The strategy outlined within the integrated review lacks the urgency, agility, and need for ambiguity needed to take on the country it deems our ‘most acute threat’: Russia.
Described as the ‘biggest review of our foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the Cold War’, in fact — when it comes to Russia — much of the IR reads more like a literature review than a 21st Century ‘Long Telegram’. Russia is referenced only fourteen times directly, and then with a great deal more descriptive analysis than comprehensive plans of action.
Much of the content is welcome: one section deals with Russia under the new term of ‘state threats’. It reiterates the government’s intention to introduce Counter-State Threats Legislation (including a new Foreign Agent’s Registration Bill) and the Online Harms Bill. But these are largely rehashed ideas. Even when taken together, they are inadequate to ‘combat all the threats we now face’. Instead, they suggest that the UK government has yet to even comprehend all the threats we face from countries like Russia.
The IR gives the impression that Russian hybrid warfare is a relatively new development, rather than Russian tactics since at least 2007 (arguably even since the Primakov Doctrine of 1999). As a result, the text is peppered with references to ‘deterring’ the hybrid threat. But it is far too late for that. The hybrid threat is already upon us: all we can do now is try to fight it and develop expertise to anticipate tactical or strategic developments.
The government says the right things about creating solutions and building resilience among Brits to fight full-spectrum threats. There is plenty on using technology to protect our citizens against disinformation, for example. Of course science and technology are central to sustaining our strategic advantages. But this discussion of fake news suggests that we can identify the correct algorithm to beat the bots. Most narratives promoted by Russian-aligned actors are propaganda, not disinformation. They succeed by exploiting existing divisions – and existing narratives – within our society. On this point, the IR offers few solutions. It ignores the reality that algorithms won't help win the culture war. Instead, we need an honest assessment of the problems being exploited rather than merely pointing the finger at Russia.
The same honesty is lacking in the treatment of illicit finance. Kremlin associates have long been able to park their money and mistresses in London, enjoying the rule of law, property and individual rights they cheat Russians out of at home. By allowing the Russian government to treat London as its playground, we not only work to keep Putin and his acolytes in power, we also show the Kremlin we are not serious about defending ourselves. The IR will not convince anyone that anything has changed on this score. While it contains eleven glib statements that the UK will tackle illicit finance, there is only one occasion where it deigns to tell us how: by passing the 2019 Economic Crime Plan ‘as soon as parliamentary time allows’. Where is the urgency?
Another IR re-announcement concerns the UK’s second global sanctions regime on corruption. Due to launch later this year, this initiative will give us powers to prevent those involved in corruption from freely entering the UK or channelling money through our financial system. But it will not do anything to tackle pre-existing network infiltration. Once again, the IR is talking not especially convincingly about our firm intention to lock the stable door when time allows. But the entire cavalry regiment bolted years ago.
Even more worryingly, there is no recognition of – or strategy for remedying – our lack of understanding when it comes to Russia and its actions. The UK has been unpleasantly surprised by Russian offensive measures again and again, from Crimea to Salisbury. Developing the strategic and tactical agility to predict or at least react better to Russia’s opportunism requires expertise on Russia; an appreciation of the domestic context in which Russian doctrines, strategies, and decisions are made; an understanding of the historical legacies that inform such decisions; an ability to read original language sources.
Understanding Russia is essential to our defence as a nation but the government is doing nothing to bolster this expertise in government or outside. Our Civil Service prizes generalists over specialists; many of those developing government policies to respond to serious Russian threats do not speak a word of Russian or have any specialist knowledge of Russia. In the UK, we have FastStreamers working on Russia. In the Russian system, they have seasoned specialists, fluent in English, conversant in our culture and history, who will dedicate their professional lives to understanding, exploiting and undermining our systems and values.
How can we adequately battle a nation who understands so much more about us than we do about them? And why is the IR not even asking this question?