Tag Archives: United Kingdom

Novichok suspects

With good reason, the news that the British police have identified two suspects in the Salisbury novichok poisoning case confirms what most people already thought – that those responsible came from Russia. The claims that the alleged perpetrators were agents of the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, and that the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal was ordered by somebody at a high level outside the GRU remain unproven. Nevertheless, the latest news puts the Russian government in an awkward position and places a serious burden of responsibility on it to take action against the alleged assassins.

The British police have said that the names of the two assassins – Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – are likely aliases, and have appealed for help in discovering their true identities. The British government, meanwhile, has said that the two are GRU agents. This is somewhat problematic. How can the British know that the pair work for the GRU if they don’t actually know who they are??

petrov_boshirov
‘Aleksandr Petrov’ and ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ in Salisbury.

Also problematic was a statement by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who said today that:

The GRU is a highly disciplined organisation with a well-established chain of command. So this was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.

This may well be true, but it is an assumption not a fact, and personally I tend not to assume too much discipline on the part of Russians. As yet, the Russian state must remain a prime suspect in the affair, but the case against it cannot be considered closed.

Still, if it is true, as reported, that traces of novichok were found in the two men’s hotel room, it is next to impossible to deny that they were indeed the people responsible for the attack (while also raising some interesting questions about how they failed to poison themselves, and so on). Given this, we can say with some certitude that the assassins travelled to the UK from Russia on Russian passports. That places a serious burden of responsibility on the Russian government to do something to address what was a serious crime. If the two weren’t GRU agents, as the Russians insist, then the only way for the Russian authorities to clear their own name is to help the British identify Petrov and Borishov and then take action against them. Failure to do so will inevitably be interpreted as an admission of guilt.

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Cui bono?

I’m not a great fan of Marxist philosophy, but one thing it has got right is the need to be sceptical when faced by what academics like to call ‘normative’ claims, and to be aware that such claims often hide a bid for power. When faced by such a claim, one should always ask ‘Cui bono?’ – who benefits?

At present, politicians and political commentators are making much of the alleged threat to democracy posed by social media, ‘fake news’, and ‘disinformation’. This is leading to demands for social media to be more tightly regulated and for action to be taken against those supposedly guilty of spreading fake news, notably the Russian government. Yesterday’s big news was an announcement by Facebook that it had removed 32 accounts ‘believed to have been set up to influence the mid-term US elections in November.’ According to Facebook, these accounts were responsible for 9,500 posts and had spent $11,000 on advertising. Personally, I don’t regard this as a big deal. In a country in which political campaigns cost billions of dollars, I seriously doubt that $11,000 on Facebook is going to make any difference. For sure, there’s a lot of garbage to be found on social media, which also make it easier for people to hide their true identity. But I remain utterly unconvinced that ‘fake news’ on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram is that important, if only because nobody has yet to produce any hard evidence that such ‘news’ has actually swayed any significant number of voters.

Why then are so many people getting so worked up about it and demanding action? An interim report published last week by the British House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee provides some clues. Entitled, ‘Disinformation and Fake News’, the interim report says that,

There are many potential threats to our democracy and our values. One such threat arises from what has been coined ‘fake news’, created for profit or other gain, disseminated through state-sponsored programmes, or spread through the deliberate distortion of facts, by groups with a particular agenda, including the desire to affect political elections. … We are faced with a crisis concerning the use of data, the manipulation of our data, and the targeting of pernicious views. In particular, we heard evidence of Russian state-sponsored attempts to influence elections in the US and the UK through social media. … In this rapidly changing digital world, our existing legal framework is no longer fit for purpose. … Our democracy is at risk, and now is the time to act, to protect our shared values and the integrity of our democratic institutions.

You will note how this is couched in terms of normative claims concerning ‘democracy and our values’. But if you dig a little deeper, you will see that there is something else going on here. In its first two paragraphs, the report says:

  1. In this inquiry, we have studied the spread of false, misleading, and persuasive content, and the ways in which malign players, whether automated or human, or both together, distort what is true in order to create influence, to intimidate, to make money, or to influence political elections.

