Daniel Hannan: Putin has has shown the West to be dithering, divided and drippy

16 Feb

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Vladimir Putin has won. He has placed himself at the centre of world affairs, strengthened his alliance with China, cowed his neighbours and solidified his domestic support. He has divided his rivals, sundering Europe from the Anglopshere – or, more precisely, separating Germany from the other democratic powers.

Best of all, he has shown the West to be dithering, divided and drippy – a lesson that will not be lost on autocratic regimes across Asia, Africa and Latin America. All this without sending a single T-72 into Ukrainian-held territory.

I suppose I should add that it is still theoretically possible that the apparent withdrawal of troops from the border is what the Russians call a “maskirovka”, a military deception. It’s conceivable that, even as you read these words, armoured columns are beginning to grind across the cold steppes. But I have been struck, throughout, by the discrepancy between what British and American leaders have predicted – both spoke this week of an invasion being “imminent” – and what everyone else has predicted.

When I say “everyone else”, I don’t mean Putin, whose statements we can safely discount. Obviously he denied throughout that there was any invasion plan. He also denied that Russian state actors were behind the Salisbury murders. He denied that there were Russian forces in Crimea, claiming that anyone could go into a shop and buy Russian uniforms, before switching tack and officially congratulating those same Russian forces (and going on to deny his earlier denials).

More telling was the sanguine attitude of most Ukrainians. It’s not that they saw no threat; they have been in a state of constant readiness since 2017, aware that successive ceasefires have been violated. But they never suggested that an invasion was immediate. They reckoned that, although Putin might have enough men and matériel to overpower their army, he had not concentrated nearly enough force to hold down what would immediately become a population in revolt.

They noticed that Russian state media were not softening people up for war – a prospect that remains unpopular in Russia. Putin has not issued any territorial claims against Ukraine, nor complained about the status of ethnic Russians there (the pretext for the 2014 conflict).

For what it is worth, most European governments also tended to the view that war was a remote prospect. So did the retired spooks and semi-spooks I spoke to in this country.

Why, then, the discrepancy? What did the CIA and MI6 know that no one else did? How could they be so specific in their talk of false flag operations and even of which Ukrainian politicians would front a puppet regime?

Obviously, I can’t answer that question. It is possible that, if I were seeing the intelligence that Joe Biden and Boris Johnson are seeing, I would have a different view. But Johnson, of all people, knows that information does not become reliable simply because it is privileged. I remember a brilliant Telegraph column in which he presciently excoriated what he called our “intelligence charlies” over what turned out to be duff analysis about Iraq.

Endless articles have analysed Putin’s motives. But it is worth also considering the motives of the Anglosphere states. Putin’s aim is clear enough. He wants to keep the Russian people in a state of anxious patriotism, thereby shoring up support for his regime. Nations which feel under siege are, as a rule, keener on strongman rule than those enjoying peace and plenty.

It is therefore Putin’s strategy (to quote our national poet) “to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”. He doesn’t want a win in Ukraine. He could have had that years ago, pulling out of Donbas in exchange for recognition in Crimea. He wants a continuing crisis.

To point out that his policy deters investment, diverts resources and triggers sanctions is irrelevant. We should not make the mistake of conflating Russia’s interests with Putin’s. He is pursuing his personal incentives, not his country’s. Call it the Freakonomics view of human behaviour or, if you are of a more pretentious bent, the Namierite interpretation.

If Putin pulls his troops back, he will come away with significant gains. State media have shown Western leaders dancing to his tune: Macron being lectured across a cartoonishly long table, Liz Truss being insulted and patronised by her opposite number, NATO members squabbling with Germany over whether they could route aid to Ukraine across its territory.

For Russians to criticise any aspect of Putin’s regime during such a crisis – the palaces and Western hidey-holes owned by officials on modest state salaries, the murder of journalists, the imprisonment of human rights activists – feels almost like treachery.

All that, in its grisly way, makes sense. So why the war talk in Washington, London and Ottawa? Could it be that our leaders, too, have Freakonomics motives? Just as Putin can walk away claiming victory simply because Ukraine has not joined NATO, so they can claim victory simply because war was averted. “We and our allies have managed to prevent Russia from any further escalation,” crowed Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba yesterday.

I don’t blame Western leaders for any of this. It was not they who massed over a hundred thousand troops against the Ukrainian border. It is simply that their incentives skew overwhelmingly one way. Preparing for war and being wrong is no big deal; failing to prepare and being wrong is disastrous.

