Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs Brexit Analytics
One line sums up Moscow’s foreign policy since Russia invaded Georgia in 2008: “Come on, if you think you’re hard enough!”
It’s no secret that Putin suffers from a psychotherapist might call “geostrategic inadequacy issues.” The renovated Kremlin buildings, exquisitely uniformed presidential guards, the almost plaintive insistence that Russia was an “energy superpower” (because it was no longer a superpower), and, don’t forget, those repeated topless photoshoots. They add grandeur to the squalid Russian policy of bullying weaker neighbours and supporting the ruthlessly murderous Assad regime, and they evoke memories of the great power that first Russia, and then the Soviet Union, once was, but which Moscow now lacks the means to recreate.
Putin may receive congratulations for his exaggerated electoral triumph from the Oval Office (Trump imagines to himself and Fox News that he won the popular vote; Putin arranged for the count to reflect the 75 per cent total he desired) and Jean-Claude Juncker. But they don’t disguise that his power is based on a fraud.
He may have restored the operation of the Russian state, and excited the population with military pomp, but he can’t disguise Russia’s miserable economic performance.
After two decades in power, Russia’s economy is smaller than Canada’s, or that of the Iberian peninsula. Instead of using Russia’s energy resources to improve productivity, or restore the formerly excellent Soviet technical education system, he has presided over a corrupt and extractive economic system that has enriched a few and entrenched the gap between Moscow and St Petersburg and the rest of the country. Its only strengths is its willingness to see how far it can get away with breaking the rules of the international order, and to deploy some of the extracted mineral wealth to suborn democratic political processes.
Russia’s two most recent attempts to test limits have had dramatically different results. Merceneries fighting for the Wagner Private Military Company (controlled by a Russian oligarch with close links to the Kremlin) met with withering American fire when attempting an attack on their base at Deir Ezzor in Syria. The Skripals’ poisoners received in public at least only a minor rebuke in the form of the expulsion of spies under diplomatic for which Russia itself retaliated. Despite solidarity from Germany, France, Donald Tusk and, belatedly, the United States, Moscow hasn’t paid a serious political price for its actions.
RT, its broadcaster, continues to operate in the UK. There has not been an attempt to direct existing anti-money-laundering powers against UK property owned by members of the Russian elite and purchased with the proceeds of corruption. Nor has there begun a process of directing the foreign policy resources of the United Kingdom with the intensity the situation requires.
While it is true that the government of the UK is consumed by Brexit, taking action against Russia is not a policy major European powers oppose. It is in fact one that Germany, France and Poland, whatever their disagreements with each other and with the UK over Brexit, Eurozone Reform and the rule of law, can unite in supporting. Countries are able to do more than one thing at a time.
In order to demonstrate its seriousness, the UK should conduct a thorough review of its policy towards Russia, in order to direct elements of its national economic, political and diplomatic resources (themselves significantly greater than those available to Moscow) towards neutralising Russia. As well as measures already agreed, including creating Magnitsty Act-style sanctions powers, it should address at least the following areas:
- Can the UK deter Russian provocations that threaten vital UK national interests?
- Military mobility: much infrastructure, especially in former Warsaw Pact countries, has not been built to support the swift movement of military equipment to reinforce a defence against a Russian incursion. What can the UK do to support the NATO-led upgrade programme in this area.
- Review broadcast licences granted to foreign state broadcasters and other media outlets.
- The Cambridge Analytica disclosures will increase pressure to regulate social media — this needs to be done in ways that strengthen the quality of debate in free societies, while denying dictatorships the ability to censor
- Promote true news in Russia and in other countries subject to heavy Russian propaganda. They can advertise cheaply on Facebook here. What’s to stop the BBC world service (or indeed other organisations independent of the World Service) from bringing unbiased content to Russia itself in a similar manner?
- The Government is rightly concerned to expand UK capability in this area.
- Develop legal instruments prohibit the use in the UK of cyber security software, telecommunications services, and technology that is owned either by Russia, or is under the commercial control people subject to Russian jurisdiction, including in the private sector. Even if the providers of such services have legitimate intentions, they can be intimidated by the Russian state into cooperating with its intelligence apparatus.
- Russia currently believes the UK is too greedy to clamp down on wealth linked to the Russian regime. It needs to be disabused of this notion.
- Unexplained Wealth Orders should be used systematically to freeze money stolen from the Russian people through corruption and shareholders in Russian companies through state extortion, forced sales and other harassment.
- This can be held in an escrow fund for return to a future Russian government that respects the rule of law. The funds could even be invested in the mean time in areas, such as renewable energy, that undermine the basis of Russian state power.
Other out-of the box ideas
- Immigration policy. It should be tightened against the Kremlin affiliated elite but loosened for ordinary Russians in search of opportunities.
- Research into “anti-acceess” and “area denial” military capability that relatively less sophisticated militaries in Eastern Europe could use to increase the cost of potential Russian aggression, perhaps to prohibitve levels
- Establsh public-key sovereign self-identity systems (as proposed here by Julia Apostle) to limit fraud on social media and ensure that bots can automatically be detected as such without handing over details of people’s identity to the authorities or creating a “honeypot” for hackers.
Now is a good time to take these steps. It was Corbyn who politicised this issue of national security by refusing to give the Prime Minister and security services the backing on this issue that the Labour party had done since 1945. It would be remiss of a Conservative government not to take advantage of an occasion on which party and national interest coincide.