  2. People are increasingly finding out about what is happening in this country, in their local communities, and across the wider world, through social media, rather than through more traditional forms of communication, such as television, print media, or the radio.

Call me a cynic, but in my eyes, paragraph 1 simply describes democratic politics, a process in which people ‘distort what is true in order to create influence … or to influence political elections’. In an attempt to define ‘fake news’, the committee likewise describes a number of things which to my mind sound just like normal political or journalistic practice, e.g.

  • ‘Manipulated content: distortion of genuine information or imagery, for example a headline that is made more sensationalist.’
  • ‘False context of connection: factually accurate content that is shared with false contextual information, for example when a headline of an article does not reflect the content.’ [As I can personally testify from having had my articles appear under utterly misleading headlines put in by newspaper editors, this and the previous bullet point are absolutely standard journalistic practice.]
  • ‘Misleading content: misleading use of information, for example by presenting comment as fact.’ [As I’ve pointed out before, this is also completely standard.]

If the Committee were really investigating ‘fake news’, it would have to investigate itself and all its members’ colleagues, and indeed their entire profession. It would then have to consider all the profound questions which such an investigation would raise. But that, of course, is not going to happen. Likewise, the committee would have to investigate ‘traditional’ forms of journalism, which are guilty of many of the dubious practices identified. But that isn’t going to happen either. Instead, the report focuses entirely on the new phenomenon of social media, as if ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation’ were primarily their fault, rather than, say, the fault of politicians who mislead in order to win votes.

Paragraph 2 reveals what’s really at stake here. People are now finding out about the world in ways which the politicians aren’t able to manipulate as successfully as the previous sources of information. Power is shifting. They don’t like it. And they want to stop it.

The question then is how to do that. The answer is to find some ‘malign persons’ or institutions who can be associated with the shift of power and used to discredit it. This is where Russia comes in handy. And sure enough, the interim report devotes several pages to discussing the evil impact of Russia on British democracy, and in particular alleged Russian interference in the Brexit referendum. The evidence provided for this interference is pretty weak, much of it consisting of a discussion of businessman Arron Banks, who provided millions of pounds to the Leave campaign, and who also held some meetings with Russian officials to discuss business deals. Somehow, this connection is meant to show ‘Russian interference’, but quite how is never explained.

What’s clear is that the result of the Brexit referendum really irks the committee. It keeps coming back to it, mentioning, for instance, connections between the Vote Leave campaign and the companies AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica, which used data mining techniques to gather information from Facebook for political purposes. This made me think that maybe there’s a hidden agenda here. In the USA, it’s obvious that the paranoia over ‘Russian interference’ and the malign influence of social media is driven by power struggles within the political elite, prompted by the angst caused by Donald Trump’s election. Is it the same in the UK?

To answer this question, I did a bit of investigating and looked up the members of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and whether they had supported Remain or Leave during the Brexit referendum. The interim report lists 12 members of the committee. Here are the results:

Damian Collins MP (Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe) (Chair) – Remain.

Clive Efford MP (Labour, Eltham) – Remain.

Julie Elliott MP (Labour, Sunderland Central) – Remain.

Paul Farrelly MP (Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme) – Remain.

Simon Hart MP (Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) – Remain.

Julian Knight MP (Conservative, Solihull) – Remain.

Ian C. Lucas MP (Labour, Wrexham) – Remain.

Brendan O’Hara MP (Scottish National Party, Argyll and Bute) – Remain.

Rebecca Pow MP (Conservative, Taunton Deane) – Remain.

Jo Stevens MP (Labour, Cardiff Central) – Remain.

Giles Watling MP (Conservative, Clacton) – Remain.

Christian Matheson MP (Labour, City of Chester) – Remain.

Does it make sense now?

England v. Russia

O-o-o, England’s going to Russia!

O-o-o, Drinking all your vodka!

O-o-o, England’s going all the way!

