What Should We Do About Russia?

The West must start to show the Kremlin it means business

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What, Lenin asked memorably, is to be done? His answer – to create a lethal and disastrous communist empire – was a bad one. But as the West grapples with a Russian regime that is at least in part nostalgic for the Soviet Union, the question is still a good one.

The problem is that Russia is behaving badly enough to be a worry, but not badly enough to focus our minds. Russia is a repressive regime. But it is not bad enough to enrage our liberal consciences, and, in truth, many of our own allies behave worse. Russia’s ancient nuclear bombers play silly games near British airspace; one of its submarines surfaces in the Irish Sea. But that is just tiresome Kremlin chest-thumping. In a real war, the Russian navy with its 20 or so seaworthy ships would probably be at the bottom of the sea within minutes. Russia vetoed sanctions on Zimbabwe and wants to sell advanced weapons to Iran – but life goes on. In short, Russia’s actions are irritants, not alarm signals.

So the easiest thing is to do nothing. Whitehall mandarins argue that Russia is like a troublesome adolescent, simply flexing new muscles and trying to get the outside world to take it seriously. After the chaos and humiliation of the ’90s, is it not surprising that Russia, now a prosperous and stable country, wants to rub in the fact that its days as a basket case are over? Maybe the West has overdone Nato expansion in Russia’s historic backyard; certainly it is time to call a halt. The best thing to do is to take the long view, not to overreact, and to wait for a middle class to develop inside Russia. Sooner or later, Russia will become just another normal country that we can do business with – a sort of cold, muddy, nuclear-armed version of Brazil.

But that kind of complacency misses the point. On the things that matter, Russia is ahead. It is prepared to use force (as its adventure in Georgia showed). The West is not. From the Kremlin’s point of view, that was a triumph. Russia did exactly what it wanted, and neither the European Union nor Nato was prepared to do more than issue angry press releases. The message of Western defeatism was underlined by an opinion poll in the Financial Times on 22 September that asked people in Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Britain and the US whether they would back the use of troops to defend the Baltic states in the event of a Russian attack. That, under the Nato charter, is a legal obligation. The poll showed that in Italy, Spain and – overwhelmingly – Germany, more people opposed the idea than supported it. That sends a dangerous signal to the Kremlin.

So the first thing to do is to show Russia that we mean business, that we will use force if necessary to defend our allies. That does not require expensive rearmament programmes or wild sabre-rattling. But it does mean that some sacred cows must be, if not slaughtered, at least moved from the middle of the road. Nato is crippled by a deeply-held belief that Russia is not a formal threat. That hamstrings efforts to collect intelligence about its capabilities; contingency planning about how to deal with an attack from Russia is explicitly forbidden by the rules under which MC 161, Nato’s military committee dealing with threat assessment, operates. That must change. Nato must be allowed to work out how to defend places like northern Norway and the Baltic states from a Russian attack. By doing so, they make it even less likely that the plans will be needed.

We can also make our financial centres a lot less welcoming for Russian dirty money. That window of opportunity is closing, as rivals such as Dubai, Mumbai and Shanghai gain ascendance. But it is not yet closed. Over the past few years, we have made a lot of money by selling respectability, rather cheaply, to Russians who want access to our banks, accountants, lawyers and capital markets. Maybe we should sell rather less, while we still have some in stock.

We should also send a clear signal that Russia’s increasing espionage efforts in EU and Nato countries are most unwelcome. A co-ordinated expulsion by Britain, France, Sweden, Poland, Norway and the Czech Republic of a dozen embassy-based representatives of the SVR (foreign intelligence), GRU (military espionage) and most of all the thuggish FSB (internal security), as well as assorted “students”, “bankers”, “businessmen” and “consultants”, would send a powerful signal to the Kremlin: that Western security planners are now seriously concerned with Russian efforts to subvert and intimidate us. It is these people who are bribing and suborning politicians, officials and businessmen, particularly in our energy industry, in order to smooth the ground for Russia’s use of its huge gas and oil reserves.

