The Russia dilemma

Britain’s political class did not distinguish itself in its immediate response to the Crimean crisis. A zoom lens outside Downing Street which captured Cabinet Office papers in the hands of an unguarded official seemed to reveal yet more evidence that the protection of the City trumps any other strategic instincts for this government. Labour, meanwhile, appeared to be more rattled by Tory Twitter jibes than by Vladimir Putin’s machinations. But the challenge posed by Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine will outlast any initial inclinations to see it through the prism of the Square Mile or the Westminster bubble. From the future of the European Union to UK defence priorities, Russia now presents a number of long-term dilemmas for progressives, regardless of how the events of the next few months play out.

The crisis has been some time in the making. Under the last Labour government, the UK’s ties with Russia entered a deep freeze, not as a result of the brutal war in Chechnya or the 2008 invasion of Georgia, but after the murder of Alexander Litvinenko through polonium poisoning in the very heart of London. While British patience may have taken a long time to run out, when it did the UK found itself an outlier among western European powers that were frequently willing to overlook Putin’s excesses. Those who feared that Russia had an aggressively conservative and expansionist agenda tended to be outweighed by the advocates of positive relations, though even many of the doves quietly backed measures to reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian energy and to prepare Nato contingency plans for the Baltic states.

Proponents of conciliation tended to argue that it was Nato enlargement, the Kosovo intervention, and other ‘humiliations’ that had pushed Russia into a corner. They believed that the real culprits in the 2008 Georgian war were the hot-headed president in Tbilisi and his friends in Washington. On this analysis, treating Russia as a partner rather than a defeated cold war opponent was the key to establishing productive relations and, in any case, there were bigger fish to fry – dealing with Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and myriad other issues would be easier if Russia was onside. The Obama administration hence proposed to ‘reset’ relations barely months after Russian tanks had swept through the Roki tunnel, and William Hague took office speaking of opening ‘a new page’ in UK-Russia relations.

Yet it is the pessimists, not the Pollyannas, who have been proved right. If the proximate trigger in the lead-up to the Georgia war was the extension of Nato membership action plans to pro-western post-revolutionary governments, the supposed ‘provocation’ in Ukraine was the offer of an EU association agreement that even Moscow’s man in Kiev wanted to conclude. Whatever residual sympathy there was for the view that Russia is entitled to veto the choice of military alignments for its former satellites has definitively drained away with its attempts to coerce them into subordinating their political and economic choices too. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, along with the threat of further military action in eastern Ukraine and potentially elsewhere in the region, now threatens to upend the European security order that has been in place since the end of the cold war. It is hard to see it as anything other than a bald assertion of Russia’s absolute right to dominate a self-defined sphere of influence. The battle against ‘western influence’ had already been waged through measures ranging from civil society squeezes, state homophobia, donor ejections, and ‘passportisation’ to energy cut-offs, export bans, and the establishment of the Eurasian Union. The intervention in Ukraine shows that, far from Georgia being an aberration, Putin is now systematically willing to resist soft power with outright military force.

In a previous piece, we argued that responding to illiberal powers would need to be one of the organising concepts for future British foreign policy and the events of the last few weeks give sharp illumination to what that could mean in practice. Any effective response to the events of the last few weeks has three elements – reassuring existing Nato allies who are under threat of Russian coercion; providing convincing support to Ukraine and other eastern neighbours; and pushing back directly against Moscow. Yet in each aspect there are strategic choices that have broad ramifications.

The first dilemma concerns defence priorities. Some progressives have argued that the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 changed British security needs forever. On this analysis, great power competition is over and defence spending should be both cut and rebalanced towards protecting Britain from terrorism and other asymmetric threats. But the last few weeks have seen an understandable fightback from those who believe Russia’s behaviour reinvigorates the case for focusing on deterrence and strengthening Nato’s core collective defence role, especially for the new alliance members who are most at risk. During a period of straitened budgets in the UK, Europe and the United States, the trade-offs involved in the 2015 strategic defence review are likely to be even more painful than its predecessors.

The second dilemma concerns the Eastern Partnership. The crisis has given new vitality to debates over the offers being extended to the EU’s neighbours. Whether in terms of short-to-medium term financing or the credible long-term prospect of EU membership, putting these arrangements on a strong enough footing to deal with active Russian attempts to undermine them, as well as eliciting necessary reforms, will come at a high price. While there is consensus for now to ‘be there with a chequebook’ for Ukraine, sustaining these commitments outside the context of an immediate crisis will be more challenging. The development dilemmas facing Labour are already difficult enough but the growing need for strategic economic assistance on Europe’s periphery – for a Middle East in transition as well as an eastern Europe under threat – is another painful addition to the long list of tough spending decisions. But Labour will also confront a political choice. The UK stance on EU enlargement, once one of the primary goals of British foreign policy in Europe, has been detrimentally subsumed by the immigration debate. Does Ed Miliband intend to continue in the coalition’s vein or is he ready to resuscitate Britain’s old role as the biggest champion of eastward expansion as a strategic and moral imperative?

The most acute dilemmas involve Russia itself, though, and most of them are in the field of geo-economics rather than conventional security competition. Once sanctions were relatively crude instruments, but over the last decade they have been refined into high-precision financial weapons that can target the specific politicians, officials, and generals involved in decisions, before potentially escalating to hit a much longer list and ultimately broader sectors of the Russian economy. But Russia has a much bigger and more globally integrated economy than Iran, where these methods were most successfully employed. While it is tempting to see the impressive range of sanctions that are currently being considered as a straightforward progressive choice – and even perhaps as an unrivalled opportunity to embark on a broader clean-up of the corrupt money flowing through London – they are not without the potential for unintended consequences. During a time when Beijing is quietly distancing itself from Moscow’s excesses, catalysing a broad repatriation of capital by illiberal powers would be the worst of outcomes. ‘Smart’ sanctions for Russia need to be precise enough to hit specific targets and deter other powers from behaving in similar fashion, without undermining the wider interdependence of the global financial system.

Yet the subtleties of how to calibrate the most effective sanctions response should not cloud the fact that the single biggest question facing the UK and the EU is its willingness to accept genuine short-term economic and political pain for the sake of the long-term security of Europe and the maintenance of fundamental international norms. One set of trade-offs, over energy, falls heavily on central and southern Europe. The other, over finance, falls squarely on London. During a period in which the mercantilisation of British foreign policy and the abdication of its leadership role in the EU has already raised serious doubts about the UK’s credibility as a strategic actor, the extent to which Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander respond to Russian provocation with progressive vigour could hardly be more consequential.

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Questions to discuss:

1)    Do recent events in Ukraine mean we should be prepared for an era of great power competition and challenges from illiberal states? Are we willing to reconfigure our foreign policy to address this more effectively?

2)    Can Labour change the domestic narrative on the role of the EU in the context of these new strategic challenges or should it give in in the face of public hostility?

3)    What economic price should the UK be willing to bear in the pursuit of a principled foreign policy?

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Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @kirstyjmcneill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF. He tweets @ajwsmall

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Photo: Tjebbe van Tijen

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