Back in the days before covid, when I walked to my to office I would occasionally take a route which took me past an apartment building named ‘The Sandhurst’. I have no idea why anybody would consider that an attractive name. To me, rather than warm thoughts of a cosy apartment, it always invoked memories of the less than pleasant months I spent confined at Her Majesty’s pleasure in the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst back in 1989.
Anyway, it’s rather sobering to realize that my generation of Sandhurst graduates are now running the show. The current Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, is a bit older, but his successor could well be a direct contemporary of mine. For some reason, I find it a bit scary.
Not that my contemporaries weren’t good soldiers. To be honest, if you’d had a choice of being led under fire by them or by me, you’d have been a fool to choose me. But those who remain in the service and have climbed up the slippery pole to the rank of General are no longer junior officers. We’re not asking them to leads troops under fire. We want them to display some strategic judgement. And in that regard, I fear, they are rather lacking.
Mark Galeotti has quite a good article out today in The Moscow Times in which he berates ‘the continued presentation of a Russian threat that is both outsized and out of control’. This threat inflation, he argues, ‘is profoundly problematic for the West itself’. For if Western politicians ‘are seduced by the easy caricature of Putin as Sauron to the Russian Mordor and assume both that everything they do is hostile and that they are driven not by self-interest but an irrational hatred, then this will distort policy.’
Well, hurrah to that, though I’ve been saying it for years and nobody has yet to pay attention.
But, I digress. Let’s get back on track. Galeotti cites an example of what he calls ‘intemperate talk … about Russia as an existential threat and Putin as an all-powerful dictator with an irrational enmity for the West.’ This was a statement by the former head of the British special forces, Lt Gen Sir Graeme Lamb, who remarked to an online conference that Russia was committed to ‘killing our way of life’, and that ‘we’re being boiled like a frog’ by the Russians’ covert campaigns against the United Kingdom. The situation, claimed Sir Graeme, was like that of the 1930s, and if it wasn’t careful the UK could find itself in the same mess as it did against Nazi Germany.
As Galeotti rightly remarks, such gross exaggerations of the Russian ‘threat’, and the ‘misleading and insulting parallels’ between Nazi Germany and contemporary Russia, do nobody any good. At that point, though, Galeotti makes a mistake in calling Lamb’s remarks an ‘outlier’. If only they were. Unfortunately, they’re not.
According to Galeotti, General Carter, speaking at the same event was ‘rather more statesmanlike’. Maybe he was. But he hasn’t been in the past. Speaking to the Royal United Services Institute in November last year, Carter complained that the Russians were ‘flexing their muscles in our own backyard, with an ostentation they have not displayed since the Cold War’. As an example, he cited the fact that ‘The week before last Russia assembled 10 or so warships and combat aircraft from the Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets in a show of force in the waters off the British and Irish coasts.’
This is the point where one demands that generals show some strategic judgment. Obviously, General Carter considers it threatening when foreign military forces turn up close to home. So what’s his response? Do the same thing. As he said:
Deterring these threats, signalling to the Russian regime that we will not tamely acquiesce should they escalate, requires conventional hard power – warships and aircraft – as well as less conventional capabilities like cyber. It requires us to hold their backyard at risk, whether that’s in the Barents Sea, the High North, the Baltic or the Black Sea.
Yikes. ‘Hold their backyard at risk’. That’s his solution?? If his response to having Russians turn up near the UK is to send troops to Russia, how does he think that the Russians will respond to when British troops turn up near them? Does he really think that they’ll just sit back and do nothing? Does it not occur to him that just as he feels threatened, they’ll feel threatened, and act accordingly, increasing their defence spending, carrying out more exercises, flexing more muscles, and so on? Why does he think that they are any different?
In about their very first class, international relations students learn about the ‘security dilemma’. You feel under threat from another party, so you take measures to enhance your security. But those measures make the other party feel threatened, so it takes additional measures itself. The result is that you end up less secure than when you started. It’s hardly rocket science. Once you start on the ladder of escalation, it can be hard to get off. Walking faster up the ladder doesn’t actually help you come down again.
Yet somehow, our generals seem blithely unaware of this. They also seem to have learnt the wrong lessons from their experiences of the last 20 years. Carter, Lamb, and so many of their contemporaries, have spent lots of time fighting fruitless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the end of it, they don’t seem to have drawn any suitable conclusions about a) the ability of armed force to solve problems, or b) Britain’s role in the world. You might imagine that Iraq would have induced a bit of humility, that the top brass might have woken up to the fact that the world isn’t a black and white morality show, that the British armed forces aren’t really a ‘force for good’ (to use their motto during the days of Tony Blair). Finally, c) you might imagine that they’d have noticed that if you push people hard, they tend to push back, and it doesn’t leave you any better off.
But none of it. Twenty years on, and still, as Flanders and Swann once sang, ‘The English, the English, the English, are best, I wouldn’t give tuppance for all of the rest. … The English are clever, the English are good, and clever and modest and misunderstood.’
In a way, I get it. I remember what it was like to be a officer in Her Majesty’s army. You have a great confidence in yourself as a member of an ancient and glorious institution, with fine traditions of defending Blighty and the world from the evil Johny Foreigner (you tend not to enquire too closely into what all those Imperial battle honours on the regimental colour really involved). You view the world in terms of threats. You have no doubts about your own side’s righteousness. You have a ‘can do’ spirit, and are confident in the enormous professionalism of yourself and your colleagues. There’s nothing you can’t do if only those damn, cheapskate slimeball politicians would give you the proper resources.
Live in that sort of environment for 30 years, and by the time you’re a general … well, perhaps you really don’t have a proper understanding of the world.
It’s kind of sad. What’s really needed is a lot more introspection, a much better understanding that we’re not always the good guys; that just as we fear others, they fear us, and that they perhaps have some good reasons for so doing. But we don’t see to be getting it.
As Galeotti notes in his article, ‘Kremlin policy is often reacting to perceived Western slights and pressures, and that it is often both pragmatic and risk-averse.’ Painting it as the ‘enemy’, and then ramping up the military pressure on the Russians will only exacerbate Russians’ sense of being under threat. They will respond accordingly and we won’t like it when they do. Perhaps, it’s time to think again.