Garvan Walshe: Russia’s building up troops on Ukraine’s border. Here’s what we can do to stymie Putin.

15 Apr

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

Tanks rolling towards the Ukrainian border. Paratroopers in Crimea. Mechanised troops to the Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic sea between Poland and Lithuania. A “rotational” but in effect permanent presence on Ukraine’s frontier with Belarus.

These are just the most obviously military steps in Russia’s campaign to divide and confuse the West, and test the mettle of the Biden Administration.

They come as tensions increase in East Asia, with China increasing pressure on Taiwan, and the US trying to enlist Japan into backing up the island. The question on Russia’s mind is who are the Japans – the large, democratic American allies – of Europe?

Moscow could be forgiven for thinking there aren’t any. France was suckered into attempting a “reset” in relations in exchange for cooperation in the North Africa that never materialised. How seriously can Germany be taken until it cancels Nordstream 2? And the UK has just released a review of strategy promising a military tilt towards the Indo-Pacific.

Russia’s big disadvantage is that its economy is still relatively small (its GDP is the same as that of Spain and Portugal, or the Nordic countries), and its autocratic regime needs an expensive repressive apparatus to hold onto power.

Its advantage, however, is that such wealth as it has comes from natural resources, and these are easy for the ruling elite to capture. It’s much easier for the “Collective Putin”, as the ruling elite is sometimes known, to spend them on internal security, military hardware and foreign subversion than it is for a democracy constrained by law, voters unhappy about tax rises, and expensive welfase states.

Putin’s central belief is that the world is a transactional place where raw power is decisive. He finds it difficult to understand the Western talk of values, and dismisses it as cant, just has he knows that Russian lines about non-interference in the affairs of other nations or respect for international frontiers are empty propaganda – to be used, or discarded, as convenient.

But if he cannot quite fathom the levels of trust that Western countries still have for one another, he knows how to erode it by supporting nationalists from Marine Le Pen (whose party received loans from a Russian bank) to Alex Salmond (still a presenter on Russia Today), and of course, Donald Trump.

But 2021 has worsened the strategic environment. Biden has bluntly called him a “killer”. The autumn’s elections in Germany could deliver the Greens (who are not only anti-Putin, but anti-the oil and gas from which he makes his money).

His only solid European ally is Hungary, whose government has bought Russia’s vaccine, hired Rosatom to renovate its nuclear power plant, agreed to host and give diplomatic immunity from regulatory oversight,to the Russian state International Investment Bank, and provided a permissive environment for Russian spies. Viktor Orban’s collaboration with Putin, is however, enough to neutralise the EU’s Russia policy and limit the effectiveness of NATO.

The latest military build up is another attempt to increase pressure on the alliance now that Trump is no longer in a position to destroy it. Ukraine, which was formally offered a path to NATO membership in 2008, has repeated its request to join, splitting its friends from those who profess to be afraid to “poke the bear.”

But if immediate NATO membership for Ukraine is currently off the table, there is an opportunity here for the UK to be a “North European” Japan, and anchor North European security against Russia in support of the US-led alliance. This role should naturally fall to the UK, since France is heavily committed in North Africa, and Germany cannot be expected to be decisive, especially during a year where the election coincides with Russia’s annual Zapad military exercises.

Britain is in a position to convene a coalition of European countries worried about Russia, including Poland, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and the Baltic states, possibly with Ukraine in association. A semi-formal initiative and northern analogue of France’s European Intervention Initiative, but obviously more defensive in nature, could focus on reinforcing the territorial integrity of its members, as well as security of the Baltic sea, and develop programmes of mutual assistance in civil resilience for circumstances below those that would warrant the invocation of NATO’s Article Five.

Such an initiative would, I believe, be well received in Washington, where a reinforcement of Britain’s role in the Euro-Atlantic, and not just the distant Indo-Pacific, theatre would bring significant relief.

Johnson – “Our new, full-spectrum approach to cyber will transform our ability to protect our people”

13 Mar

The Integrated Review will be published on Tuesday.  That’s to say, the Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, to give the document its full title.  Boris Johnson will make a Commons statement.

And he steps up the pre-publicity today by saying that the review will commit to a new, full spectrum approach to the UK’s cyber capability – announcing the establishment of a ‘cyber corridor’ across the North of England and, he claims, thousands of jobs. The Prime Minister said:

“Cyber power is revolutionising the way we live our lives and fight our wars, just as air power did 100 years ago. We need to build up our cyber capability so we can grasp the opportunities it presents while ensuring those who seek to use its powers to attack us and our way of life are thwarted at every turn.

“Our new, full-spectrum approach to cyber will transform our ability to protect our people, promote our interests around the world and make the lives of British people better every day.”

The Government says that opening a new headquarters for the National Cyber Force (NCF) in the North of England will drive growth in the tech, digital and defence sectors outside of London, and help create new partnerships between government, the sector and universities in the region.

The NCF was created last year to transform the UK’s capacity to conduct targeted offensive cyber operations against terrorists, hostile states and criminal gangs – drawing together personnel from both defence and the intelligence agencies under one unified command.

Opening the HQ of the NCF in the North of England will drive growth in the tech, digital and defence sectors outside of London and help create new partnerships between government, the sector and universities in the region, Government sources claim.

They add that “the review will set out the importance of cyber technology to Britain’s way of life – whether by defeating enemies on the battlefield, making the internet a safer place or developing cutting-edge tech to improve people’s lives”.

Defence currently sustains more than 35,000 jobs in the North West of England alone. Ten thousand people are employed in maritime design in Barrow and 12,000 people work in advanced aerospace engineering and manufacturing at Samlesbury Aerospace Enterprise Zone, where the UK is producing the fifth generation F-35 stealth aircraft.

In addition to the NCF,  last year saw the creation of the 13th Signals Regiment, the first dedicated cyber regiment, and expanded the Defence Cyber School. These capabilities will play a part in operations, including HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first global deployment this year.

We now wait to see what mix of cyber and conventional capabilities the review proposes; what it says about the major foreign policy and security challenges, and where development fits in – as the Government prepares to abandon the 0.7 per cent GNI aid target, at least temporarily.

The challenges should shape the capabilities – on paper, anyway, though that is more often than not the case in the breach than the observance.  If the review stresses, say, naval and cyber capability at the expense of the army, what does that imply for the potential defence of the Baltic states from Russia?

What is Boris Johnson’s position on China, where the UK’s trade and security interests are at odds, Conservative backbenchers are in revolt over China’s abominable treatment of the Uighars, and Dominic Raab, this very day, has accused China of breaching the joint declaration on Hong Kong?

Finally, does the Government now believe that there is no major third threat to Britain’s security – from Islamist extremism, which dominated the security conversation from 9/11 through 7.7 to the murder of Lee Rigby and beyond? It didn’t get so much as a mention in the Prime Minister’s recent speech to the Munich Security Conference.

The review’s launch this week will be followed by a Defence White Paper next: that’s the document in which cuts and scalebacks will be announced.  A procurement review will come in its wake.

Meanwhile, there’s at least one select committee report in the immediate pipeline – the Defence Select Committee report on procurement itself.  Busy times for the Ministry of Defence in the immediate future then,.