When I was watching Belgium B play England B in Kaliningrad last week, the English fans were happily singing about drinking Russian vodka, but there was also a particularly loud Russian guy in front of me who was cheering the Belgians along, while occasionally throwing in chants of ‘Rossiya’ and ‘Baltika’ (the local team). Every now and again, as part of his abuse of the English, he would add in a reference to the ‘Skripals’, that is to say Sergei and Yulia Skripal, who were notoriously poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury. Quite what the Skripals had to do with football was beyond me, but it was clear that the Russian guy thought that their story was proof of ‘perfidious Albion’ and thus reason enough to support Belgium. In short, he obviously wasn’t buying the story that the Skripals were poisoned by the Russian secret services.

I doubt that he’s any more likely to think that way following the revelation of a new Novichok poisoning, this time in Amesbury, not far from Salisbury. The affected couple have no connection to Russia, and the speculation is that they came into contact with some residue of the nerve agent left behind after the original attack. This, of course, is not impossible, but given that even persistent chemical agents are affected by the elements (sun, rain, etc), sceptics will no doubt consider it a little odd and somewhat implausible.

My man in Kaliningrad was a bit of a loudmouth, but I suspect that his views on the Skripal affair are not unrepresentative of Russian public opinion – i.e. most Russians don’t think that their country is guilty, and if anything consider themselves the wronged party, while also regarding the British government as thoroughly nefarious. The latest news is likely to reinforce that point of view, and not just among rowdy football fans. For instance, the online newspaper Vzgliad declared today that the news from Amesbury ‘points to London’s direct participation in the “Skripal affair”.’ ‘How can Russia exploit the situation to finally put an end to suspicions in this regard?’ the newspaper asked.

But if the Amesbury incident is likely to confirm Russians’ belief in their innocence, it will probably also strengthen the British government’s anti-Russian position. For in British eyes, the incident underlines the irresponsible nature of the attack on the Skripals, involving the use of a weapon which not only struck its initial targets but also possibly contaminated a wide area, turning tens of thousands of innocent English citizens into potential victims. British Home Secretary Sajid Javid thus accused the Russian government today of being ‘reckless and callous’, and commented that the use of chemical agents was ‘barbaric and inhumane’. ‘It is completely unacceptable for our people to either be deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns to be dumping grounds for poison,’ said Javid.

Given how strange this entire story is, I await the results of further investigation before coming to any judgement about what has actually happened. In the meantime, the latest twist in the tale will probably serve to reinforce existing positions – those who blame the Russians will be even more convinced of the evil nature of the Russian government, while sceptics (including most Russians) will become even more sceptical. In the days to come, expect positions to harden, and if we end up with a Russia-England World Cup semi-final, look forward to some chants about Novichok in Moscow on 11 July.

Dirty money, dirty politics

A week ago, the British House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs issued a report entitled ‘Moscow’s Gold: Russian Corruption in the UK.’  Given the title, one might imagine that this was all about corruption and the role played by Russian ‘dirty money’ in the British economy. In reality, the report conflates legal and illegal activity, and contains one statement which, in my opinion, verges on the libellous and constitutes an attempt to intimidate British companies from engaging in legitimate business. In this way, it goes beyond the usual criticism of Russia and into altogether more dangerous territory.

The fact that Russians have invested billions of pounds in the British economy is well known. The probability that some of this money comes from corrupt activities within the Russian Federation is also widely accepted. To the extent that the latter is true, this is a matter of proper concern to the British authorities, and it is right that something be done to clamp down on money laundering. The report ‘Moscow’s Gold’ makes much broader claims, however. It says that ‘There is a direct relationship between the oligarchs’ wealth and the ability of President Putin to executive his aggressive foreign policy.’ Supposedly, the ‘dirty’ money invested by ‘oligarchs’ with ties to the Kremlin can be used to undermine British democracy and for other aggressive activities. The report claims that ‘These assets, on which the Kremlin can call at any time, both directly and indirectly support President Putin’s campaign to subvert the international rules-based system.’

The committee fails to support this claim with firm evidence. The best that it can come up with is a statement by Mark Galeotti about what Galeotti calls ‘small-scale stuff’ in the Balkans, such as funding for websites. No evidence of any ‘large-scale stuff’ is produced, and absolutely no evidence to suggest that the Kremlin is in fact using dirty money invested in the UK for the ends claimed by the report. In any case, even if Russian oligarchs are indeed using their money to such ends, no evidence is provided to show that it is actually dirty money rather than legally invested money. In other words, the issue of corruption is conflated with something entire distinct.

