95.In this chapter we examine how the UK and NATO have responded to the Russian military actions outlined in the previous chapter. We also consider whether the UK and NATO have the right tools to deter or counter Russian military actions.
96.UK strategy towards Russia has four main objectives:
97.The SDSR 2015 set out a firmer tone and referred to the need to “reassure our Allies against the threat from Russia”.151 In this respect, NATO plays a key role in UK policy towards Russia. SDSR 2015 highlighted the importance of NATO to national defence policy and, in written evidence, the MoD reaffirmed NATO as “the strongest and most effective military alliance in the world” which had “formed the bedrock of our national defence, and of stability in the Euro-Atlantic area, for almost 70 years.”152
98.Furthermore, the SDSR was informed by NATO requirements and, in respect of Russia, these were reflected in the decisions taken:
The choices we have made to invest in our Special Forces, cyber, Maritime Patrol Aircraft, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance aircraft and BMD show our commitment to meeting NATO’s highest priority requirements.153
99.In March 2014, in response to Russian actions in Crimea, the EU and the USA imposed asset freezes and travel bans on selected Russian and Ukrainian officials. These were consolidated with new and extended sanctions against Russia in July 2014.154
100.Before the sanctions, Russia had become economically dependent on the West for imports, deciding “not to produce if it was possible to buy”.155 Sanctions were therefore deemed a great ‘strategic surprise’ for the Kremlin156. Dr Lo reinforced this point:
There is no doubt that the extent and duration of sanctions have come as a great surprise to the Kremlin. I think they have massively underestimated the extent of European unity.157
101.While sanctions may be having an economic impact on Russia, and on its leadership, the impact on Russia’s military posture has been minimal. Dr Bobo Lo highlighted the fact that the conventional wisdom that “if you labour under economic constraints, you will modify your military and geopolitical ambitions”,158 had not materialised in Russia. He argued that, far from depleting Russian defence transformation, sanctions have made Russia more assertive and aggressive because that was where Russia believed it could “make a difference”.159 We heard during a visit to Moscow that defence-related expenditure had been unaffected,160 and that the main impact of the sanctions was being felt by the Russian public.
102.The Secretary of State for Defence highlighted the importance of sanctions in responding to the conflict in Ukraine. He argued that sanctions were “making sure that Russia pays a price” and that they had resulted in a reduction in Russia’s GDP and increased its inflation.161 In oral evidence he stated that:
One of the principal weapons the West has for the aggression we have seen in Ukraine is, of course, the sanctions that are due to be rolled over at the end of July. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind just how critical that decision […] is.162
The ability of the United Kingdom to push successfully for the continuation or intensification of sanctions against Russia will now be put to the test in the light of the Brexit decision, even though the two-year exit process is yet to commence.
103.Whilst sanctions brought against Russia have caused economic harm, their effects are felt most keenly by the Russian public and they have not reduced Russian military investment and expansion. Nor have sanctions yet led to compliance with the Minsk Agreements. We agree that the EU sanctions should be renewed in July. We also call on the Government to consider extending travel bans to a larger portion of the Russian leadership.
104.At present there is little, if any, meaningful dialogue between Russia and the UK and the SDSR 2015 is silent on how military relations could be improved. In a letter to The Times, Dr Yakovenko, the Russian Ambassador to the UK, stated that:
Practically all political contacts were abruptly broken off at Britain’s initiative, political dialogue has gone at the top level, between the leaders. At the ministerial level there is also stagnation. This began with the Syria conflict, but we felt it especially after the Ukrainian crisis.163
105.He also highlighted the fact that:
It was written in the manifesto of the Conservative party that Russia represents a threat for Great Britain, Russia is a menace, that word was used, and Russia was put on the same plate as ISIS.164
106. The lack of dialogue between Russia and the UK is compounded by what many of our witnesses described as a lack of understanding of Russia, its capabilities and its intentions. Peter Pomerantsev said that to understand Russia better the UK and the West needed “a multidisciplinary team” including “people who understand Russian politics, Russian economics, Russian defence economics, and Russian military policy and strategy.”165
107.Unfortunately, the UK does not appear to have sufficient expertise to hand and Dr Bobo Lo argued that there had been a “shocking neglect” of Russia since the end of the Cold War.166 As an example, he highlighted the fact that while Japan had “about 200 Russia specialists in their Foreign Ministry”, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was “lucky if they have 10”.167 Those sentiments were echoed by Dr Monaghan:
It seems […] that we need to relearn with whom we are dealing. We have not thought about the Russians for 25 years or so. Suddenly, we have woken up with Crimea.168
David Clark also believed that in the UK Government, there had been an erosion of intellectual, linguistic and analytical capabilities as they related to Russia.169
