‘Russia is ready to kill us by the thousands’. So reads a headline in today’s Daily Telegraph, one of Britain’s leading daily, allegedly high-brow (i.e. non-tabloid), newspapers. The headline follows a statement by the British Secretary of Defence Gavin Williamson concerning the deadly threat which the Russian Federation poses to the United Kingdom. According to Williamson, Russians have been photographing British power stations. Russians have also supposedly also been investigating the ‘interconnectors’ which connect the UK to energy supplies in other countries. Mr Williamson told the Daily Telegraph that:
The plan for the Russians won’t be for landing craft to appear in the South Bay in Scarborough, and off Brighton beach. They are going to be thinking, ‘how can we just cause so much pain to Britain? Damage its economy, rip its infrastructure apart, actually cause thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths, but actually have an element of creating total chaos within the country.’
Russia, claims Williamson, is willing to cause damage which ‘any other nation would see as completely unacceptable,’ a claim for which he provided no evidence and rather belies the enormous damage the United Kingdom and its allies have done to other countries in recent decades (remember the wholesale destruction of Iraq in 1990/1991 anyone?). The Russian Ministry of Defence is not amused. The British Defence Secretary’s comments, says Russian spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, are like something out of a children’s comic or Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In any case, there are some serious flaws in Williamson’s statement.
First, even if it is true that the Russians have carried out reconnaissance of British power systems, that it is not evidence of intent to attack them. Military intelligence collects data on such systems as a matter of course. You can bet your bottom dollar that within the British Ministry of Defence, the National Imagery Exploitation Centre at RAF Brampton, and elsewhere, the British military is collating information about potential targets inside the Russian Federation, and helping its American allies update the ‘Basic Encyclopedia’ (sometimes incorrectly referred to as the ‘Bombing Encyclopedia’) which assigns every such potential target a Basic Encyclopedia Number (BEN). That doesn’t mean that the United Kingdom actually intends to bomb any of these places inside Russia. And absence intention, there is no threat.
Second, one has to ask how Mr Williamson imagines that the Russians will be attacking these energy systems. If what he has in mind is military force – such as Russian aircraft bombing power stations – then what he’s describing is all-out, major war between the UK and Russia. How likely is that? And in that event, how many resources could the Russian military spare for the specific task of hitting British energy supplies? The scenario isn’t particularly credible. If, however, what he is in mind is cyber attacks designed to cripple energy systems, then one has to ask why that would require a major investment by the UK in military power, since military power isn’t much use against computer viruses and the like. Also, Russians taking photos of power stations isn’t really relevant for cyber warfare – photographs aren’t much use in such case.
Third, and this is what I find very revealing, the British military seems rather confused about the true nature of the Russian threat. Mr Williamson says of potential Russian attacks on British energy supplies that this is ‘the real threat… the country is facing at the moment.’ Apparently, this rather unlikely hypothetical is more ‘real’ than security problems such as terrorism as well as domestic political, economic, and social troubles. Yet, just a month ago the British Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, was claiming that the danger was something different – that the Russians might cut underwater communications cables connecting the UK to the rest of the world. According to Sir Stuart, this posed a ‘new risk to our way of life.’ But then again, just last week the head of the British Army, General Sir Nick Carter, was saying that the problem was Russia possessed ‘an eye-watering quantity of capability’, including ‘an increasingly aggressive expeditionary force.’ According to the General, Moscow ‘could initiate hostilities sooner than we expect”, and ‘it will start with something we don’t expect,’ which I guess rules out those potential attacks on power systems and underwater cables, since apparently Britain is now expecting them!
The British military industrial complex needs to get its story straight. The Russian threat keeps changing from week to week, as more and more potentially nation-destroying dangers emanating from Moscow are revealed. The only thing that all the scary stories about Russia have in common is that they repeat the mantra that Russia is dangerous, very dangerous, and that the UK should therefore spend more on defence. The BBC notes in an article about Gavin Williamson’s statement that, ‘It comes as the Ministry of Defence is under pressure to avoid cuts that could be coming from the Treasury.’ It’s quite obvious what’s going on here. It’s fearmongering, pure and simple, designed to extort more money out of the British taxpayer.
The British Treasury should resist the demands for more money for defence. It should take a hard look at what the United Kingdom has got out of its military in the past few decades, and ask in what ways military spending has actually contributed to Britain’s security and to its welfare more generally. Were it to do so, it would come to the conclusion that military expenditure has not served the country well. Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have not gone well, and have arguably made the UK less not more safe, while costing tens of billions of pounds. Military chiefs have chosen to invest funds in prestige projects such as aircraft carriers which have sucked the blood out of the rest of the armed forces but provided no obvious enhancement of the country’s security in return. British defence policy since the end of the Cold War has been one mistake after another. As a former officer in the British Army, I say this with some regret. I wish it wasn’t so. But it is.
It’s time for the British government to face reality, and abandon the post-imperial fantasies which cast the UK as a global military power and which imagine that the projection of such power serves the national interest. I recently published an article in Economic Affairs arguing that the British defence budget was not too low, but too high. Elsewhere, I have laid out exactly how the British military could be cut. This would save the country money and enhance the safety of the nation’s citizens at the same time. By contrast, endlessly hyping up the dangers of the ‘Russian threat’ does the United Kingdom no good at all.