And so, as soldiers manoeuvre in the snow, two sets of politicians come away with a win. Russia’s leaders declare that they prevented NATO from reaching their borders; the West’s that, by displaying resolve, they checked an invasion. It beats shooting at each other, I suppose. But what an odd way to conduct international relations.

Iain Dale: On my radio show, I asked Salmond who he would side with out of Putin or Biden. Can you guess his answer?

16 Apr

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

On Wednesday night I interviewed Alex Salmond for half an hour. I think it was the first lengthy broadcast interview he has done recently.

He and I have history. Back in 2015-16 he used to come into the studio once a week and we’d co-host a phone-in together. I knew him a bit anyway and it went quite well. We had a few rumbustious exchanges along the way and the listeners liked it. I have always respected him as a canny political operator and I always relished our half hour combat sessions.

And then he joined RT (Russia Today). We fell out over that. I could not for the life of me understand how a former First Minister could lend credibility to a Kremlin front organisation. His defence was that his programme was independently made and free of editorial influence from the RT bosses. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Just by appearing on the channel he gave it credibility. And if he couldn’t see that, he was clearly content in being the Kremlin’s tame puppy. Although the interview was about the Scottish elections I made it clear that I wouldn’t do it if any subjects were off limits, and credit to him, he didn’t lay down any conditions at all.

So I asked him if he would say Putin or the Kremlin were behind the Salisbury attacks. I asked him what he thought 85,000 Russian troops were doing on the border of Ukraine. I asked him if he thought the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had been poisoned by the Russian State. Answers came there none. Just a flow of evasiveness.

I then asked if he had to side with Putin or Biden, which would it be? 99 per cent of the British population would only give one answer to that, but even on this, Salmond was equivocal. I didn’t need to ram home the point. People could draw their own conclusions.

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The Greensill scandal shows no sign of abating, with fresh revelations emerging almost every day.

David Cameron will no doubt have been very happy to see someone else copping some flak, in the form of Bill Crothers. Shockingly, he was working for Greensill while also being in charge of procurement in the Cabinet Office in the very area Greensill was operating in.

I’ve been around the political lobbying world for 30 years, and am very aware of some of the more unsavoury practices, but this one genuinely floored me.

How on earth can that be allowed to happen, and it if happened with Crothers, who is to say that the practice isn’t more widespread?

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On Wednesday night we had Fay Jones, the Conservative MP for Brecon & Radnorshire, on the Cross Question panel.

What a breath of fresh air. She answered questions fluently, without trying to avoid difficult issues and displayed a great sense of humour too. One to watch.

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The last time I was able to go to my house in Norfolk was at the beginning of November. I have a feeling I wrote at the time about how the A11 was shut at Thetford due to roadworks. On Wednesday night I was very excited to be going back again. Some degree of normality, it seemed, was about to resume.

Boy was I right. Five months on, and the A11 was still shut overnight at Thetford! Unbelievable. I’ve heard of Groundhog Day, but this is ridiculous. It’s like the Highways Agency is on a mission to cut Norfolk off from the rest of the country. But then again, there are quite a few people in Norfolk who would be quite happy for that to happen!

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In my job, I get very little time to read for pleasure. Most things I read because I have to, rather than because I choose to.

But there’s nothing I like more than a good political diary. In the last few weeks I’ve completed the Chips Channon diaries and now I’m in the middle of Alastair Campbell’s dairies volume eight, covering 2010-15, and I’m also a third of the way through Alan Duncan’s diaries.

They are all incredibly different, but all equally enjoyable. And in the case of the last two, you need to put any preconceived ideas to one side. Both Campbell and Duncan have certain reputations, but what you get here is a raw contemporary account of events.

Campbell’s book is in parts intensely emotional and if you don’t know him personally, you’ll be astonished at how open and honest he is about his state of mind, motivations and his relationship with his partner and children. You don’t need to have read the previous seven volumes to enjoy volume eight, but I guarantee if you read volume eight, you’ll line the others up too.

Rob Sutton: Sir Philip Barton – a key player in Johnson’s quest for global Britain

5 Aug

Rob Sutton is a junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Sir Philip Barton, the British High Commissioner to India, has been announced as the incoming Permanent Under-Secretary of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). He will take over from Sir Simon McDonald, who is stepping down at Johnson’s request, on September 1 and oversee the long-awaited merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID)

An FCO lifer, Barton will inherit complex internal dynamics and be vital to the success of Johnson’s mission to reshape Britain’s role on the world stage. He has been with the FCO since 1986, punctuated occasionally by secondments to the Cabinet Office. Early assignments included Caracas, Nicosia and Gibraltar, and he was Private Secretary to the Prime Minister under Major, then Blair.