108.This assessment of UK expertise was challenged by the UK Government. In written evidence, the FCO, which is responsible for coordinating Whitehall policy on Russia, asserted that it had established an Eastern Europe and Central Asia cadre of officials, which already numbered “400 members”.170 In a similar vein, the Secretary of State for Defence told us that the number of Russia specialists within the MoD had increased, and that a “specific Russia multi-disciplinary intelligence team” had been established.171 He also said that the MoD had:
Some 40 full-time equivalent staff who are working directly on Russian issues. They are supported by other analysts across our defence and intelligence, and others helping on the technical side.172
109.Whilst strengthening long-term Russia expertise in the FCO is a welcome and important innovation, it is notable that the Eastern Europe and Central Asia cadre was launched only in 2015, seven years after the Russian-Georgian conflict and one year after the annexation of Crimea. In addition, whilst there may be 400 individuals working on Russia-related areas, the number with in-depth country knowledge and Russian fluency is debatable. We would also welcome clarity as to how long they have worked on the Russian brief and accordingly, what is the level of institutional memory.
110.Rebuilding Russian expertise in Government will take time. As Dr Bobo Lo told us:
We are at the beginning of a pretty long road, so the key is not just to have a bit of extra defence spending or more Russia expertise; the key is to consider this as a long-term strategic project of capacity-building.173
111.Dr Monaghan further noted that part of this capacity-building was the need for better communication networks between Government institutions and Russian experts outside Whitehall.174 Peter Watkins of the MoD, however, said that it did draw on such outside expertise:
We talk to a number of the people who have given evidence to you before. We have discussions with them; we have conversations with them; we learn from them. As you say, there is a wide range of Russian expertise in this country, and we draw upon that. We also draw on Russian expertise in other countries.175
112.Despite the wider use of that expertise, the effectiveness of those ‘discussions’ and ‘conversations’ has been questioned. Dr Monaghan was concerned that expert information could stagnate within the Whitehall system due to a lack of realism regarding Russia’s true nature and intentions:
The substantive problem is that the expertise often briefs people on what is going to happen, but it hits a glass ceiling, because there is a great deal of mirror-imaging going on. We say, “Well, the Russians are like us, because they want to be democratic and they want to be an international partner working with us,” regardless of the fact that the Russians have said, “Well, we actually do not agree with you.”176
113.Russia has not been a UK priority since the end of the Cold War and our expertise in this field has withered on the vine. There are comparatively few Russian experts within the Government. Whilst the MoD says that around 40 specialists work on Russia, it is not clear what their level of expertise is, nor whether these cover full-spectrum assessment of Russia, including security, economics, and intelligence remits. The Government must set out how it will address this shortcoming in order to ensure a solid cadre of experts on Russia who can help to provide, over a sustained period, an effective response to the challenges now posed by Russia. We would also welcome clarity as to how long they have worked on the Russian brief and accordingly what is the level of institutional memory.
114.It is clear to us that there is a large pool of expertise on Russia which exists externally to the Government, and we welcome the efforts by the Government to utilise this. However, a large number of Russia experts alone will not solve the problem. If expert advice is not effectively understood and utilised within the decision-making systems of Whitehall, expanding the pool of knowledge will not deliver the required results. We recommend that the Government designate Russia as a high priority, and set out how the mechanisms within Whitehall will ensure that external advice is disseminated and acted upon at the highest levels.
115.One avenue towards greater understanding of Russian military thinking is the work of the Defence Attaché’s office in Moscow. Air Chief Marshal Peach, the CDS-designate, noted the importance of Defence Attachés’ roles in negotiating with host nations and building valuable networks of contacts:
We are making sure host nation agreements are in place and are exercised. Our attachés make frequent use of them, so that we can move weapons, ammunition, people and equipment.177
116.The size of the Defence Attaché’s office in Moscow, however, has declined in recent years. Whilst the current establishment of Defence Section Moscow is four Attachés (plus two military support staff), at the time of our visit to Moscow, only one of the four Attaché posts was filled.178 This chronic understaffing is due, in part, to visa restrictions imposed by the Russian Government in response to sanctions, but it is also a result of difficulties in identifying suitable individuals to fill the vacant posts.179
117.The importance of the role of the Defence Attaché became apparent during our visit to Moscow. It offers the UK a window into Russian military thinking, and an invaluable avenue for dialogue and knowledge-sharing. We are concerned that the MoD has yet to identify sufficient individuals to fill several vacant posts in that office. This must be done as a matter of urgency, alongside a commitment to expand the Moscow Defence Section to a size commensurate with, and at ranks which reflect, the importance of its role.
