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Powerless in the face of Putin: a real danger to security in Europe

Vladimir Putin. Photo: Archant

Mired in their own troubles, both Britain and the US have abandoned their duty to stand up to Russia

The Reds aren’t under the bed. They’re in it. While our leaders sleep on.

Was there ever a period with so much news, so much noise, in our two countries? In Washington, a never-ending real world soap opera focused on one man, his tantrums and his tweets.

In the UK, amid a series of terror attacks and the grisly inequality metaphor of a high-rise housing tower going up in flames, a weakened government still trying to make sense one year on of a vote to leave the EU, and a diminished Prime Minister whose dreadful election campaign managed to allow a seemingly unelectable hard left opponent within sniffing distance of Downing Street.

But for all the drama, might it be that the fog it creates is obscuring a larger, far more consequential truth, namely that a newly aggressive Russia is undermining decades of common US-UK leadership to ensure that Europe is whole, free and at peace?

It is surely remarkable that it is the governments of Germany and France who seem to appreciate the magnitude and significance of Russia’s new stance while the US and the UK stand passively by. It is as though both are saying ‘we have enough problems of our own, without worrying too much about Russia?’ But Russia is a big part of everyone’s problem right now.

In America, as Donald Trump continues to bring global embarrassment to his country, the opponents of his radical America First agenda place their hopes in former FBI director Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor investigating the possible collaboration between Russian operatives and leading officials from the Trump campaign. They may have a long wait.

Meanwhile in Great Britain, which feels anything but great right now, a hobbled Conservative Party is desperately seeking a magic formula to mitigate the political damage done by its losses in the snap election called by Theresa May, as well as the disastrous decision of her predecessor David Cameron to launch and then lose a referendum on the EU. ‘It’s a mess’ has replaced ‘strong and stable’ as the bumper sticker summary of British political debate. Rarely have such a configuration of Grade A problems rested in the hands of such Grade C leaders.

Russia is of course only one high priority problem. Yet despite the fact that political intrigue in Washington is dominated by the question of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 Presidential election, and despite a tradition of British Prime Ministers playing an out-sized role on the Russia question time and time again, neither government has bothered to give adequate attention to Moscow’s unprecedented across the board assault on Western Europe and the United States.

It is painful indeed to compare this passivity to the way our two countries led much of the world to an acceptance of democratic values such as freedom and liberty, and to successful resolution of so many major conflicts of this past century in defence of those values. Whether it was the First World War or the Second World War, or leading the international response to Moscow’s aggressive Cold War foreign policy, Washington and London, working together, have been at the head of the table. Now we have a US Administration that doesn’t even want to be at the table, and a British government with little to say or do when at the table, given the way Brexit takes up nearly all its domestic and international bandwidth.

Western policy may or may not have contributed to Moscow’s evolution, but a dispassionate look at the Russian threat is sobering. We will probably never know for sure why Putin changed course after seeming to embark on a cooperative approach early on in his seemingly never ending rule. But change he most certainly did. Under Putin’s reset, we have seen Russia shift from cooperation to confrontation at almost every level. Uniquely among world leaders he seems to have his objective (reassertion of Russian power), his strategy (reassertion of Russian power) and his tactics (anything which reasserts Russian power, from invasions and assassinations to television phone-ins or topless photo shoots) perfectly aligned.

Russia’s defence spending alone should give cause for concern. Mostly paid for by a previous spike in oil prices, Moscow’s rearmament is remarkable. In both conventional forces and strategic nuclear arms, Russia’s spending has yielded a more capable, modern army and modernised air force and navy, with much of the old Soviet programmes and equipment replaced and updated. The change is particularly dramatic in the area of strategic nuclear missiles, which Russia has always prioritised. Especially troubling is that the building of these new systems has been accompanied by something missing from the Soviet era: talk by Russian officials about the possible need to use nuclear weapons first.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine, from which most of the world has averted its gaze – ‘not our problem’ once more – continues to rage. The Kremlin’s decision to invade and annex Crimea, its launching of the war in Eastern Ukraine, and its continued supply of equipment and personnel to the rebels, are actions of an aggressor not a misunderstood victim, no matter how skilfully Vladimir Putin plays the strings of the vast propaganda orchestra he has developed.

