Russia as the UK’s number one security threat

Once again I am grateful to RT International for inviting me to do a live interview that forced me to put on my thinking cap and get my mind around a key development in international relations that might have not caught my attention were it not for their prompting me.

To be specific, I was invited to comment on Boris Johnson’s presentation to Parliament two days ago

of the 110 page paper entitled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age.”

That paper covers a lot of ground, but the Russian interest in it focused on one issue only: the designation of Russia as the UK’s chief security threat, while China, the other major power that otherwise has been characterized by the Collective West these past several years as being “revisionist” and “expansionist,” as well as a flagrant violator of our values, alongside Putin’s Russia, is designated in this paper merely as a “competitor.”

By their own report on the British foreign policy paper and by the nature of the questions tossed to me by the presenter, it was obvious that the policy line at RT is to hold Russia blameless and to deny that it is a security threat to the UK; to insist that Russia seeks only good relations with the UK and with the West generally.

I did not oblige, saying instead that I agreed with the British assessment regarding both Russia and China today.

It is a remarkable feature of RT that I was nonetheless allowed to continue uninterrupted my prepared statement on the significance of the “Global Britain” for what must have been a total of six or eight minutes.  This serious openness to unexpected, possibly even unwelcome commentary from experts abroad who are given the microphone would never, ever happen on CNN, Fox News, the BBC or any of the famous defenders of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the West. Never.  Indeed the occasion would not present itself, since interviews of this kind in Western media are almost always pre-recorded and cut to fit the desired position of the hosts or simply suppressed if not deemed suitable.

Now, why had I reached my conclusion about the nature of relative threat to British security posed by Russia and China respectively. Here is my reasoning:

China is at present and for the foreseeable future a regional, not a global power. It is expanding its military and political posture in Southeast Asia and is building its navy first to push back the United States naval presence.  A look at the map shows that China and the UK are at opposite ends of the globe and the UK today has no navy to compare with the US Pacific and Indian Ocean fleets.

As for Russia, although Barack Obama had once remarked that Russia is only a regional power in the same derogatory tone as he suggested that Russia made nothing that the world wants, Vladimir Putin had the presence of mind to ask “and in which region is Russia a regional power.”  Behind the clever retort was the reminder that Russia is the world’s largest land power which bridges two continents.  But let us put that rhetoric aside for the moment. If Russia is indeed just a regional military and political power, its region is Europe, which it shares with Britain.  And within that region, Russia is undisputedly the single greatest military power, far greater in men, equipment and technological prowess than any single European power  taken separately, and arguably, greater than all of them together as represented by NATO.  In this context, it is quite correct to identify Russia as the greatest security threat to the UK.

But, the RT presenter argued, Russia has no aggressive intentions directed against the UK. Russia wants only normal, civilized relations.

My response is that U.S. military thinking ever since 9/11 has been unmistakable:  it is capability and not intent that makes another power a threat to the US. This was built into the “Bush Doctrine” and its elements may be traced still further back to 1992 and the Defense Planning Guidance developed by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz when the USA was still the unchallenged single super-power in the world.  We may assume that this same logic has guided the British determination today that Russia is a major threat to their security. Talk of incursions into UK territorial waters or air space is just a smoke screen for the real determining factors in the risk analysis.

In my little programmatic statement, I pointed out that the timing of the release of this new British foreign policy paper was set to underpin the hoped-for re-confirmation of Britain’s so-called “special relationship” with the United States.  It follows quickly upon the installation of the new Biden Administration and upon the finalization of Britain’s departure the European Union on New Year’s Day, which deprived Britain of its coveted status as America’s Trojan Horse within the EU.  “Global Britain” is an attempt to show to Washington just how useful Britain can be in defending common values and deterring autocratic powers like Russia that threaten us both. 

This new appeal to Washington is underpinned by another key point in the “Global Britain” paper – the decision to raise its nuclear warhead stockpile for its Trident submarine fleet by 40% in coming years.  A great deal of money will be poured into this strategic initiative which surely has the intent to remind the USA of Britain’s nearly exclusive position as a nuclear power supporting the US deterrence globally.  Apart from the less manageable French, no other NATO power can give the US a strategic helping hand.

It is worth noting that the increase in strategic spending will be partially offset by cutbacks in tactical support men and equipment. Britain will be shedding 10,000 troops and mothballing tanks and ships. This is not a stand-alone decision. It means that Britain’s value to NATO for power projection in the European and other theaters will decline proportionally.

The decision to turn its back on the recent decades of leadership in nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear arms reduction has been denounced by British peace-niks.  Their concern misses the point.  It is scarcely credible that the British investment in a warhead stockpile will hasten deployment, not to mention use of nuclear arms.  It is primarily a lever for maintaining the longstanding relationship in global affairs with Washington.

As regards, the characterizations assigned to Russia and China in the “Global Britain” paper, there is also another important guiding consideration.  Following the recent closure of the post-Brexit transition period, Britain is suffering great disruption to trade with its hitherto single greatest commercial partner, the European Union.  It can ill afford to see any worsening of relations with China, which will likely overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy before the close of this decade.  Accordingly, whatever the UK Government may think of human rights violations in China or of the alleged violations to its agreements with the PRC over the status of Hong Kong, Britain cannot afford to paint China as an adversary.

However, Russia is a different case. British commercial interests in Russia are minimal. Russia can easily serve as a punching bag to show up Britain’s tough guy stance to a Washington audience.  In this sense, British and US interests are wholly aligned.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

2 thoughts on “Russia as the UK’s number one security threat

  1. Capability, not intent. That’s a point I’d not really thought about, so thank you very much for that insight. That helps to clarify a lot of things.


  2. I’ve been saying for years that Russia is the real competitor to America’s superpower status, not China. Meanwhile today on CNN: “President Joe Biden is suddenly waging a bitter two-front confrontation with America’s foe in the last Cold War — Moscow — and the US adversary in a possible next one — China.”

    Note that CNN is continuing the trope, like most Americans, in thinking China is the greatest adversary while they treat Russia like an old tired and defeated foe. That’s because they are bedazzled by numbers like GDP and have no understanding of real power. The collapse of Russian studies in America is also to blame: The Western public remains utterly clueless of developments in Russia, blinding themselves with dogmatic anti-Putin rhetoric and worn-out stereotypes of Soviet Russia. At least the Brits recognize who their competitor is, good on them.

    Meanwhile the Americans, in their usual self-centered obnoxiousness will probably ignore the Brit’s warning and continue focusing their energy on the wrong enemy (China) until it’s too late. The few voices like the late Stephen Cohen who understood what was going on were unfortunately marginalized.


Comments are closed.