118.The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) was conceived in 2002 as a forum for discussion, cooperation, consensus-building and joint action.180 According to NATO, following Russia’s “illegal military intervention in Ukraine and its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”, all practical NATO-Russia cooperation was halted. The NRC was intended as an avenue for dialogue on key issues. However, since an exacerbating feature of current relations remains Russia’s assertion that NATO has violated the Founding Act by expanding eastwards, maintaining that dialogue has been difficult. However, we were told that NATO had:
Agreed to keep channels of communication open in the NRC and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council at the Ambassadorial level and above, to allow the exchange of views, first and foremost on this crisis.181
119.In April 2016—after a hiatus of nearly two years—it was agreed to reconvene the NRC. While this does represent an improvement, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that there would be “no return to business as usual until Russia again respects international law.”182 The NRC met in May 2016, but appears to have achieved little in terms of concrete outcomes.183
120.Dr Monaghan commented that “during the Cold War […] we did dialogue and deterrence, and they were done simultaneously. That was the core of NATO’s approach”.184 However, John Lough believed that this was no longer the case:
We don’t have systems in place to communicate clearly and effectively with the Russians. You saw the problem that Russia and Turkey had on the Syrian border not so long ago. We have had the buzzing of this US ship recently, where things can very easily go wrong.185
121.Dialogue between NATO and Russia is essential to reduce the risk of military escalation and misunderstandings between them both. It is not incompatible with a more adversarial relationship, such as has recently developed. We therefore welcome the reconvening of the NATO-Russia Council, while limited in outcomes, as an important step to re-establishing dialogue between Russia and the West.
122.Peter Pomerantsev told us that NATO’s conventional defence posture was in need of change if it was to meet the challenges presented by Russia:
It needs to get back into the business of forward defence, instead of defence in depth, because by the time we have defended in depth the battle will already be lost.186
123.One area of concern was that of air defence. Air Chief Marshal Peach told us that Russia had invested “heavily in air defence systems over decades”187 and therefore NATO needed to respond to that challenge “for security, as well as for defence in terms of electronic warfare.”188
124.Russia’s use of unconventional warfare has presented NATO and the UK with an additional challenge. As Mr Laity noted, NATO was “behind the curve” in this respect, despite the lessons of the Russo-Georgian conflict and the seizure of Crimea. While he assured us that NATO was “on this 100%”, he warned that NATO was still “playing catch-up.”189
125.Peter Watkins of the MoD gave us more detail on how this was being addressed:
I could mention a whole raft of things that NATO is doing at the moment to address, in particular, the concern about hybrid warfare. It is seeking to strengthen the resilience of its states and to strengthen their cyber-security. There is a NATO centre of excellence, for example, around Strat Comms, which is seeking to deal with the propaganda and the soft end of hybrid.
126.Air Chief Marshal Peach also outlined the steps being taken by NATO, as part of its Readiness Action Plan, to reduce the risk of NATO being taken by surprise in the future:
NATO has modernised its command and control. It has a brand new, state-of-the-art command and control system in the Supreme Allied Headquarters in Mons in Belgium, and that is fit for purpose. That is precisely why NATO is modernising its indications and warning system—so that it can understand what is happening and react to it—and that is precisely why NATO is continuing to add to its joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, which I suspect will be a feature of future discussions within the Alliance.190
127.Despite having heard extensively of NATO’s surprise at Russian actions in Ukraine, Mr Watkins stated: “I’m not sure that we did entirely miss it”191 before conceding that it was “a surprise”.192
128.Dr Sutyagin believed that a key difference between Russia and NATO was the high level of integration in the Russian military across the full spectrum of capabilities: manoeuvre forces, electronic warfare, psychological operations and countering special operations.193 Mr Pomerantsev agreed. He argued that NATO needed to “open up” the borders between defence, security and other capabilities at its disposal.194
129.When we visited Washington DC in March, we discussed the importance of ensuring that our systems could work with those of our allies. This applied to a range of areas including command and information systems. We visited the site where the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, promised in the 2015 SDSR, were being built for both the UK and the USA. We were also told that, at times, the lack of a standardised system of communication across NATO could cause problems. As Air Chief Marshal Peach noted: “The key word is interoperability”.195 It will be essential for all of the Government’s efforts, in conjunction with NATO’s, to be fully integrated and deployable in unison in order to manoeuvre forces with speed and dexterity.