The era of arms control agreements is also apparently over. For some time now, Moscow has refused to resume negotiations on nuclear arms reduction and controls on production of nuclear material. It called a halt to the Nunn-Lugar threat reduction assistance that Washington has provided to destroy materials associated with weapons of mass destruction (a programme that continued to operate in the past, no matter what was happening in the broader bilateral relationship). Perhaps worst of all, the Russian government has built and now deployed an intermediate range cruise missile in clear violation of the 1987 INF Treaty, the historic arms control agreement signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, which many believe signalled the beginning of the end of the Cold war.

Then there is cyber warfare. Perhaps cyber sabotage is a better way to describe the Kremlin’s covert operation to steal and make public thousands of confidential documents from the DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign chairmen. Cyber espionage has been a regular feature of the intelligence world since the advent of computers. What was new was to ‘weaponise’ the information and release that weapon at a time of maximum impact during the presidential election. Experts in and out of government agree that the Kremlin conducted this cyber sabotage, which can reasonably be considered an act of war against American democracy. The seeming indifference to this of many top Republican politicians – not least the President – and their supporters is as stunning to anyone who lived through the Reagan era as it must be joyous to any Putinite Russian who sees the Gorbachev-Reagan detente as an act of national self harm and humiliation.

The Kremlin’s propaganda efforts have also grown dramatically in Europe. Not only have similar cyber sabotage operations been conducted in France and other European countries during elections, but substantial resources and manpower also stand behind ‘fake news’ factories, as well as Kremlin-backed television stations like Russia Today (RT).

Alongside all this has come a new wave of aggressive steps by Russian intelligence services and the Red Army, with diplomats and intelligence officials describing the shadow war as intense as anything experienced in the modern era. The Russian military has stepped up its intimidation and confrontation tactics as well. Along NATO’s land, sea, and air borders, Russian military challenges have increased significantly. From the coasts of Norway to the skies of Alaska or the border with Estonia, Russia has sent fighter planes, submarines, ships and special forces units to challenge Western defences.

Last but hardly least in Putin’s pattern of aggression is his decision to embrace fully the blood-soaked Syrian dictator. Moscow has now joined the war in Syria to the extent that it’s air and ground forces are a key reason Bashar al-Assad has survived. It’s one thing for Russia to protect its strategic interests in a naval base there and its long standing ties to the bureaucracy in Damascus. But Putin went much further by deciding to use substantial Russian military force as an adjunct to Assad’s brutal suppression of his own people, a civil war that has generated hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of refugees, with far-reaching consequences for all of us. Yet even Syria seems to be sliding down the political and media agenda of our two countries.

There is a lot of talk of Trump being ‘normalised’. But Putin’s normalisation is, if anything, even more dramatic. For taken as a whole these new Putin policies constitute a real danger to security in Europe, to the liberal international order, and to successful democratic government in the West.

We are stunned by the low level of attention and priority this all important subject is receiving in 10 Downing Street and the White House, the Foreign Office and the State Department. Rather than waiting and watching for Berlin and Paris to try to launch an effort to combat Putin’s policies, we strongly urge America’s President and Britain’s Prime Minister to seize the moment, to do what their predecessors have done so many times before; that is, to lead the West in a successful collective response to Moscow that defends our interests, our honour and our democracy, and thereby helps maintain the peace.

Our shared history has shown us the way. Whether it was decades of Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union or so many other dramatic political, technological and economic changes, statesmen and women and top officials in Washington and London, working together, managed to formulate enduring and effective responses that made possible the longest periods of relative peace and prosperity our two countries have known.

We may not have wanted either of the people now leading the US and Britain – we didn’t – but we only have one president and one prime minister at a time. They cannot stand aside from this any longer, just because their in trays are overflowing with seemingly more pressing daily developments related to their own short-term battles for survival.

Alastair Campbell and James Rubin worked as colleagues during the Blair-Clinton years, Campbell as Tony Blair’s spokesman and strategist, Rubin as Assistant Secretary of State

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