Ten Suggestions for a ‘Russia Strategy’ for the United Kingdom
The release of a long-delayed report on Russian interference in the United Kingdom by the British cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee has inevitably revived the debate about how a democratic state can best resist Moscow’s meddling.
The trouble is, of course, that political point-scoring and competitive rhetoric quickly dominate such discussions. The Intelligence and Security Committee refused to grapple seriously with whether or not Russian political operations affected the outcome of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum or the 2016 Brexit vote. Along with a general lack of clarity on just how certain sources of potential influence, from oligarchs to trolls, may affect the political system, this means everyone can put their own personal spin on the issue. The risk, then, is that this simply generates a short-term storm of comment, reaching few actionable policy conclusions, that is soon overtaken by the next issue of the moment.
This would be to squander an opportunity. The administration already has a Russia strategy intended to minimize the impact of Russian activities in the short term, while working for “a Russia that chooses to co-operate, rather than challenge or confront.” The Intelligence and Security Committee is brutal in dissecting what it sees as an uncoordinated process in Whitehall, though, and a lack of clear tactics as to how to advance the strategy, so here are 10 suggestions.
1. Tackle the ‘Oligarch Problem,’ but First Decide What It Is
Rich Russians have flocked to London, and their wealth buys them a degree of political leverage: Is this a security problem, an ethical challenge, or simply how Britain has always done business? The report raises concerns about the way that the United Kingdom has become a favored destination for rich Russians and their dirty money. Apparently, the veteran parliamentarians of a country that for decades has welcomed the wealthy of the world’s dictatorships and kleptocracies were “shocked, shocked” to discover that Russian oligarchs no less appreciate the charms of one of the world’s great financial centers combined with one of the world’s great cities.
The report claims that this money is “also invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment.” One particular weakness is that the Intelligence and Security Committee gives no examples of how this practice actually influenced the political process, and how the Kremlin may have benefited from this.
Of course, there are close ties between many rich Russians and the Kremlin, just as there are between many rich Chinese expats and the Communist Party, for example. Arguably, this is not a “Russian oligarch” issue but a wider problem of how money can buy access and leverage, distorting the democratic process on behalf of foreign interests. In this case, it needs to be tackled across the board, addressing everything from media control to political funding.
It would be nice to think of the United Kingdom becoming a superpower of ethics. Let’s be honest, though: It prizes its role as a magnet for global assets. Especially while facing the potential economic hit of Brexit, no British government is going to be eager to turn away foreign cash. The priority is going to be to deal with the immediate threat that rich Russians could become Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lobbyists.
The British government will need the will and the powers to tackle specific cases where Russian money is buying influence at the Kremlin’s behest. This is a tough problem, which is really in the realm of the intelligence services rather than the police. However, being more cautious about handing out passports to rich Russians (so that they can more easily be deported or excluded) and having a register of “foreign agents” (criminalizing acting as an instrument of the Kremlin without declaring that role) is a start. In truth, it is no more than that, but for the present it probably represents the most that is politically feasible.
However, we also need to be honest here: Just as welcoming rich Russians into the United Kingdom and allowing them to enjoy all the benefits of a law-based democratic society did not, as the Intelligence and Security Committee notes, lead to reform in Russia, so too cracking down on them now will not put meaningful pressure on the Kremlin. Putin is committed to a personal agenda of great-power politics and building his historical legacy. If some oligarchs have to lose some of the millions they have already been allowed to steal on his watch, he will not be especially concerned.
2. Russian Organized Crime Is Not Just for the Police
The expat “Londongrad” set has to be seen to work within the law; an even more serious potential threat that needs to be addressed comes from gangsters mobilized as tools of the Kremlin.