130.It is clear to us that Russia has harnessed a wide range of capabilities which can rapidly be deployed for use in conjunction with classic military power. NATO needs to respond in kind if it is to counter unconventional as well as conventional warfare. We therefore most strongly recommend that NATO, as part of its response to Russia, addresses its shortcomings in terms of the full range of unconventional warfare.
131.Earlier in our Report we set out Russia’s use of disinformation in support of military actions. NATO’s response, however, does not appear sufficient to meet that challenge. Mr Pszczel argued that NATO does not “respond to propaganda with propaganda” and that what was required was an enhanced “proactive rebuttal policy”.196
132.Mark Laity, Chief of Strategic Communications at SHAPE, explained that NATO was trying to engage with Russian speaking communities “who need to be influenced” in order to counter Russia Today or Sputnik, but that what was needed were “trusted intermediaries”.197 This was also an objective of the UK Government and the MoD highlighted to us its efforts in this regard:
The British Embassy in Russia uses social media extensively to deliver a mix of cultural and political content in Russian language. With a total reach of around 200,000 people per month, UK in Russia Facebook page “likes” have almost doubled in the past year (from 5,458 on 19 Jan 2015 to 10,276 on 19 Jan 2016). […]. Since May 2015, the Embassy press team has increased efforts to reach Russian-speaking audiences by setting up a presence on home-grown Russian social media platform Vkontakte, currently with over 2,700 followers—reaching audiences of up to 30,000 per month. Visit Britain, UK Trade & Investment, and the British Council also manage their own active social media presence.198
133.There are, however, obvious practical difficulties in engaging with the Russian-speaking world. Tight controls over media inside Russia and language barriers persist. According to Mr Laity, “practically, it is very hard to get into the Russian Federation, but we shouldn’t abandon it. […] The problem that we have outside the Russian Federation is to come up with feasible competition [to Russia].”199
134.However, both Mr Pomerantsev and Dr Madeira thought that more could be done.200 Dr Madeira said that Western expenditure on disinformation was currently a fraction of that invested by Russia and that the resources the West had committed to this were “minuscule” to counter a Russian operation with an annual budget of between $600 million and $1 billion.201
135.The MoD is starting to address this shortcoming. In June 2016, we visited 77 Brigade in Newbury. 77 Brigade, established in September 2014, brought together the Military Stabilisation and Support Group, the Media Operations Group, 15 Psychological Operations Group and the Security Capacity Building team. In July 2015, the individual units were ‘reshaped’ into the following ‘Columns’:
In October 2015, No.7 Column was added to provide the Engineer and Logistics Staff Corps—a powerful and influential specialist Army Reserve unit providing engineering, logistics and communication consultancy to both the MoD and across government agencies.202
136.Although it has yet to be fully developed, 77 Brigade draws in a significant number of specialist reservists with the aim to “challenge the difficulties of modern warfare using non-lethal engagement and legitimate non-military levers as a means to adapt behaviours of the opposing forces and adversaries”.203
137.We are concerned that the UK and NATO do not yet have a fully-developed strategy to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation effectively. We understand that efforts are underway in NATO to develop this. In that respect, the establishment of 77 Brigade by the MoD is a welcome step in the right direction. However, the budget available to Russia means that NATO must substantially increase the level of resources which member states commit to this work.
151 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, HM Government, para 5.27, page 51, November 2015
154 ‘Ukraine crisis: Timeline’, BBC News, 13 November 2014
163 ‘Britain has frozen us out, says Russian envoy’, The Times, 26 October 2015
164 ‘Britain has frozen us out, says Russian envoy’, The Times, 26 October 2015
180 ‘NATO-Russia Council’, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, 15 April 2016
182 ‘Statement by the Secretary General on the NATO-Russia Council meeting’, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, 8 April 2016
183 ‘Statement by the Secretary General on the NATO-Russia Council meeting’, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, 8 April 2016
202 There is no No.6 Column, for historical reasons.
© Parliamentary copyright 2015
30 June 2016