Bob Seely is Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight. He sits on Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and writes on military strategy and nonconventional forms of war.
Today, Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee releases a report urging consistency in how we deal with the Russian threat. I am one of the Committee’s members and our recommendations are blunt: when it comes to Russia, we need to say what we mean and mean what we say.
Despite the robust response by the Prime Minister and the Government to the poisoning of Colonel Sergei Skripal, the former spy, London remains a favoured destination for Russian oligarchs linked to the Kremlin and their money.
This is not just an issue of questionable cash through the city of London – although London’s role as the launderer of dirty money is a serious issue in its own right considering the amounts of money stolen from developing world countries dwarfs our bloated aid budgets to the states. It is now a question of national security. Money laundering and oligarch activity enables the financing of some of the information and political operations mounted by Kremlin to damage Western democracy. It’s important to note here that this is an issue specifically related to those who are close to the Kremlin, not the majority of Russians whose money is, broadly, legally come by.
I strongly support the overall stance taken by the Government, but I want to work with it to help find ways to be more consistent, more coherent and more robust in our approach to President Putin’s regime. The purpose of sanctions is to deter. If they don’t deter, they have no point.
The Kremlin’s oligarchs hold money in an almost feudal system. Those oligarchs are dependent on the Russian leadership for their staggering wealth in the first place. But that money comes at a price of having to do favours for the Russian leadership; funding anti-EU think tanks (FYI, I voted Leave), donating money to political causes, for example the US presidential elections. In effect, some of the money held by oligarchs in the West is used for the Kremlin’s political and information struggle.
I don’t believe that we have yet fully understood the threat of Russian money funding political campaigns to damage us and our allies; whether that is Scottish independence, Russian bots supporting Jeremy Corbyn, the Catalonia referendum or the conflict in Ukraine. The case has been overwhelmingly made that Russia did try to manipulate the 2016 US presidential elections, however much President Trump remains in denial about it.
Mark Galeotti, the leading Russia academic, told us that those who run Russia believe themselves to be in a ‘political war’ with the West. We need to recognise this central fact and treat the Kremlin as a threat rather than an irritant. That doesn’t mean being aggressive in response, but it does mean working out what the problem is and finding countermeasures. The time to take action to defend the integrity of our democracy and our electoral system is now, not during an election campaign or six months into a Corbyn Government.
The Kremlin’s political war is not new. It is largely modelled on the old Cold War ‘Active Measures’ subversion methods of the Kremlin. It was called Active Measures to contrast it with KGB ‘Passive Measures’ such as information collection and agent handling. Active Measures subversive tactics included information and disinformation campaigns (including smears and forgeries), propaganda, the collection of compromising material, and assassinations.
Around this subversive warfare, Moscow has today wrapped the full spectrum of state power and uses it in a holistic and dynamic way. The financial clout of the oligarchs who support the Russian regime is one element of the control apparatus which keeps President Putin in place and enables him to return Russia to an authoritarian system of Government which is both illiberal and virulently anti-Western (whilst using the Western financial system).
One of the problems we face is that we don’t have a common definition of contemporary Russian conflict. In the next month I will be producing a definition, peer-reviewed and published through the Henry Jackson Society. It is easier to find a solution to a problem when we have a common agreement on what that problem is. From there, offering to work with Government departments, I will outline more measures that we could take to defend our values and democratic system.
Before then, we need to understand where real power lies. For a nation with a vast amount of cultural, legal and political soft power, we are sometimes not as good as we could be at understanding how to use that power.
One of the regularly useable forms of power against Putin is not 500 British troops in the Baltic – in some senses their presence carries greater risk than opportunity – but our power in financial markets. When, in April, the US Treasury announced the introduction of sanctions against seven oligarchs close to the Kremlin and 12 businesses, as well as 17 Russian officials and two state-owned companies, the results were immediate. On the next trading day, Russian stocks suffered their worst session since the 2014 invasion of Crimea, and the rouble dropped four percent against the dollar.
Sadly, we have been too generous with some of the Russian companies linked to sanctioned entities and which do business here. The most obvious example was the flotation of En+ Group on the Stock Exchange in November 2017. Its chairman is a former Tory Minister, Greg – now Lord – Barker. MI6 were amongst those who reportedly expressed reservations. I hear that they do not believe that they have been listened to enough. The risk of tough talk but weak action is that Moscow does not take our ‘sanctions’ seriously – either they think we are not serious about sanctions or we are simply incompetent.
The purpose of sanctions is to deter. The threat posed by Moscow is holistic and integrated, therefore our response should be too. In our dealings with the Kremlin, let’s say what we mean, and mean what we say.