Why Britain does not need to prepare for a Russian invasion…
At a conference somewhere sometime held under Chatham House rules, I heard from a journalist from a distinguished British publication that the British press had one particular rule one would do well abide by: not to write good things about Russia. Judging by the piece from a few weeks ago entitled ‘The Russian Threat is Real… we need to prepare for it’, it seems that the Beaver operates as the quintessential British establishment paper. I will not be acting as a Kremlin apologist here, but what I shall argue is that whilst Russia may well seem to be a national security threat when one looks at things like military spending and allegations of electoral manipulation, the reality of modern political economy is such that what Russia actually wants on the international scene is just to be friends… on its own terms.
McMafia, a series which has just recently finished its run on BBC One (and one I highly recommend to all LSE students as it features an ex-Goldman Sachs intern turned hedge fund manager turned partner at International Organised Crime Capital) shows the Russian state as directly benefiting from the global operations of the Russian mafia. I am not here to confirm or deny this as, contrary to popular belief, not all Russian Government students are on a first-name basis with Putin. My argument here is that that the Russian state is very much interested in doing business in the West, and that the West is making things very difficult for it through petty things like sanctions. Which is why I do not think that Russia truly wants to initiate hostilities against the West, but rather conducts military exercises and escalates spending to signal to the international community that Russia is not an enemy it wants to make over any of the potential areas of conflict (and there are many), as well as to secure its strategic position against NATO expansion – and here I see K Yeung’s article on why Russia needs a Crimean port as particularly constructive.
In the foreign policy arena, Russia only does as much as it can get away with. It will not be able to get away with open conflict with a NATO member like Britain. Let’s see why. First, its military is already otherwise occupied, although I would not presume to say where. Secondly, in a nuclear age, conflict with any other nuclear nation or ally of many nuclear nations is infeasible. Thirdly, Russia would not really need to go to war, as Russia both makes money through Europe’s reliance on its energy resources and because a war with the West is unlikely to give Russia’s elites any real political benefits. The Kremlin is perfectly happy to fuel the glorious fire of patriotism by annexing territories with historical ties, but it would not want to risk the comfort and wellbeing of its own citizens by starting a full-blown war which it cannot win, especially at a time when it feels sufficiently threatened by the political opposition to have allegedly barred the main opposition candidate, Aleksei Navalny, from standing in the free and fair 2018 Presidential elections.
So if Russia does not truly want war, what does it actually want? Why does it keep acting in such ways that lead some to accuse it of interfering in political processes or provoking hostility? Some would say that all of this is to assert Russia as a Great Power and to boost Putin’s credentials as the world’s most powerful man. My feeling is that Russia’s people already see Russia as a Great Power, and all the Kremlin wants to do is create an international environment conducive to the country’s economic development and the well-being of its citizens. This must not, however, come at the expense of Russia being seen as the disadvantaged side in any exchange, as the Russian people do not respond to the country being seen as weak. Hence, the Kremlin must do everything it can to be seen as serious on the international stage, which could explain its military escapades and shows of force of every kind (including electronic).
I think Russia’s ideal international environment would be one where Russia could reliably sell its exports abroad, and I think Moscow realizes that the EU is a much more reliable trading partner than any of the other BRICS economies or the Central Asian republics it likes to entertain. The Kremlin would also quite enjoy a continuous stream of foreign investment into Russia’s various regions and industries – it is no surprise that Putin hosts a World Economic Forum at St Petersburg every year. The hope is that such investment will make the perennially underdeveloped regions of Russia somewhat more liveable and economically prosperous. The people will be happy, the governors will be happy, the Kremlin will be happy and, importantly, Russian businessmen doing deals with these foreign companies will be happy.
What McMafia teaches us is that Russians never cease to stop looking for ways to make international partnerships profitable. To my mind, this extends to the level of sovereign states. A more conciliatory West that starts respecting Russia’s sphere of influence a bit more by pausing attempts at NATO expansion will realize that Russia may just stop its aggressive displays and that removing sanctions becomes a win-win situation. Russia wants to trade, not fight, but only as long as it is treated as an equal in the international arena. Any calls to increase spending on the British military, as the ones voiced in a previous issue, therefore serve few purposes other than to deprive the chronically underfunded NHS and struggling inner-city schools of much-needed funding. Britain should pay its nurses and make sure the kids all go to uni, as Britain will be stronger for it.