“Russia has become more aggressive, authoritarian and nationalist, increasingly defining itself in opposition to the West.”
“The risks from state-based threats have both grown and diversified … the indiscriminate and reckless use of a military-grade nerve agent on British soil was an unlawful use of force by the Russian State. It happened against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian State aggression.”
These are the respective musings of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015 and the National Security Capability Review (NSCR) 2018. They highlight the trend of Russia being considered as an increasing security threat to the United Kingdom.
In the years since these reports, Moscow has deployed a military-grade nerve agent on the streets of Britain, conducted multiple cyber-attacks through proxies and made several serious attempts at testing the resilience and capability of the armed forces. This is just to name a few of the hostile actions from the Kremlin.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Harry Basnett, a graduate of International Politics and Strategic Studies BA (Hons) from Aberystwyth University.
So, with an upcoming SDSR due for publication in 2020 and in the month that seven Russian warships were escorted through the English Channel, the question must be asked: just how much of a challenge is Russia to our national security? And indeed, where should Moscow be placed in the SDSR on a scale of threats?
In answering these questions, it is important to look at evidence of Russian hostility. The most prominent of which, appears to be the increase in Kremlin directed intelligence operations across the British Isles in the years since 2015.
The deployment of a military-grade nerve agent, ‘novichok’, in Salisbury in 2018 is the most infamous example of this. This saw the attempted murder of two Russian citizens, Sergei and Yulia Skripal by members of the GRU; leading to the hospitalisation of the Skripals, the police officer who found them unconscious and later two British citizens who had come in to contact with the nerve-agent.
One of these Britons, Dawn Sturgess later died from her exposure. An extensive clean-up operation took months to complete, in which time, traces of the nerve-agent were a significant risk to all Britons in the area. No similar attack has happened in Britain since the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, again at the direction of Moscow.7 Indeed, no similar Russian operations have taken place in another country, which we are aware of. This suggests that the Kremlin is not just capable of launching an attack in Britain, but it is willing to do so too. No doubt should be left in our minds that Russian intelligence operations have increased in severity and frequency since 2015 and the SDSR should reflect this reality.
Though, the hostility has not been limited to this singular event. Cyber-attacks through state-sponsored proxy forces have become the weapon of choice for the Putin administration, infiltrating many European and Western states, including Britain.
A publication from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) in 2018 gave accountability for twelve groups operating in the UK, including ‘APT 28’, ‘Fancy Bear’ and ‘Sandworm’ to the GRU.8 These units have launched activities including the collection of emails from a British television station and a spread of ransomware – ‘BadRabbit’.
These events caused damage to individual and corporate securities, and present the inevitability for future occurrences, which may or not be more severe. We also await the conclusions of the Intelligence Security Committee’s (ISC) report which is anticipated to show evidence of Russian cyber-infiltration in UK political systems.
This evidence lies among a wider picture of malign Russian cyber activity in Europe, including operations in France and Germany. It shows the Kremlin’s ability and consistency in deploying dangerous cyber weapons against the UK. The SDSR must draw on this challenge when making conclusions about threats to national defence.
The increasing pugnaciousness and frequency of Russian intelligence operations is not the only evidence of hostility; Moscow has, in recent years deliberately sought to test the capability and resilience of the armed forces.
There has been increasing incidents of Russian aircraft flying close-to UK airspace and heightened activity in waters around the British Isles. Already in 2020 there has been reports of such, including one case where six RAF jets were deployed to mandate Russian Tupolev Tu-142 Bear bomber aircraft to change their course.
In addition to the already mentioned passing of seven warships through the English Channel, requiring nine Royal Navy vessels to shadow their movements.
This too lies among a backdrop of increasing ballistic missile tests by the Kremlin and support for secessionist movements in Ukraine which continue instability in the east of the country; showing a pattern of direct and increasing military action from Moscow towards western states.
Indeed the report of House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) noted these factors demonstrate the Kremlin’s hostility.
“Russian actions and statements by senior figures imply that Russia is reinforcing itself for the prospect of future conflict with the West.”
So, where do these factors place Russia on a scale of threats? To answer this question we must observe other challenges facing our national defence and judge where the Kremlin lies in correlation to them.
In the 2015 SDSR and 2018 NSCR Moscow was matched by only factor – international terrorism. Thus, it seems apt to view the significance of this threat against the Russian challenge.
It appears that since the last SDSR, and even the NSCR that the global security situation has changed; no longer is international terrorism the major threat it once was. ISIS has lost the majority of its caliphate in the middle-east. And while other organisations such as Hezbollah are a challenge to British and allied interests in the middle-east, the risk does not appear, at this time to extend to the British homeland. In contrast, Moscow’s operations appear to reach our shores, as shown through the Salisbury poisoning, cyber-attacks and testing of our military capabilities.
Therefore, while terrorism is still a challenge and should be addressed in the SDSR, Russian hostility appears to present a much more significant risk. For this reasoning, in the review, Moscow must be appreciated as the most prominent threat facing Britain in 2020.
And while some might argue that global warming or a viral-pandemic is a more significant challenge, this is a fundamentally flawed argument. Yes, climate change does pose a threat to the economic and geographic security of the UK. And while a viral pandemic such as COVID-19 too threatens these, they are issues which affect the globe and thus require a collective solution, not only a London-centric one. But the Kremlin, that is a challenge which needs to be addressed by Britain, for the importance of its own national security.
In fact, the SDSR should go beyond this and implore the reforms needed to foreign and defence policy to protect Britain from the changed global situation. For too long the UK has been challenged by intrastate actors and government policy adapted to cope with these threats. This has left deficiencies in crucial areas and now the tide has turned. The threat no longer lies in conflict with terrorist groups, but in the risk of direct or indirect confrontation with the Kremlin.
The 2020 SDSR must reflect this change and create precedent for reforms to defence structures and foreign policy to accommodate for this resurgent threat.