I have a pretty poor opinion of think tanks. Perhaps it’s academic snobbery, but then again, maybe not. In the past few years, I’ve read too many really bad reports published by think tanks to regard them very highly. Of course, there are exceptions, but in general, their output kind of stinks. Or at least, so it seems to me.
The United Kingdom has a new think tank, pompously entitled the Council on Geostrategy. The name alone gives you a hint that there’s more than a bit of imperial nostalgia involved – dreams of GREAT Britain, and all that. The advisory council is full of retired military folks and regimental-tie wearing Conservative MPs who sit on the parliamentary defence committee. Meanwhile, the staff is replete with cast-offs from the Henry Jackson Society, an institution widely perceived as decidedly neo-conservative in nature (the kind of place that still thinks that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, if you get my drift). In short, ideologically speaking, not my kind of people at all.
The Council on Geostrategy defines its mission as being “to strengthen Britain and re-assert our leadership in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world. We promote robust new ideas [“robust” – I like that word!!] to enhance our country’s unity and resilience, bolster our industrial and technological base, and boost our discursive, diplomatic and military power – especially our naval reach.” So, you get what these guys are up to: Hurrah Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too!
Despite only being founded this year, the Council has got off to a running start, and today published a report, written by another Henry Jackson cast-off, Andrew Foxall, with the title “How Russia ‘Positions’ the United Kingdom.” In case you’ve forgotten, Foxall’s the guy who claimed that perhaps half of the 150,000 Russians living in the UK were “informants” for the Russian intelligence services (that’s 75,000 informants, if you can’t do the math – those guys in the SVR must be real busy!). Suffice to say, he’s not no. 1 on my to-go list for reliable analysis of things Russian, but let’s give him a chance and see what he has to say in this report.
Essentially, the point of the report is to discuss how the Russian state views the United Kingdom, and how the UK should respond. I would summarise it as containing occasional words of wisdom surrounded by a mass of highly dubious analysis. What is it Churchill said? Something about the truth being so valuable that you have to surround it with a “bodyguard of lies”. I’m sure the Council on Geostrategy just lurves old Winston with all its soul.
But I digress. Foxall’s starting point is that Russia considers itself a great power, which is a fair enough point. But Foxall then goes off the rails by claiming that Russia views the world in “zero-sum” terms, a claim that he repeats on several occasions. Unfortunately, Foxall produces no evidence for this assertion beyond a footnote referencing Keir Giles’ book Moscow Rules, which I ruthlessly savaged in a review that you can read here (so, not a source I would cite!).
Anyway, according to Foxall, Moscow’s “zero-sum” view of international politics means that Russia engages “in subversion and destabilisation of countries it perceives as adversaries … since it is only through weakening them that Russia can prosper.” Or as he says later, “Proceeding from this ‘zero-sum approach’ … Russia only feels secure when other countries feel threatened.” And, yet again, he refers to Russia’s “belief that the insecurity of other countries makes Russia more secure.”
I find in reviews like this that I keep repeating the complaint that authors fail to justify their claims with evidence. This is the case here. What’s the evidence that Russia has a “zero-sum” approach to international affairs? Or that “Russia only feels secure when other countries feel threatened?” I can’t say that I’ve ever read or heard any Russian official or international affairs expert say any such thing. And as I pointed out in my review of Keir Giles’ book, it’s not practical – there’s no way that any state could actually operate in that way. Furthermore, the Russian Federation engages in numerous international and multilateral institutions, signs international agreements, seeks cooperation with other states, and so on. “Zero sum” thinking isn’t how it operates. Indeed, at one point in his report, Foxall mentions official Russian documents that talk of seeking “mutually beneficial bilateral ties” with European states. “Mutually beneficial” is hardly “zero sum.”