From 2011 he was Deputy Head of Mission to the USA in Washington, D.C., from 2014 to 2016 he was High Commissioner to Pakistan, and he is currently serving as High Commissioner to India. He has been tested during political crises, as the Director General, Consular and Security at the time of the Salisbury poisonings and most recently as Director General of the Covid-19 Response at the Cabinet Office.

His appointment has thus far had a positive reception. Dominic Raab has called him an “outstanding public servant and diplomat” with “experience across all areas of foreign policy.” Sir Mark Sedwill said he “will bring to the role an understanding of overseas development funding together with experience of international relations.” Jeremy Hunt Tweeted that “he is one of the most thoughtful & diligent civil servants I worked with & carries great wisdom lightly.” Andrew Adonis described him as “an immensely able & experienced ambassador who is well equipped for the big challenge of heading the diplomatic service at this time of crisis.”

He is well-liked and trusted. It is important that he is perceived as a safe pair of hands and a natural choice within the civil service. With multiple high-profile civil servants stepping down since the 2019 general election, a controversial appointment to lead FCDO would have put No 10 on the back foot at a time when it should be looking to craft a positive vision for the future.

For Barton, the challenges are both internal and external. Within the FCDO, a new hierarchy must be built. Creating clear chains of command from two parallel organisations with competing interests will cause friction. Buzzwords like “coherence” and “integration” will seem premature if the new organisation is wrought with internal power struggles and turf wars. We should have some idea of Barton’s initial success by the end of September.

Long term, he will need to ensure the functions of the FCDO’s constituent departments can be executed. Tensions are an inevitability, and tailoring a unified mission will be difficult when commercial and political interests and poverty relief pull in different directions. All this as Britain seeks new trade deals across the globe and weighs its future relationship with Europe.

Barton appears to be an exceptionally good fit to take on these challenges. His background is less Eurocentric than his predecessors in the role. He looks away from Brussels and towards Commonwealth nations with whom Johnson will be eager to renew relationships.

His experiences will also help to ensure Britain continues to be a world leader in international development. Pakistan is one of the five biggest recipients of UK aid funding, and Barton’s time as High Commissioner will have given him a better understanding of the challenges of poverty relief than his peers appointed to industrialised European nations. This will go some way to settle the nerves of those who worry international development will be an afterthought for the new office.

Barton will take the helm at the FCDO at a time of internal upheaval and international uncertainty. His career path is typical enough to avoid controversy but his specific experiences may prove invaluable to performing the multiple tasks which his success will depend upon. The Government aims to complete the formation of FCDO by the end of September, so we will know soon enough whether he is up to the task.

Dom Morris: The focus on physical contest is compromising national security. An upcoming review must change that.

2 Aug

Dom Morris is a Conservative campaigner, writer, farmer and foreign affairs advisor.

It has been reported that Dominic Cummings has been visiting defence and security establishments in the last few weeks. This is of course in the run-up to the UK’s Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review. Cummings is fighting the security establishment “blob”; one that is obsessed with troop numbers and antiquated battlefield charges. Recently the Defence Secretary allegedly banned senior officers from talking about their respective services because of tribal one-upmanship.

I have never understood why organisations wishing to advance are sent on a “retreat”. I am beginning to feel the same way about this Integrated Review. An essential effort bringing together our defence, development and diplomatic capabilities into a single set of ends, way and means; the Integrated Review is starting to feel more like a (tribal) retreat than an integrated “advance”. Staring through the rear-view mirror at yesterday’s wars, we must look out over the dashboard and onto a new horizon that is more complex and more contested.

The same old lobbying messages are being churned out from the national security blob in advance of the Integrated Review. There are no innovative messages about transformation, just the same old: can the Queen Elizabeth Carrier take on China? How many soldiers makes an army, one division or two? Do we even need the Royal Marines and in what rig (*uniform)? Why do we need an airborne brigade?

Spoiler alert. It’s not how big it is, it’s how you use it. And I suspect that Cummings knows this.

We are suffering from a Clausewitzian delusion that has indoctrinated our national security community. Clausewitz focused upon fighting adversary’s military forces in the physical domain (*battlefield) – his doctrine has led us to a groupthink focusing on a physical contest while our adversaries have moved on.