The report likewise conflates corruption with perfectly legal business and financial deals, such as the flotation of Russian companies on the London stock exchange (in particular the Russian company EN+ in 2017) and the selling of Russian sovereign bonds in the British financial market. It may be the case, as the report says, that it makes no sense for the UK to permit such actions at a time when it is simultaneously imposing sanctions on Russia, but that is an entirely separate matter from that of corruption and money laundering.

And that leads me onto the thing which really struck me about this document. This was a statement about the British law firm Linklaters, which managed the flotation of EN+. Shortly before this, the report says ‘Both the EN+ IPO [Initial Public Offering] and the sale of Russian debt in London appear to have been carried out in accordance with the relevant rules and regulatory systems, and there is no obvious evidence of impropriety in a legal sense.’ Yet, it then goes on to say the following:

We asked Linklaters to appear before the committee to explain their involvement in the flotation of EN+ … They refused. We regret their unwillingness to engage with our inquiry and must leave others to judge whether their work at ‘the forefront of financial, corporate and commercial developments in Russia’ has left them so entwined in the corruption of the Kremlin and its supporters that they are no longer able to meet the standards expected of a UK-regulated law firm.

This is quite outrageous, and also cowardly. The committee in effect accuses Linklaters of corruption, while avoiding complaints of libel by use of the weasel words ‘we leave to others to judge’ – a way of making an accusation while claiming that one hasn’t. What’s so outrageous about the statement is that comes straight after a confession that the EN+ flotation was completely above board. Linklaters didn’t do anything wrong, and the House of Commons committee knows it. Nevertheless, it sees fit to suggest that the company is ‘no longer able to meet the standards expected of a UK-regulated law firm.’

The implication here is that any company which has extensive dealings with Russian enterprises is ‘entwined in the corruption of the Kremlin’ and so unfit to do business. I cannot interpret this as anything other than an attempt by the committee to threaten British companies and intimidate them into dropping their lawful activities. I consider this disgraceful.

The committee’s attitude can be seen again towards the end of the report, when it writes that ‘instead of participating in the rules-based system, President Putin’s regime uses asymmetric methods to achieve its goals, and others – so-called useful idiots – magnify that effect by supporting its propaganda. So, there you have it. People who do with business with Russia are to be publicly shamed as unworthy of the standards expected of the British people, while those who would dare to point this sort of thing out are to be denounced as ‘useful idiots’. Having any dealings with Russia makes one a Kremlin stooge.

What the British House of Commons ignores is that lots of British citizens have perfectly legitimate reasons to do business with Russia, and do so in an entire legal and proper way. And others also have very good reasons to question public policy regarding Russia. None of them deserved to be insulted in this way by their elected representatives. The authors of this report should be ashamed of themselves.

Playing at war

So, the Americans, British, and French have done their bit, and fired off 100 or so missiles at Syria. After all the fears expressed by pundits that this could be the start of World War III, it’s turned out to be a bit of a nothing-burger. That’s not to downplay the symbolic significance of the Western states’ assault on Syria, in which they acted as judge, juror, and executioner while the investigation into the alleged misdemeanour was still ongoing and chemical weapons inspectors were on their way to the site of the supposed incident. But, if early reports are to be believed, nobody was killed in the attack and the physical damage is fairly minimal. The Brits fired a mere 8 missiles; the French only 12. Those are hardly significant numbers. Given that the Brits and Americans have been meddling in the war in Syria for several years now, arming and training various groups, and bombing targets on their behalf (including occasionally bombing the Syrian Arab Army), this doesn’t really constitute much by way of escalation. Tomorrow, the Syrians will brush off the dust, and things will go back to the way they were. Russia (along with Iran) will continue to back the Syrian government, and the latter’s forces will continue to advance and regain more and more territory. It is most unlikely that this assault will have any meaningful impact on the outcome of the struggle in Syria.