Proof that Russia is engaged in “subversion and destabilisation” is also lacking. The only examples referred to appear on the cover page and are “the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006 and the nerve-agent attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal in 2018.” However noxious these were, and however concerning to the British, they were not efforts to subvert or destabilise the UK. Rather, they were efforts to murder people perceived as traitors. The fact that they happened to be in the UK is neither here nor there, as the UK itself was not the target. If he wants to demonstrate “subversion and destabilisation”, Foxall has to do better than this.
These aren’t the only dubious claims, however. For Foxall also repeatedly insists that it Russia is seeking to “undermine” the international order, and also to undermine any states that “uphold” that order. Again, evidence is not provided. It’s just taken for granted. The only support that Foxall provides for his position is a statement by Vladimir Putin complaining that the US was throwing the international system into imbalance by the reckless pursuit of its own interests, and that, as Putin said,
If the existing system of international relations, international law and the checks and balances in place got in the way of these aims, this system was declared worthless, outdated and in need of immediate demolition.
Foxall claims that “In this way, Russia positions the UK as an adversary, an upholder of a post-Cold War international system with which Russia is deeply unhappy.” But that’s not what Putin said. What the quote shows is not that Putin is seeking to destroy the international order, but that he sees the United States and its allies as destroying the international order, and implicitly, himself as defending it. That’s something very different.
All this, though, is just scene-setting for the core of the report, which is about Russian attitudes specifically to the UK. Here Foxall is a bit better, noting that Russia on the one hand views the UK as a “second-tier power” that isn’t capable of conducting an independent foreign policy, but on the other hand considers the UK to be perhaps its bitterest foe, in the sense that no other country is as hostile to Russia as is Britain.
This, I think, is fair enough. Unfortunately, Foxall rather ruins the effect by some odd comments complaining that Russia accuses the UK of double standards. So it does, and rightly so, but Foxall doesn’t think it’s right. Russian accusations of double standards are “false equivalencies … even if the two are, from a neutral perspective, not even remotely similar,” he says, He then complains that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov mentioned the Falkland Islands. Of course, Foxall could instead have drawn attention to the invasion of Iraq, the toppling of Gaddafi in Libya, British support for the brutal Saudi war in Yemen, or any other number of things, but for some odd reason he doesn’t! “False equivalencies” indeed – but perhaps not in the way that Foxall imagines.
In short, the conclusion is that Russia thinks that the UK is an enemy, and it’s all Russia’s fault that it thinks that way. In part, I’d say it is. But only in part, and the failure to recognize that it takes two to tango has serious implications. Which brings us on to Foxall’s policy recommendations for the UK.
A couple of these are quite sensible. For instance, Foxall condemns what he calls the “use of childish language” by British politicians when talking about Russia. One has to agree. In addition, he writes the following:
Russia’s efforts to destabilise and subvert the UK [never actually demonstrated in the report – PR] … requires the UK to strengthen its societal cohesion. It follows that London’s response to the spectrum of threats that Moscow poses [again, never demonstrated] should begin by taking the focus off Russia and putting it on the UK.
In other words, the UK’s real problems are internal and that’s what the British government should focus on. This is by far the most sensible thing that Foxall says, but one does wonder why it’s the supposed “threat” from Moscow that dictates that measures be taken to enhance “societal cohesion”. Shouldn’t that be a national priority anyway??? Beyond that, Foxall’s view of how the UK should “renew its democratic values and principles” is a little strange, as his one specific proposal is that the UK “adopt legislation akin to the US’ Foreign Agents Registration Act’. Wouldn’t that be the same type of legislation that when introduced in Russia was widely denounced as an assault on democracy??
All in all, what have we got? Some unsubstantiated claims about Russia’s zero-sum thinking and desire to destabilize both the international order in general and the UK in particular, followed by some ok-ish statements about how Russians view Britain, rounded off with some rather wishy-washy policy recommendations (the UK should: refer to Russia as a “kleptocracy”; “use clear and direct messaging”; and “engage with the Russian people”). It’s not the worst thing I’ve read, but overall, it’s pretty much what I’ve come to expect from think tanks. And you know how I feel about them.