Towards the next Defence and Security Review: Part Two-NATO - Defence Committee Contents

3  Russian Intentions

30. It is much easier to describe Russia's forces, military options, and doctrine, than it is to define Russia's intentions. Commentators differ markedly on whether Russia constitutes a significant threat to its neighbours or to NATO. One school of thought maintains that it is very important to understand Russia's point of view. They often emphasise that NATO and EU expansion into traditional Russian 'spheres of influence' has been provocative, and rash; argue that Russia's actions are defensive and understandable; and even imply that Crimea was 'really part of Russia anyway.' Generally, this position tends to favour a de-escalation of a conflict with Russia; resist any military measures which might 'restart the cold war'; encourage cooperation with Russia in the Middle East in particular; emphasise other threats elsewhere in the world, for NATO and the West (such as Islamic extremism); and, portray Russia as a potential strategic ally.

31. In the context of our report, for example, Lord Richards, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, told us that he did not believe that separatists in Ukraine were being orchestrated by Moscow.[41] He emphasised the historical Russian claims to Crimea.[42] The former Secretary of State has made it clear that he views terrorism not Russia to be the greatest threat to the UK, a view shared by Lord Richards.[43]

32. The other position, traditionally taken by the Baltic states and other former Warsaw Pact members—but following Crimea, now by a group of commentators in the UK and the US—portrays Russia as a substantial threat. Following the annexation of Crimea, the Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen has described Russia as "speaking and behaving not as a partner, but as an adversary."[44] He went on to say that

In recent weeks, Russian officials have accused NATO of breaking its promises, interfering in Ukraine's internal affairs, and escalating the crisis. It is time to see these claims for what they are: a smokescreen designed to cover up Russia's own broken promises, interference and escalation.[45]

33. The Secretary General of NATO has rejected claims that Russia was motivated by NATO enlargement, emphasising the intensive engagement between NATO and Russia which resulted in the NATO-Russia Council. [46] Sir Andrew Wood also discounted any theory that Russia was responding rationally to a NATO threat. He argued that the real threat to Russia lay in Ukraine becoming a more credible democracy than Russia.[47]

34. Edward Lucas of The Economist portrayed the Ukrainian intervention as part of a wider campaign by President Putin to consolidate his power base by

whipping up a sense of xenophobia and a sense that Russia is a besieged fortress, that the West is out to get Russia and has cheated Russia, and that Russia has suffered multiple injustices.[48]

35. Edward Lucas also suggested that the main reason that Russia is concerned about Ukraine moving towards becoming a part of the EU is that the reforms which would, by necessity, have to take place, would result in Ukraine becoming "law-governed, prosperous, democratic, with economic and political pluralism."[49] He notes that the existence of a stable democracy on Russia's borders would present an existential threat to Russia by highlighting the deficiencies in the current Russian system. [50]

36. The former Foreign Secretary, the Rt. Hon. William Hague told the House of Commons that the motivation behind the annexation of Crimea was "to restore Russian prestige,"[51] a comment supported by Major General (Ret.) Neretnieks of the the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.[52]

37. In evidence to us, it has been suggested that another motivation is that the military action taken by Russia was in response to President Putin's declining popularity. Protests in major Russian cities in 2011 followed Parliamentary elections which were widely criticised for being rigged. This combined with the recent slow down in the economy had made the Russian President vulnerable and his popularity ratings had dropped to below 50%.[53] Following the annexation of Crimea, President Putin's approval ratings have increased to 80%.[54] A number of our witnesses suggested that we might see a repetition of such operations in response to future waning of the President's popularity[55] or in response to internal troubles within Russia.[56]

38. Regardless of the merits of Russia's case, or Putin's motivation, Russia has consistently asserted a right and legal and moral duty to protect ethnic Russians who live abroad. This lay behind the Georgian intervention. The claim has been made that the revolution in Ukraine endangered Russian ethnic minorities in the country and it was on that basis that Russia sent troops in to Crimea and to the Ukrainian border.[57]

39. The arguments of some our witnesses suggest that instability inside Russia, a threat to Putin's power, or a steep decline in his popularity, might also create the precondition or provide the temptation towards more aggressive action in the name of Russians outside Russia. This is of particular concern for the Baltic States which have significant ethnic Russian populations. Sir Andrew Wood, a former Ambassador to Moscow suggested that the most likely area of attack would be the Baltic States although he believed it would be an asymmetric attack rather than a direct military confrontation.[58]

41   Q107 Back

42   Q103 Back

43   Q325; 99 Back

44   Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary General, NATO De-escalation starts on the ground, April 2014 Back

45   Ibid. Back

46   Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary General, NATO 'The Future of NATO: A Strong Alliance in an Unpredictable World', Chatham House 19 June 2014 Back

47   Q213 Back

48   Q154 Back

49   Q155 Back

50   Q155 Back

51   HC Deb, 18 Mar 2014 : Col. 655 [Commons Chamber] Back

52   Major General (Retd.) Karlis Neretnieks (TND0019) Back

53   P17, Russia, Ukraine and the West: Is Confrontation Inevitable?, Chatham House  Back

54   Q162 Back

55   Q162 Back

56   Q243 Back

57   Russia's humanitarian actions vs Western military interventionism: Tskhinval is not Tripoli, Crimea is not Kosovo, The Voice of Russia, 21 March 2014 Back

58   Q241 Back

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Prepared 31 July 2014