In parallel, there needs to be a sharper focus on the aspects of transnational crime that pose a clear and present national security threat. Russian-based organized crime has been used to generate chyornaya kassa funds (“black accounts,” or deniable and untraceable moneys), carry out assassinations abroad, and even smuggle wanted agents across borders. Most recently, a Georgian Chechen was gunned down in Berlin by what seems to have been a gangster hitman, recruited by Russia’s Federal Security Service, and an online fraudster accused of stealing up to $2 billion is allegedly being protected by Russian military intelligence. Kremlin outsourcing of its operations to criminals continues unabated.
In the United Kingdom, despite regular rhetorical statements about taking a tough line on Russian criminality, it has in practice been a lower priority for police agencies. There have been several high-profile deaths of Russians but in practice most were probably not murders (allegations of untraceable poisons and carefully contrived fake accidents notwithstanding) and those which were essentially resulted from criminal score-settling. Only two, the murder of defector Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and attempted killing of turned Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in 2018, have been ascribed to the Kremlin.
The threat appears limited to Russians who themselves were likely involved in questionable activities, and generally driven purely by business interests. To be blunt, for the police, this makes them less of a concern than the gangs directly responsible for public disquiet. As one police officer told me, “So long as the Russians are not committing crimes on the streets, we’re not going to be able to justify putting resources into going after them.” Instead, in the United Kingdom, Russian-based gangs largely operate as a facilitator and wholesale supplier behind the more immediately dangerous gangs. However much sense it may make from a public safety perspective to give them a lower priority, because of the wider national security concern, the National Crime Agency needs to be tasked — and resourced — with giving Russian gangs a harder time.
3. Fight Disinformation Through Demand, not Supply
Information operations continue to be regarded as a serious threat, even if there is still very little evidence that they actually have a major impact on people’s attitudes. At most, these efforts tend to strengthen existing beliefs of whatever shade, although that is not something to be taken lightly when it can push mild dissatisfaction into protest.
Like corruption, though, this is not something “exported” onto a hapless and helpless nation. You can’t bribe an honest official and likewise it’s hard to get traction on the minds of people who are essentially content with the status quo and who trust their politicians and the mainstream media. The reason there is such an appetite for alternative narratives is that, at present, just as elsewhere in the West, the United Kingdom is going through a legitimacy crisis. Communities that feel alienated and unheard are the natural constituency for information operations peddling alternative answers, conspiracy theories, and bile.
Just as with the struggle against narcotics, it’s easy to focus on supply rather than demand. Already there are renewed calls for Russian foreign-language TV channel RT to be banned, for example. To be sure, RT does carry blatant propaganda (just as it also carries decent news coverage), but an outlet with just 3,400 viewers at any one time is not a serious threat. Likewise, the fad for myth-busting operations meant to counter “fake news” is always tempting for governments keen to be seen to act, and bureaucracies that mistake activity for impact, but there is little credible evidence they really work except as part of a wider program.
One clear organizational recommendation in the Intelligence and Security Committee report is that the Security Service (better known as MI5) ought to be responsible for the integrity of the democratic process. The implication is that the challenge comes mainly from hackers and trolls. But this isn’t the case, and following this advice would be disastrous. In reality, Britain’s main problem consists of alienated communities. It would be unwise to basically put MI5 in charge of policing thought crime and news accuracy, let alone media education.
Of course, there should be proper media and social media regulation, but this should not be confined to Russian outlets. Instead, the harder and more important task is to address demand. In part, the answer is media education, and not just for schoolchildren but at every level, including seniors (this doesn’t have to be in a classroom: as the fight against cigarettes and drugs has shown, even storylines in soap operas have their role) to create resilience against this problem. It is also a much bigger issue, about closing the “trust gap” and exploring how well democratic systems originally founded in the 19th-century industrial age work in the postmodern, 21st-century information era. This is, of course, way larger than just being about Russia, but is also a fundamental question that, so long as it is dodged, leaves the United Kingdom — and the rest of the West — vulnerable to such information operations.
