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If Russia is our main threat, why does the Defence Review not address it?


THE integrated review of foreign policy, defence and development issued last Tuesday made much of the assertion that our biggest security threat comes from Russia.  

As I have pointed out in another article, this is not so in the medium to long term – that accolade goes to China.

The current policy is about appeasement just as much as was Chamberlain’s policy towards Germany – persuade Beijing that we are more concerned about Moscow and perhaps exert concessions.  

The results will be no different from those of the 1930s. The Russians do, however, remain a real threat to European peace and security in the short term until a rapidly declining population, a gross domestic product about half ours, and economic stagnation as the West moves away from fossil fuels take their toll. 

So, if Russia is a threat, why does the review not put its money where its mouth is? Additional spending has been announced for defensive and offensive cyber capabilities, for space command, for Johnson’s Lockdown Central HQ in the Cabinet Office and for a range of other soft-power means.  

Some of this is needed and deserves credit – warfare in the virtual realm particularly so. The rest of it is simply about talking a good defence while not actually producing one.  

None of it will have any effect on the Russians, or indeed the Chinese, who take notice of hard power, not soft. Increasing expenditure on nuclear warheads is also just about talk and not action.  

We do not need more warheads to deter any other state. We already have enough to destroy the world twice over. And Islamic extremists cannot be deterred by nuclear weapons, since they do not fear death or destruction in this world – in fact, they are in love with it. 

Why are the Russians a problem in the short term? The review is correct up to a point in this.  

Under Putin, Russia has pursued a number of policy objectives. The first of these is the restoration of Russia as a great power, or even better, the new superpower, one to be reckoned with and taken seriously after the debacle of the Yeltsin years.  

The second and third are linked to this prime objective: the defence and restoration of Russian power and hegemony in the ‘near abroad’ – from the former republics of Soviet Central Asia, to the Ukraine and Belarus, to the Baltic; in the Arctic as the natural cycle of climate change opens up the ocean and its natural resources, and the frustration of Western powers’ force projection through UN vetoes and temporary alliances with clients and allies from China to Iran and Syria. By doing these two things, Russian prestige is built up while the West is made to look impotent. 

To achieve these ends, the ways and means are laid out in what is sometimes called the Gerasimov doctrine, or hybrid warfare, a way of warfare shaped by General Valeri Gerasimov.  

This doctrine is not entirely new, but rather a reshaping and repackaging of old techniques, employing new technologies and opportunities.  

The way this doctrine is put into effect is shaped by a number of factors, threats and opportunities.  

These include the use of clients, opposition parties and groups and proxies in target countries; a regular force/irregular force mix, such as that employed in Ukraine and in the Crimea; the experience of previous conflicts including Georgia, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Chechnya; the analysis of lessons from the Israeli/Hezbollah conflict; the utility of non-military pressures which include economic power and resources, public opinion at home and abroad, cyber opportunities, information warfare, psyops and media manipulation and diplomacy.  

The means to be used include natural resources and their transmission, such as oil and gas to Europe and the pipelines through which these run; conventional forces; new technologies allied with old Soviet methodologies and, of course, the role of nuclear weapons as a deterrent and a threat. 

Putin will generally seek to reduce risk through the use of non-military means until or unless the circumstances are favourable, because Russia knows that it cannot face the USA militarily, in the last resort, and win.  

Hence the annexation of the Crimea. Putin, perhaps wrongly, assessed that Ukrainian membership of the EU was probable and that this would lead inevitably to membership of Nato.  

This resulted from the EU’s clumsy coup against the elected regime in Kiev in contravention of an agreed strategy with Russia, which profoundly shocked the Kremlin.  

But it seemed clear to them that a Russian naval base in a Nato member state would never be tolerated, so the choice was an easy one: wait for ten years and confront the USA conventionally, or act immediately while Ukraine was isolated. 

Putin will always prefer options that are deniable, and a mix of military and non-military means allows him continually to adapt and always retain the initiative through creating or exploiting opportunities, for example by using cyber attacks.  

Of course, consulting no allies and heeding no red cards, Putin’s tempo of decision-making and action will always be faster than the alliance.  

Finally, the use of deception – maskirovka – at all levels will be essential in order to mislead us, dislocate us, and exploit our vulnerabilities. The use of grey areas in international law, and the slowing of our response through diplomacy will be inherent. 

We have seen Russian hybrid warfare at work in Ukraine. It is entirely possible that one or more of the Baltic states could be a target, hence the deployment of Nato battlegroups to those countries and the forward basing of US troops in Poland rather than in Germany.  

The Baltic States all have significant Russian populations which can form the basis of client groups, or provide the excuse of aid to an oppressed minority; Russian naval deployments in the Baltic Sea over the past few years betray an obvious pattern of a cordon sanitaire to impede Western intervention.  

Russian submarine, naval and air encroachments into British, Danish and Norwegian territorial waters and airspace have returned to Cold War levels – no doubt a precursor to an operation to fix our depleted forces prior to such an intervention.  

Even though the US Army and Air Force retain a considerable presence in Europe – the US Army is re-forming the V Corps for this purpose – the conventional overmatch is horrible.  

The combined total of Nato divisions in Europe is probably around 20, but at a low level of training, readiness and logistic sustainability, and spread from Denmark to Gibraltar and from England to Bulgaria.  

The Russian ground forces comprise approximately 30 combined arms divisions or division-equivalents, at least ten air defence brigades and ten missile brigades, not including the air defence divisions and corps assigned to the air defence command: 2,800 main battle tanks, 5,000 infantry fighting vehicles, 2,000 artillery pieces, 1,300 rocket systems.  

If the circumstances were right – the US was looking somewhere else, or Putin detected the lack of will to fight, or felt threatened – an adventure is possible with a heavy local superiority of forces.  

It would be over long before reinforcements could reach Europe from Britain or the US – and then what? Would there be any will in Nato to launch a counter-attack? 

Of course, nuclear weapons remain a vital element of the deterrence to such an adventure. But deterrence works only if it is credible.  

Credibility depends on the will to use such weapons and in the case of the West, a first use is unthinkable. So Russian nuclear brinkmanship is entirely possible.  

For this reason, credible deterrence needs to be built around strong conventional forces. For the British Army, leaving Germany was a huge mistake and now irreparable.  

If Russia is the threat, we need to be taking steps to secure our own territorial waters and airspace and making a significant contribution to Nato on the ground.  

The first requirement should be built on an air force capable of intercepting and defeating Russian aircraft in large numbers, backed by ground-based air defence. With only five squadrons of air defence aircraft and no ground-based air defence at all, we have a long way to go.  

The security of our territorial waters means a navy that once more embraces submarines in large numbers, along with frigates, destroyers and cruisers capable of securing the sea lanes.  

Do we need aircraft carriers? Maybe – but we live on a very large aircraft carrier parked off the European coast.  

For the Army, it means a corps of at least three divisions, two of them properly armoured – that is, with six tank battalions per division – with supporting artillery, air defence, armed helicopters and reconnaissance capabilities and backed up by an air force to provide air cover and ground attack in the enemy’s depth.  

With air superiority, most things are possible. Without it, not much can succeed. The Army also needs adequate logistics and measures for rapid deployment, using the European rail network starting at the Channel Tunnel. 

To rebuild such a force will take time, effort and money – and a new structure to procure the right equipment quickly. If Russia really is the main threat, Mr Johnson, you had better abandon space command, more nukes, soft power and your Lockdown Central – and get cracking. 

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Jonathon Riley
Jonathon Riley
Lt Gen Riley is a former commander of British Forces in Sierra Leone and Iraq and Deputy Commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan.

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