What stands out for me is the choice of weapons in this attack: long-range missiles. The Brits, for instance, fired their missiles from close to their airbase on Cyprus. They didn’t come close to Syria. It seems that they were afraid of Syrian and Russian air defences, and they weren’t prepared to go to the effort of suppressing them, which would have required a long and costly campaign and would have run the danger of getting them into a war with the Russians. The Russian Ministry of Defence says that its own air defences didn’t get involved but that those of the Syrian army shot down 71 of the 103 missiles fired. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (not normally noted for promoting pro-Assad propaganda) claims that 65 were shot down. The Americans are currently denying this. The truth is hard to determine. It may be that the Western allies are right to be fearful of the Syrian/Russian air defence system. Or maybe not. What is clear, though, is that they don’t seem to be willing to take the chance. They also don’t want to get too deeply involved. So, they have limited themselves to firing a few missiles in an utterly pointless manner, while making some wild claims that this would ‘set back Syrian chemical weapons programme for years.’

This is playing at war. Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of how the Americans and the Brits wage war nowadays. They can’t resist getting involved, but the outcome doesn’t matter to them enough for them to commit the resources, and make the sacrifices, required for a successful outcome. So, in Afghanistan they committed themselves enough to stir up the locals, to flood the country with money which boosted corruption and filled the coffers of the Taliban, and generally to make everything worse, but not enough to win (which would  have required a simply enormous amount of resources). In Libya, they did just enough to push the country into chaos, but not enough to put it back together again. In Syria, they’ve pumped in enough weapons and money to thoroughly mess the place up (and in the process supply a whole bunch of people who really aren’t their friends), but not enough to overthrow Assad. And so on.

Now, to be fair, it’s a sign of some intelligence that they haven’t gone any further than they have. It would have been completely disproportionate to have done so. We must welcome the fact that in attacking Syria, they limited themselves to a symbolic gesture and stayed well clear of Russian targets. As I said in my last post, achieving the objective of regime change would require enormous destruction. It’s a good thing that our leaders aren’t prepared to go that far. The problem is, though, is that if they want to succeed that’s how far they have to go. If they’re not prepared to do so, they shouldn’t get involved at all in the first place. Unfortunately, they just can’t stop themselves. Consequently, they end up playing at war, failing time after time, while causing a lot of death and destruction in the process

These endless wars allow politicians to claim that they are being ‘strong’, or more precisely fend off complaints that they are ‘weak’. But they don’t make Britain, America, or France any safer, while those at the receiving end of Western militarism suffer greatly because of it. As far as Syria and Russia are concerned, I suspect that the net result of the latest assault will be to reinforce Russian perceptions that the West is hell-bent on a policy of military and political aggression in which Syria is the front line. They will conclude that Russia must see the war in Syria through to a successful conclusion, and also that the Western states, despite all their bluster, don’t possess the will to stop it. One can therefore expect Russia to press on, and because it has the superior will, it will most likely succeed.

Fearmongering, pure and simple

‘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.

The national interest?

This evening, the class I teach on military and defence policy will be discussing the concept of the ‘national interest’ and whether it has any value. One of the questions I will pose to the students is ‘who defines the national interest?’ That will lead us on to a discussion of the idea of the ‘military industrial complex’, and again we will debate whether this term has any value. The point will be to consider whether defence policy flows naturally from some objective ‘national interest’ or whether it is instead determined by certain narrow, vested interests (or perhaps some combination of the two).

In a happy coincidence of timing, the head of the British Army (of which once, a long time ago, I was a member), General Sir Nick Carter, has provided us with a relevant case study to chew upon in our class. The BBC reports that in a speech tonight to the Royal United Services Institute, General Carter will argue that, ‘Britain’s armed forces risk falling behind Russia without more investment.’ According to the BBC, General Carter ‘will say the Army’s ability to respond to threats “will be eroded if we don’t keep up with our adversaries” … He will add that Russia is building an increasingly aggressive expeditionary force, which already boasts capabilities the British Army would struggle to match.’