4. Upping Britain’s Intelligence Game, a Critical and Expensive Task
Information operations are only a small part of the wider Russian “active measures” (covert political activities) challenge. Many of the more nefarious, involving corruption, blackmail, chyornaya kassa support for subversive political movements and the like are managed or supported by Russia’s extensive intelligence community. Russia needs to be much more of a focus for both intelligence gathering and counter-intelligence, but this needs to be supported with real funding, not just airy assumptions that it can be covered by working smarter.
Britain needs more and better information about the Kremlin’s goals and methods, not least to make the strategy to respond to it as effective as possible. Here the Intelligence and Security Committee was critical, highlighting the extent to which MI5, the Secret Intelligence Service (better known as MI6), Defense Intelligence, and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ, the British equivalent of the National Security Agency) all scaled down the attention they paid Russia dramatically through the 1990s and 2000s.
One can hardly blame them, as during this time their political masters were demanding they focus on new threats, from jihadist terrorism to China, North Korea to transnational drug cartels. They have also continued to maintain the United Kingdom’s status as one of the world’s intelligence superpowers, even though the Single Intelligence Account (the budget for MI5, MI6, and GCHQ) is only around one-twentieth the $85.75 billion the United States will (officially) spend on intelligence this year.
It seems likely that there will be a new Espionage Act to replace the “dusty and largely ineffective” Official Secrets Act (originally passed in 1911, albeit revised since), including some register of foreign agents in the style of America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act. However, the Intelligence and Security Committee did not call for an increase in spending, instead talking of “smarter working and effective co-ordination” — the usual bureaucratese for doing more with the same.
This is not enough: The suggestion that the intelligence community should be able to mount more effective information-gathering against what is still a hard target like Russia, and also do more to counter aggressive activity from Moscow, and also maintain existing commitments to other problems and challenges — all on the same budget — is unsustainable. More money for U.K. intelligence will be a sound investment when set against the direct and indirect costs of everything from technological secrets lost to Russian hacking to the political impact of covert influence. These funds will also better position Britain to cope with another increasingly adversarial actor: the People’s Republic of China.
5. A War with Russia Is Unlikely, but Planning for It Is Critical
In raw terms — although these comparisons are as meaningless as they are tempting — the U.K. and Russian defense budgets are quite similar. Of course, in real terms, Russia’s is perhaps three times as large. The United Kingdom does not need to plan to win or deter a one-on-one war with Russia, though, being both part of NATO and also on the other side of Europe. The question becomes, then, how far the Russian challenge ought to inform British defense planning and spending, something that will increasingly also mean cyber security in an age of ubiquitous connectivity and undeclared, ambiguous conflicts. Britain cannot pretend to be able — or need — to deter Russia itself, but it must stop trying and failing to do everything. Instead, it should make a serious commitment to being able to mount expeditionary operations as part of wider alliances, but to be able to do so in the face of the latest Russian tactics and technologies.
Britain clearly wants to play a credible role within NATO: It already spends a greater proportion of its gross domestic product on defense than most members. It also has particular interests of its own relating to defending its territorial waters and lines of communication to overseas territories, aims that sometimes rub up against Russian operations. Although the planning for the next integrated Strategic Defense and Security Review, due this year, was temporarily paused because of COVID-19, some tough decisions will soon have to be made. As the Royal United Services Institute’s Jack Watling wrote, given resource constraints, the United Kingdom will be faced with a stark choice: “whether to accelerate and expand the modernisation of its heavy forces, or move away from heavy forces and prioritise the development of resilient reconnaissance and fires.”
So far, the government looks inclined toward the latter in order to maintain a credible rapid expeditionary capability, not least as this fits the continued commitment to a “Global Britain.” Nonetheless, as Moscow sells more and more of its latest kit to buyers around the world, even if they will not be facing Russia, British forces will have to be configured and prepared to fight Russian-equipped and -trained forces. Besides which, as deterrence is anchored on signaling capability and intent, the United Kingdom ought to look willing and able to take on Russian forces. There is, it seems, no escaping the continued centrality of Russia in British military thinking.