The danger of delay is great. The longer we let Russia enjoy its feeling of impunity, the greater the risk that the Kremlin tries another stunt somewhere else. A vulgar analogy would be to see the Georgian crisis as the equivalent of Hitler’s march into Rhineland. The danger is that the Baltic states fill the ill-fated role of Czechoslovakia in 1938; it is all too easy to imagine the West, divided and distracted by economic trouble and wars elsewhere, once again forcing an allied government to accept a noxious political settlement with its mortal enemy. Russian propagandists are already demanding, for example, a Russian “territorial autonomy” – in effect a Kremlin canton – inside Estonia. When Iceland, another strategically vital Nato member, saw its banks collapse, Gordon Broewn sued them; Russia offered a $4billion loan. The longer we go down that path, the nastier the price we will pay when we try to leave it.

Having bolstered our weaker allies and secured our own citadels, we should try a counter-offensive. The best place to do that is Belarus, now at great risk of a Russian Anschluss. We should be doing everything possible to open channels of communication with the regime there, offering it a safe and dignified exit from power in return for a strategic switch towards the West. Our previous policy, of showering the fragmented and highly-penetrated opposition with money and attention, has got us next to nowhere.

We also need to make it clear to Ukraine and Georgia that the offer of eventual Nato membership made at the Bucharest summit last April remains open. The vital point here is that membership is conditional on reform, both military and political. Georgia’s largely poor performance in the war with Russia, continuing worries about Ukrainian arms sales to the developing world, and both countries’ shambolic politics show that there is a great deal of work to do before the question of membership becomes practical. The more that they reach Nato standards in everything from the rule of law to management of reservists, the easier it will be to see them as potential allies. It would be quite wrong to use the Caucasus crisis as an excuse for accelerating Nato membership. The commitment for mutual defence embodied in Article V of the Atlantic Charter is stretched thin enough already, without using it as a sticking plaster to bandage the West’s wounds.

The great benefit of this is that it shows Russians that there is another way forward. The more of a success that we make of Ukraine, the harder it is for the ex-KGB regime in the Kremlin to make their favourite argument that Russia is different. If a big, Slavic, ex-Soviet country like Ukraine can have a lively free press, properly- contested elections and a reasonably effective justice system, why can’t Russia? Nato and EU membership is not a mere label: it is a signal that a country has met some crucial standards in freedom, justice and modernisation.

The danger is that in Russia’s current paranoid world view, it will see anything that the West does in countries such as Ukraine as meddling. It is therefore vital that our new robust stance on some issues is combined with a serious willingness to talk about others. The best example here is nuclear weapons. Russia is the world’s second nuclear power. It is in everyone’s interest to have smaller numbers of warheads, and to lessen the danger of an accidental nuclear conflict. Twenty years after the end of the old Cold War, much of the trust and professionalism built up between nuclear experts on both sides has been squandered. A serious offer to restart talks on strategic nuclear weapons, to share early-warning data and to minimise stockpiles of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, could have only desirable outcomes. The same, broadly, goes for talks about weapons in space. The end of the Bush administration, with its swaggering, unilateralist and highly short-sighted view of these matters, offers an ideal time for such a change of tack.

We also need to polish our soft power. Both the regime in the Kremlin, and ordinary Russians, are now deeply sceptical about any talk of Western values. They regard it as hypocritical hogwash. The West is somewhere where you can buy anything for money – just as long as you don’t admit it. That is painfully true in some respects. But we can do something about that. In truth, the West still has plenty to boast about. The astonishing electoral feast of America’s primary and presidential contests is a startling contrast to Russia’s carefully manipulated parliamentary and presidential elections. Nowhere on the planet do governments look after their citizens’ health and welfare better than in the EU. In Russia, public services and infrastructure, even after the oil and gas bonanza of the past decade, are still pitiful.

Even the financial crisis sheds a positive light on our system. It may be throwing up some wrong answers and even scapegoating the wrong people. But it is calling the powerful to account in a way that would be unimaginable in Russia. When things go wrong here, governments fall. When things go wrong there, it is editors who are sacked for reporting them. The great aim should be that when the Putin regime finally hits the buffers, Russians turn again westwards, rather than seeking something still more toxic and dangerous.