Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Bear and the Lion: Russia and Britain, European outsiders?

If there is a single word which sums up the Anglo - Russian geo-strategic rivalry it is history. To be precise the 200 years of history after 1815 have, with few notable exceptions, featured foreign policy competition between these two states. Both sit on the periphery of the European continent, separated from the core not only by geography but also different political traditions from the central European states. For Britain constitutional monarchy, liberal values and the rule of law have formed the basis of political life for two hundred years. In contrast the Russian system has tended towards autocracy, illiberalism, and the rule of oligarchs, with each political 'dynasty' eventually collapsing and giving way to the next. The Russian Federation under President Putin is simply the latest expression of a political culture that dates back hundreds of years.

It is fair to say that both countries are located in Europe, but neither is truly European. Both look outside of the continent for important aspects of their national character. Britain's cultural, economic and military ties with the Anglosphere states (The United States, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) exert a powerful force that still draws the country away from the politics of the European core. Similarly, the vast and sparsely populated territory east of the Ural mountains lends Russia its distinct Eurasian character. In times past this distinct Eurasian Russian-ness was coupled with the Communist ideology and a command economy to form a variant for state organisation very different from the Western model. Over a quarter century since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the dissolution of the Soviet Union Russia is still yet to demonstrate any significant moves towards becoming more European. Britain's Atlanticist traditions, especially its 'special relationship' with the United States has exerted a similar draw on Britain away from a purely European future.

So what to make of the conflict in the Ukraine? To really get an understanding of what is driving Russia's involvement in the country it is essential to consider natural defensive barriers as more than a way of keeping hostile armies out of a state's territory, but also a means of insulating that same state from unwanted foreign influences. Both Britain and Russia used their natural defenses to insulate themselves from the political ideas carried by the armies of revolutionary France in the 19th century and fascist Germany in the 20th. To understand why the Ukraine is so vital to Russia's perceived security interests it is necessary to understand the nature of Russia's particular natural defensive advantage. While the English Channel obviously constitutes a formidable British 'moat' the thousand or more miles between the nearest Western NATO state and the Russian Capital is what insulates the 'Russian system' from unwanted European influences. Until recently pro-Russian regimes in Belarus and the Ukraine, and the reluctance of NATO to station troops in the Baltic States, has maintained an ideological and military protective buffer zone between central Europe and Russia. It now seems inevitable that the collapse of the corrupt regime of President Yanukovych in 2014, and its replacement with a Westward looking provisional government, would have illicited a response from Russia in any case.

Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine, winter 2014.
The speed and ferocity of the response seems to have taken many Western capitals by surprise, war had returned to Europe seemingly out of the blue. 'Little Green Men' suddenly appeared in the Crimea and so much confusion and doubt was sown that before a coherent response could be formulated the Russian flag was flying in Sevastopol. By the time the smoke had cleared and it had become obvious that Russia was waging near open war against one of its neighbors their troops and Eastern Ukrainian separatists had occupied over a third of the country. The NATO response to date has included the imposition of damaging sanctions on Russia, which have reportedly shaved 9% off the GDP of an economy already struggling due to the recent collapse in oil and gas prices. The US plans to station equipment for an armored brigade in Poland, and the forces assigned to the Baltic air patrol mission (active since 2004) have had small additions made to them. While certain news outlets in the UK have hailed the crisis in Ukraine as the beginning of 'a new Cold War', for which Britain is woefully unprepared, the Western reaction has generally been rather subdued.

So, should more be done? Is this really the first move by a resurgent and militarist Russia bent on re-establishing its domination over Eastern Europe? To both questions I would issue a resounding no. Russia has fallen far since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the state has become increasingly reliant on the export of oil and gas for much of its revenue and the tumble in prices since the American 'fracking revolution' is hitting them hard. The Russian armed forces may appear formidably large on paper, but much of their equipment is old or obsolete. Of their 12,800(!) tanks only 2600 are assigned to 'active' units, and 1700 of those are aging Soviet-built T-72s. In total Russia possesses around 900 relatively modern tanks assigned to active military units. In comparison the US army has just under 1200 extremely modern M1A2 SEP Abrams tanks in its inventory, some of which have already been moved back into bases in Germany. In truth, while the Russian armed forces look large and impressive on parade in Red Square, in an offensive conventional war against NATO they would lose badly. Make no mistake, we won't be seeing the Third Shock Army rolling through the Fulda Gap anytime soon. Instead, I would argue that Russia is fighting in the Ukraine in an attempt to preserve a rump buffer zone between them and the pro-European government in the West of that country. Without this their leaders fear that a Westward looking 'Europeanised' Ukraine will eventually undermine the current system to such an extent that it could bring about civil unrest and the possibility of another revolution. Russia is fighting to remain an European outsider, because to be anything else would mean the collapse of the current system of corruption and patronage that underwrites the power of President Putin.

The Russian armed forces: formidably large but largely obsolete
So where does this leave Britain? If Russia feels threatened by European ideas to such an extent that it is willing to go to war with its neighbors, in spite of the serious economic damage that it has incurred for doing so, then it seems that we're dealing with that rarest of things, a 'vital national interest'. While it is nice for Britain to support freedom and democracy around the world, and we should politically oppose the illegal annexation of any and all Ukranian territory by Russia in forums like the UN and EU, a less corrupt Ukraine is not worth radically altering our defence and foreign policy posture towards Russia for. Their track record of intervening in neighboring states to prevent the spread of Western institutions like NATO, just look at the 2008 war in Georgia, seems pretty clear. If institutions like the EU and NATO want to expand into these areas then they should expect serious push back from a Russian regime that believes it is fighting to preserve its long term existence. In the opinion of the author it is simply not worth meddling in these areas. Talk of arming the regime in West Ukraine is dangerous. Russia has already made it clear that they are not going to be overly cautious or use half-measures, they're playing for keeps. We have to ask ourselves to what extent are we seriously invested in a Western future for Ukraine, and are we willing to go as far as Russia has to achieve that?

In the meantime Britain is fighting its own battle to remain the other 'European outsider'. In the capitals of Europe and in Brussels the future direction of the European Union, and Britain's place in it, is being shaped. Like Russia, Britain is struggling against the embrace of a purely European future, as powerful cultural and political forces ensure that we will continue to question and challenge many European institutions, from an outsider's standpoint.

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