terminates in Griefswald, Germany.

Few would dispute that the project represents a triumph of modern engineering. Like its already operational predecessor, Nord Stream 1, this underwater marvel has the capacity to pump approximately 55 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year from Russia directly into Germany.

Even before the fuel starts pumping down the new line, Germany has already attained the status of the world’s largest user of natural gas, 94 per cent of which has to be imported, and 40 per cent of that total is supplied by Putin’s Russia.

Dependency upon this particular source is likely to increase significantly in the near future, as the so-called “Energiewende” policy announced in 2010 has already terminated most of Germany’s nuclear power, with the remaining six reactors scheduled to be phased out by 2022. When this plan was first trumpeted, the German government was confident that “renewables” would make up for the loss of nuclear power, but alas this has yet to transpire and consequently the wheels of German industry are more dependent on natural gas than ever before. No wonder then that Germany has some of the highest energy prices in the world and that the average German consumer has to pay double the cost of the equally average American.

Nord Stream 2 AG is owned by Gazprom, a Russian state-owned company, and its CEO is one Matthias Warnig, a former intelligence officer in the East German Stasi. The main source of the natural gas for the pipeline can be found in the Yuzhno-Russhoye field, located in Krasnoselkupsky, Tyumen Oblast. When one realises that oil and gas are responsible for more than 60 per cent of Russia’s exports and provide over 30% of the country’s GDP, you can understand why the Kremlin is so enthusiastic about this project. Russia certainly intends to make a lot of money out of wealthy Germany and is therefore not planning to suspend supplies, but should she feel the need to do so in the future, she faces no legal obstacle, as Russia is not a signatory to the 1991 Energy Charter Treaty, that provided safeguards to supply.

Why should Britain be concerned about this Russo-German oil deal? Well, mainly because of the military dimension. Sweden and Poland have voiced grave concerns about the Russian Navy using Nord Stream 2’s presence as a pretence for increased military intelligence gathering and intensified patrolling in the Baltic Sea. However, there is a much greater reason for worry.

NATO has been the cornerstone of the West’s defence for seven decades and, until the end of 1991, the main strategic opponent of NATO was the USSR. Following the collapse of Soviet Communism, the organisation changed its emphasis to the broad founding principle of collective security. In other words, an attack on one member is an attack on all – hence the participation of European NATO members in the Afghanistan theatre after 9/11.

The Russian war with Georgia in 2008, the protracted conflict over the Ukraine since 2014 and the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war refocused NATO’s attention on the increasing threat from the east. The 2016 NATO Summit, held in Warsaw, set the conditions for the establishment of an enhanced “Forward Presence” in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to strengthen the line against Russian forces.

There are currently 900 British military personnel in these states, along with allies from France and Denmark. There can be no doubt that Putin’s Russia is today the main threat to NATO on the European continent.

Since the inception of NATO, the involvement of Germany (originally West Germany) has been pivotal. Prior to 1989, Germany formed the frontline and prospective battlefield in any conflict, contributed an effective military force and provided a permanent base for US and British forces.

During recent decades ,it is arguable that Germany’s attention has turned towards the costly projects of re-building the old GDR territories and pushing for a federal Europe but, geographically, the country provides a vital link with the eastern NATO members in terms of supply. An effective NATO without wholehearted German participation remains unthinkable.

Unfortunately, Germany’s armed forces are currently in a pretty parlous state. Despite the pressure from the Trump Administration, Germany is yet to come close to contributing the two per cent of GDP agreed by all NATO countries in 2006. She only spent 1.2 per cent of GDP in 2019.

No surprise, then, that Germany’s arsenal is so decrepit. The main battle tank, the Leopard 2, entered service in 1979 and, of the 183 that the German state possesses, only 101 are estimated to be operational.

In 2014, it was reported that a significant number of German military aircraft were “unserviceable”. In terms of assault aircraft, Germany possesses 60 aging Tornados and 141 Eurofighters. However, it has been claimed that only half of these are airworthy, and one estimate states that just 12 of the Tornados are currently operational. Recently, Germany has ordered another 38 Eurofighters, but they are hardly likely to make the Russians quake in their flying boots.

By contrast, since 2012, Russian ground forces have received more than 15,500 pieces of weapons systems and equipment, twelve missile regiments have been rearmed with Yars ICBM’s and 10 missile brigades with Iskander tactical ballistic missile systems.

Overall, Russian has a million active-duty personnel in its armed forces, 2,300 modern battle tanks, 1,200 new helicopters and assault planes, 50 state of the art surface ships, 28 submarines and a 100 shiny new satellites for communication, command and control. Vladimir Putin spends 4.3 per cent of GDP on the Russian armed forces – in part thanks to the healthy financial contribution made by his trading partner Germany.

Under the circumstances, we are surely entitled to ask whether Germany’s commitment to NATO is likely to remain as wholehearted in the era of Nord Stream 2. Is Germany really going to go out on a limb for, say, the Baltic States and Poland when, at the turn of a tap Russia could cut off over half of her energy supply? Or is Germany gradually going to slide down the road to a slightly more neutralist position in the years ahead – to paraphrase William Hague “In NATO, but not run by NATO.”

One thing is for certain: in the absence of an effective backup plan for energy supply to Germany in the event of conflict with Russia, Angela Merkel’s government has handed Putin the ability to paralyse her country, and potentially the whole of western defence.