It is no longer just about soldier vs soldier, plane vs plane and ship vs ship. Our lightweight understanding of Clausewitz has seen an institutional subjugation to his work. The different arms of government and the military largely analyse, plan and deliver separately. From planning to measurement of effect (*results), we apply a 19th Century philosopher living in fiefdom and fealty, to complex 21st Century constant competition.

We are obsessed by troop numbers and a myopic campaigning approach predicated on change only happening on the battlefield – there is no accepted methodology for integrating politics, information campaigns and behaviour change capabilities into the blob’s campaigning machine. No rheostat to turn up our posture against Russia or China across the physical, information, cognitive, cyber and space in an orchestrated fashion – we need a graphic equaliser!

The world has changed and so too has conflict. There is no longer “home” and “away”, no longer peace and war. Our adversaries fight us every day across multiple domains, able to accept multiple failures but quickly reinforcing success. Russia Today, Salisbury, Huawei, vaccine disinformation campaigns. It you are shaking your head, read the Gerasimov doctrine. The Russians have been overt about the new covert. Piling resources, capabilities, and expertise into new, subtle ways of disrupting the rules-based system in order to escape its wrath on Crimea and Syria.

Our adversaries wish to contest, and, where necessary, defeat us on the airwaves and in people’s minds to avoid meeting us on the battlefield. And the Coronavirus pandemic is accelerating these trends. Rather than finding and fighting our adversary’s military and security apparatus on the battlefield, we must contest and, where necessary, defeat their nation state to offer their populations something better restore global stability.

This endeavour is multi-domain and must take us far beyond traditional battlefields. What people see on social media has as much chance of changing behaviours as security forces on the ground (*war in 140 characters). Our immature doctrine has begun to recognise these domains; physical, information, cognitive, cyber and space. But we must be more radical.

Every commander in the military fears the Question Four (*has the situation changed?) moment. In the middle of an Integrated Review, has something fundamental to our success changed? In national security terms the answer is a profound “yes” and the Integrated Advance should recognise this immediately.

Nothing less than a transformative national security programme will prepare us for this new Covid world. An Integrated Transformation must bring together all her Majesty’s Government’s levers of power, orchestrated in an [AI]evidence-led fashion. For constant competition (*rather than liberal tides raising all boats) is here to stay and we are losing the peace, let alone winning the war.

Here are some quick wins to kick start an Integrated Advance:

1. Conduct a “Project Solarium” to inform the Integrated Review – Just like President Eisenhower did when things changed with Russia, lock Britain’s best from academia, practitioners, senior officers and techies in Downing Street until they come up with a punchy, transformative National Security Directive to create a new security architecture.

2. Build a National Operations centre to bring together the disparate departments into a 24/7 capability owned by the National Security Adviser – Presently departmental Sir Humphreys pull the strings aloft the National Security Council.

3. Embrace data and bring in the techies – Our analysis capabilities are third world. AI, information domain and cognitive capabilities must be prioritised.

4. Triple the Military Strategic Effects budget – We spend nowhere near enough on information and cognitive campaigning.

5. Sack some seniors – There is a risk aversion and a refusal to transform amongst some seniors. On a combat fitness test, those that lag behind get chopped. The stakes are higher here.

6. Promote techies – Send a signal to thrusters (*commanders tipped for the top) that it’s no longer teeth arm (*a military’s fighting troops) that get to the top. Show the chiefs of tomorrow that it is no longer just about heavy metal, they need to strap into a laptop.

7. Reward innovation and risk taking – Presently they are punished.

8. Open leadership positions across the national security community to Britain’s best in the private sector, academia and tech companies. The senior leadership are neither incentivised, nor rewarded for changing fast enough. Competition will change that.

9. Establish a National Security College – Cross-domain contest is not taught, there is no unifying doctrine. We don’t expect our soldiers to go to war without training, neither should our leaders.

10. Develop a single planning process across government to orchestrate multi-domain contest. Presently National Security Council decisions are enacted by departments planning in isolation, is it any wonder that cross-government plans don’t join up?

11. Transform the structures of Procurement through rapid cross functional teams – Adopt the American procurement/’worx’ (e.g. SOFWorx) programmes leading rapid innovation and pull through – connect the clever people, industry and the user (the soldier) to rapidly develop kit and capability according to user need.

Unless the Integrated Review turns into a Transformative Advance I fear that Sergeant Major Cummings will give Project Blob a reshow (*failure of standards on parade – do it again!)