Today’s Response, Tomorrow’s Solution
John Baron MP
Friday 16th March 2018: The Russian Attack in Salisbury is a wake up call to refocus UK Foreign and Defence Policy, says John Baron MP*.
By any standard, the use of a powerful nerve agent is beyond the pale; deploying it in a crowded cathedral city, potentially exposing hundreds of people as well as the intended targets, is inexcusably reckless. Yet this is what the Russian state has done in Salisbury, and it is right that the British Government, in concert with allies, responds robustly to this outrage. But the attack also brings into focus the need for a reassessment of our longer-term strategy. Russia under President Putin has all the hallmarks of being a rogue state. Whilst accepting that the UK response could involve the full spectrum of our capabilities – not all in the public domain – the time has come to reassess fundamentally the level of our hard and soft power spending.It is a great shame that our relationship with Russia will now inevitably plumb new depths. Although its economy is smaller than that of Italy, Russia remains an important country with real clout on the international stage. When positively directed, this can be very beneficial – Moscow was instrumental in the use of the United Nations Security Council, awoken from its Cold War slumber, to pass the resolutions against Iraq in 1990, and it recently played an important role in securing the nuclear deal with Iran.
Unfortunately, in recent years the Russian Government has chosen to adopt an aggressive and provocative foreign policy, often openly challenging the international system that has worked well since the end of the Second World War. To this end, Moscow has even been unafraid to use military force to redraw international boundaries, something no other country has done in Europe since 1945, cynically sending forces into Georgia whilst the world’s attention was on the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony.
Whenever held to account for its actions, Russia inevitably indulges in obfuscation and blatant lies, such as when President Putin claimed the masked ‘little green men’ responsible for the annexation of Crimea were ‘local volunteers’, only to admit after the event that these people were indeed Russian soldiers with identifying insignia removed from their uniforms. Barely credibly, the Russian Government also maintains that Russian soldiers fighting in Eastern Ukraine are there as volunteers on their annual leave.
It therefore comes as no surprise that the Russian reaction to the Salisbury poisoning follows this usual playbook, with hollow claims of ‘no evidence’ from the Russian Ambassador to the UN and the Kremlin-influenced Russian media serving up a ludicrous mix of conspiracy stories about MI6/CIA plots and Western ‘Russophobia’. The British Government, and the West in general, must finally make clear to Moscow that such behaviour will no longer be tolerated – as arguably we should have done when Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in 2006.
The British Government has conducted itself correctly, not rushing to judgement and taking time to establish a heavy burden of proof. Expelling such a large number of diplomats sends the right message, especially if they are indeed undeclared intelligence officers. Cracking down on corrupt money circulating around the City and the London property market is welcome, and will hit the Putin régime in the pocket (where it really hurts).
However, Putin and his acolytes undoubtedly conducted the attack because they believe Britain to be weak. Unfortunately, the British Governments in recent years has given them good cause to believe this. Sustained cuts to our defence budget and capabilities have given the impression that we do not value our security, and these reductions have been mirrored in budget cuts to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, diminishing our diplomatic capabilities and understanding of countries like Russia, as well as to our soft power institutions such as the BBC World Service and the British Council.
During this period, the West also waged misguided military interventions in the Middle East and South Asia. These were sadly expensive in blood and treasure, and invariably led to reputational loss when they did not achieve what we intended at the outset. These interventions sapped Western confidence, and also served to take our eye off the ball from the greater dangers posed by nation states, of which we are now being rudely reminded – not least because many are increasing their defence spending. Moscow’s spends over 5 per cent of its GDP on its Armed Forces, whilst we hover just the right side of the 2 per cent NATO commitment (and are one of the few NATO countries even to achieve this) only by some generous accounting.
Whilst the Government’s response is admirable, we must face up to the fact that many of its measures are reasonably short-term in nature. Over time sanctions will lose their bite and intelligence capabilities will be rebuilt in other ways. Long-term solutions must include increasing defence spending, to demonstrate our resolve to protect our interests and those of our allies. Meanwhile, the FCO and soft power budgets must also rise as part of a full-spectrum response – the faultless impartiality of the BBC World Service will beat RT’s falsehoods in the long run.
Churchill famously referred to Russia as ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, and it is probably true that we have not always been good at reading Russian intentions. However, with the Salisbury attack these are abundantly clear. I urge Western leaders to be similarly clear in their response
*John Baron is the Member of Parliament for Basildon and Billericay. His publication, Hard Choices: Britain’s Foreign Policy for a Dangerous World is published by Politeia.