6. Cultivate Solidarity by Defending Others
Alliances also matter in responding to non-military challenges. Following the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in 2018, Moscow was surprised and shaken when Britain successfully brokered a campaign of expulsion of 130 suspected Russian spies from 28 states plus NATO. This was a striking and groundbreaking example of international solidarity of a sort that had been sadly absent until then. And since then, for that matter, but if the United Kingdom wants to be able to call on similar support in the future, it has to make preparations now and also be willing to offer it to others, and not be dependent on ad hoc responses. This ought not to be focused on NATO, nor — in a time of Brexit — the European Union. Rather, it should be a coalition of the willing, perhaps starting with the Anglosphere “Five Eyes” intelligence partners (the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), expressing a willingness collectively to respond to future Russian adventurism.
7. Engagement Is a Weapon Too
The answer to Russian “political war” intended to divide, distract, and demoralize is generally not to try to fight fire with fire. There is not only a moral high ground to be lost — a central element of Putin’s narrative is that Russia is simply responding to Western subversion — but open, democratic societies tend to be more vulnerable to any such active measures arms race. Instead, it is worth considering how the best lessons of the Cold War can be adapted and amplified in the modern age, using soft power to counter Putin’s “dark power.”
Although hawks will nod toward historical traditions, or notions that somehow Russians are “genetically” predisposed to tyranny and aggression, change is not only possible but inevitable. While containing Kremlin aggression and interference, this must be balanced with a sustained and meaningful effort to engage. There is still a strong vein of Anglophilia in Russian culture: encourage and magnify this. Student bursaries, cultural exchanges, extravagant celebrations of historical ties between the two countries (remember: Ivan the Terrible even offered Queen Elizabeth I his blood-stained hand in marriage), all of this will have minimal impact today — especially as the Kremlin does what it can to limit them — but will reap benefits in the future, when London will be able, rightly, to tell the Russians it never abandoned them.
They have few illusions about their own leaders, so exposing their corruptions and hypocrisies is of limited real value (even though some in the West think this is their magic bullet). More broadly, using the capabilities of the modern media to support Russia’s brave independent media and also puncture some of the Kremlin’s lies would accelerate the existing decay of the regime’s legitimacy. The BBC still has a powerful brand, and it can be a powerful link to Russians who increasingly get their news online. That does not mean being a propaganda arm — it is important to be objective, and that includes highlighting Russian successes, too — but rather, along with British academia, a counter to increasingly blatant Kremlin efforts to mobilize today’s news and yesterday’s history to its ends.
8. Dig in but Stay Optimistic
After all, Britain has more of a “Putin problem” than a “Russia problem.”
There can be little hope of truly meaningful improvement of relations with Russia so long as Putin and his cronies continue to govern the country. Previous attempts at “resets” such as U.S. President Barack Obama’s in 2009 have been grandiose exercises in self-deception, as French President Emmanuel Macron will discover, if he goes ahead with a similar outreach of his own. Putin’s people are the products of a Soviet upbringing, the kleptocracy rooted in the lawless 1990s, and a bitter sense that Russia’s global status was somehow “stolen” by the West. It is highly unlikely that they will change.
However, that political generation is getting older. Putin could reign until 2036, but it is not clear that he even wants to or that his health would allow him to do so. The younger political elite, while dutifully echoing the Kremlin’s anti-Western talking points, show no signs of really being as enthusiastic about a geopolitical crusade. They are more likely to be pragmatic opportunists, who would love to return to the days of being able to steal at home, bank and spend abroad. These days, for anyone but the super-rich, it is harder and harder to travel to the West, let alone move money there, not just because of our controls, but also because the Kremlin is cracking down on capital flight.