Making exact comparisons between countries is somewhat difficult, as exchange rates fluctuate considerably, and there is some disagreement as to what should be included as ‘defence’. According to some estimates (e.g. the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), Russia spends a bit more on defence than the United Kingdom, perhaps a little under US $70 bn, compared with about $50 bn for the UK. That might seem to support the general’s point. However, the most widely respected database on the subject, the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Military Balance, lists British defence spending as being larger than that of Russia – $52 bn versus $46 bn. That doesn’t support the idea that Russia is more capable militarily than the UK. Perhaps a fair compromise might be to say that both countries’ spending is roughly in the same ball park. But Russia’s population is more than double that of the UK. Also, the UK is a very small country stretching just a few hundred kilometres from top to bottom, whereas Russia covers 11 time zones. The Russian armed forces have to defend not only their border with NATO, but also borders with the Caucasian and Central Asian states, China, and North Korea. The proportion of the Russian military which would be able to confront the UK in a conflict would be quite small. If you define capabilities in general terms, rather than a few specific items of military equipment, General Carter’s statement that Russia ‘boasts capabilities the British Army would struggle to match’ is rather hard to justify.

This is particularly so given that the UK is a member of NATO, and in the extraordinarily unlikely event that the UK and Russia ever went to war (the low likelihood of which is itself a point against General Carter), the British Army would never have to fight Russia alone. It would be part of a much larger alliance which outspends Russia by about 13 to 1. Just the European members of NATO outspend Russia by 4 to 1, and outgun it several times in terms of items of major military hardware (tanks, artillery, aircraft, ships, etc). NATO would certainly not ‘struggle to match’ Russia in the case of war.

The BBC notes that in his speech tonight, General Carter ‘will highlight Russia’s new cyber warfare capabilities.’ This is an odd choice of threat to highlight in order to appeal for an increase in defence spending. Combatting cyber threats isn’t an expensive activity, especially compared with, say, building and maintaining aircraft carriers. Mentioning it seems to serve only one purpose – to generate fear.

The BBC is quite clear about what’s going on here – there is ‘speculation of defence cuts’. To resist these, the Defence Minister has instructed the general to speak out about the Russian threat. The BBC says:

General Carter’s intervention is more driven by fears of further deep cuts to the UK’s armed forces. The Ministry of Defence has a black hole in its budget. It is rare for a military chief to make such an obvious and public appeal for more cash. But he’s doing it under the orders of the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. He has sent his generals over the top to put pressure on the chancellor.

When the Cold War came to an end, the justification for the British defence budget collapsed along with the Soviet Union. Defence planners instead came up with the idea of using the military to be a ‘force for good’, reshaping the world through armed intervention. Next, they used the terrorist ‘threat’ to justify increased budgets to pay for wars supposedly being fought against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of that worked out well, so the military has had to find a different justification for its money. And this is where Russia comes in useful. By exaggerating the Russian threat, the British army can make a claim to an increased share of the the country’s resources. The connection between the two – exaggerating threats and claiming resources – is quite explicit in this case.

We see here how the military industrial complex works. The army makes wild claims to justify its budget; the defence minister and his bureaucracy support the claims; institutions such as RUSI spread the word further among those who influence public opinion; and the press does its bit by giving space to the exaggerations. This isn’t a conspiracy – no doubt all these people believe in what they are doing. Long exposure to a given set of institutions tends to make people identify the national interest with those institutions’ interests. But the two aren’t the same. The British nation – that is to say its people – doesn’t benefit from conflictual relations with Russia; nor does it benefit from spending extra money on defence rather than on more productive activities (or alternatively, people getting their money back in the form of tax cuts).

Of course, the military industrial complex isn’t the only ‘complex’ making a claim on the government’s money. Other interest groups are pushing their own stories which justify them getting a large share of the pie at the expense of defence. They too will no doubt make exaggerations of their own. Government has to balance all the different claims for its resources from different groups, and in the process some understanding of the ‘national interest’ perhaps reasserts itself. But that shouldn’t deflect us from seeing in this story a crucial truth: one reason why Russia fear-mongering has become so widespread of late is that it serves powerful sectional interests to have an enemy.