Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Military action to defend Ukraine from Russia may be out of the question, and developing a coordinated Atlantic response takes time, but there are in fact plenty of things that can be done to take the initiative away from Moscow. They will work better if all the members of the western alliance do them together, but there is no reason Britain should not get started on them right away.
1. Reject the sham Crimean referendum in advance.
Sunday’s vote in Crimea will take place as gangs of pro-Kremlin thugs protected by Russian soldiers have beaten opponents and journalists, international observers have been denied entry to the peninsula, and independent TV stations have been forced off air. It is a sham plebiscite and we should, as the United States has already done, and the Prime Minister did in the Commons yesterday, denounce it in advance and refuse to recognise the results.
2. Rapid rebuttal of Kremlin disinformation.
Moscow’s chief propaganda tactic is to assert that black is white and then sit back as news organisations committed to balance rather than truth report “Russians say black is white, while west sees it as black.” The State Department produced a fine rebuttal of Moscow’s untruths last week but much more is needed. The Foreign Office should have the capacity to do rebut them before they attract attention. They should translate them into Russian, Ukrainian, German, Spanish and French too.
3. Stop using neutral diplomatic language.
Neutral terms like “de-escalation” and “reducing tensions” are counterproductive. Putin wants to promote his interests at the expense of everyone else’s and thinks we are really doing the same. At best using these neutral terms instead of plain English (Putin must withdraw its troops from Crimea) makes him think we’re disingenuous. At worst it looks weak; encouraging the Kremlin and disheartening our allies.
4. Support independent Russian-language journalism and TV news.
Moscow spends huge sums on propaganda to build up support for confronting Ukraine, and to destabilise Ukraine itself. The BBC’s Russian service is terribly underfunded by comparison. Set up a new service, like BBC Persian TV, to broadcast on satellite and on terrestrial frequencies to Eastern Ukraine.
5. Distinguish between facts and legitimacy.
Just because there’s no military means of dislodging Russia from Crimea doesn’t mean that we should accept that “fact on the ground” as legitimate. Avoid repeating ex-US Defence Secretary Gates’s remarks that “Crimea has been lost”. History provides plenty of examples of Great Powers selling out smaller countries. Stoking that fear will dishearten our allies who are already facing extremely tough odds.
6. No decision about Ukraine without Ukraine.
The PM should reject Nick Clegg’s suggestion that a deal over Crimea could be worked out directly with Moscow because it is “not in the same category” as the rest of Ukraine. For all Clegg claims to know about Europe, this will be understood east of the Elbe as recalling the Sudetenland.
7. Explain why this crisis involves British national interests.
We can enjoy a secure and prosperous life here and pay for extensive public services despite spending what are, by historical standards, very small proportions of our national income on security because we take part in an international system of rules that even countries that don’t believe in them respect for fear of the costs involved in breaking them. One of those rules is that big countries don’t invade and conquer neighbours to protect their ethnic kin from invented threats. If we don’t get together to impose costs on Russia for its invasion of Crimea other countries will take note. Think of the disruption that a conflict between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands could cause to the world economy.
8. Be prepared to retaliate if Moscow seizes British assets.
BP is very vulnerable to having its Russian operations seized by the Kremlin, but there are rather more Russian assets in London than British ones there. Ensure that the legal instruments to freeze assets whose beneficial owners are the Russian state or individuals in the Russian elite are ready to be used (the US Magnitsky Act and terrorist financing powers provide useful models); and coordinate with other major financial centres to prevent capital flight.
9. Get Fracking.
Speed up the process for shale oil and gas drilling, and head off opposition by diverting a sizeable proportion of royalties from fracking to the communities and individuals in which wells are drilled.
10. Order a new defence review
The last Strategic Defence and Security Review addressed Russia only in the context “building up our political and security dialogue with China, with Russia, and with fast growing economies like Brazil and Indonesia” and fighting climate change. This has proven hopelessly outdated. The territorial security of the European continent has once more become a central task of British national security policy, and the UK’s defence capability needs to adapt to this new reality.