The Russian people seem even less consumed by the strident Kremlin propaganda. Surveys show them being much more positive toward Westerners than vice versa. They do not accept the official line that their country is under threat and — now that the “Crimea effect” has worn off — show no enthusiasm for foreign adventures. Russia won’t become a liberal democracy any time soon, but the United Kingdom can have reasonable relations with all kinds of hybrid reforming or even downright authoritarian states. It is the Kremlin’s demand for a special status, for a sphere of influence, and for the right to flout international norms and laws that causes the problem, and this is likely to prove very much a product of Putin’s transitional generation.
9. Know Your Enemy
While there are some able subject-matter experts within various arms of government, and a real and laudable recent effort to deepen the knowledge base within the military, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and other relevant agencies, this comes at the end of a long, sharp decline. There are simply not enough genuine experts, and the lingering influence of the “cult of the generalist” — unkind souls would say “of the amateur” — within the diplomatic service has often meant even those who do invest the time and effort learning Russian and, more importantly, Russia, will move to wholly unconnected postings for the sake of their careers. Back in 2017, Crispin Blunt, chair of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that the Foreign Office’s “Russia expertise has disintegrated since the end of the Cold War.”
The people who are expected to implement policy ought to understand the country with which they are dealing. That policy ought to be rooted in a detailed, nuanced grasp of the country. Russia is a complex country in transition, still coping with the political and socio-cultural trauma of the end of empire and great-power status. Too often the country and even its leadership are rendered down to some oversimplified cliché: mafia state, new tsarism, new Soviet Union, tyranny, whatever. Policy rooted in any such caricature, stripped of the necessary nuance and context, will be fruitless at best, dangerous at worst.
It also contributes to what might be considered a failure of tone, something which is by no means confined to the United Kingdom. The days of “speak softly but carry a big stick” seem to have been replaced by “hector loudly, while waving a small twig.” Russia, still coming to terms with its reduced status, is at times also ridiculously prickly and acutely conscious of slights to its dignity. Of course, it has practical and political ambitions, but also is run by human beings who desperately crave “respect.” It is possible to push back against Kremlin aggression and adventurism even while treating it with that respect, whether it means giving full credit to the Soviet soldiers and citizens who fell in World War II (not for nothing do they still call it the Great Patriotic War) or not repeating the calamitous blunder of dismissing Russia as a mere “regional power.” Manner and manners, idiom, and tone matter in international relations, especially when dealing with such a personalistic system where a relative handful of individuals call the shots.
10. Make Strategy Matter Again
The Intelligence and Security Committee complained that its investigation “has led us to question who is responsible for broader work against the Russian threat and whether those organisations are sufficiently empowered to tackle a hostile state threat such as Russia.” This is a fair point. However, the document is much more comfortable making critiques than proposing remedies beyond the aforementioned one about MI5.
If the cross-Whitehall Russia strategy is to mean anything, then the question becomes how to ensure that it genuinely drives policy across the breadth of government. This is in many ways a test case of successive administrations’ glib rhetoric about “joined-up government” or “all-of-government” responses. The strategy is in the hands of the National Security Strategy Implementation Group for Russia, which brings together 14 different departments and agencies under the chair of the Russia Unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Much has been done to involve stakeholders in discussions, but in at least some cases, the sense has been — which is, of course, code for the gossip I have heard from different quarters — that participants treated this as an opportunity to advance their own departmental interests, or simply to make a show of participation. The strategy needs to have teeth, and it is open to discussion whether those of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are sharp enough. If not, either they need honing or the Cabinet Office ought to be responsible for, if not running the group, at least playing a role as its genteel leg-breaker, given that this is arguably its main function in Whitehall.
The point is, after all, that all this matters. It matters not just in terms of the challenge from Moscow — which, after all, needs to be taken seriously, but not exaggerated — but also because the skills, policies, attitudes, and strategy adopted today are likely to be needed to face rather more problematic threats tomorrow. As China moves into the “wolf warrior diplomacy” phase of its rise, Britain might even want to thank the Kremlin for the early wake-up call and opportunity to build these capabilities.
Mark Galeotti is an honorary professor at University College London and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
Image: President of Russia