Tag Archives: Russia

Skripal poisoning: Time for an information arbiter?

15 Mar

One of the most notable aspects of the Sergei and Yulia Skripal poisoning case is that hard information is restricted to a very small group of professionals and elites. The list of people who know what actually happened is small. Most of these people probably only know part of the story. The exact identity of the chemical involved, for example, will be privy only to a small group of scientists with the skills and equipment to conduct an analysis. They will know that part of the story but probably not much else. Similarly the police and intelligence services, and some in the media, will know part of the story. A small circle of political figures might try to piece together the available evidence but their information is imperfect.

A near constant thread through many conflict, and the decision-making processes that lead to and maintain conflicts, is imperfect knowledge. Much conflict is based on miscommunication and poor signalling. The ‘security dilemma’ (or the vicious circle of security precautions that spark security precautions by the other side) is based on a misreading of signals. There are strong pre-existing biases between Russia and the UK (and Russian has ‘form’ on this issue through the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko) so the misreading of signals is likely to expect the worst from the other side. Moreover, as we know many actors work hard to engage in disinformation (‘fake news’ is by no means a new phenomena).

What seems to be missing from all of this is an information arbiter – a neutral body that can look at evidence and adjudicate on what happened and who might be responsible. At the moment information is held, withheld and sought by interested parties who are necessarily political. Moreover, this issue has turned into one of national bravado – with the UK under pressure to look tough and Russia compelled to deny responsibility but – at the same time – remind the world that it is a sovereign nation that won’t be pushed around. The domestic ‘predicaments’ of both governments are important here too. Russia has an election and the UK … well … anything that helps Theresa May look tough (or even competent) in the Brexit morass is a bonus.

The lack of an information arbiter – perhaps some truly independent international and transnational body that has full cooperation from governments – means that what we see is a speculation bonanza. I have lost count of the number of radio interviews I have heard from people who don’t know what happened. Instead most of them recycle bias and assumptions.

There might be good reason why some authorities don’t want to share information (it may prejudice a trial or jeopardise informants) but that would not prevent an information arbiter that works on the basis of confidentiality. At the moment we have one government’s word against that or another. And we are left to fill in the blanks with our biases rather than evidence.

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The invention of the new Cold War

19 Sep

The talking up of the new Cold War is now reaching a crescendo. This weekend, the normally sober Financial Times led with a story on how the UK could not withstand a Russian attack. A Russian attack? Why would Russia attack the UK? What possible rationality could be extended for Russia to attack the UK?

The Financial Times story is just one of many news stories and political briefings that are talking up a new Cold War. For The Economist, Russia is anxious to move from a cold war to a hot war. Other news sources are full of (conveniently leaked) stories of how Russian jets have ‘buzzed’ US ships or how Russian submarine activity has reached Cold War levels. Every few weeks news stories emerge that Russian military aircraft have approached British airspace and have been warned off by scrambled UK jets. It should be noted that these Russian planes are ageing ‘Bear Bombers’. They entered service in 1952 (it is worth googling the hit singles of 1952 to remind yourself just how long ago that was).

In the past twelve months, I have been to various events in which speakers have talked up a new Cold War, virtually salivating at the prospect of renewed permanent tensions with Russia. I’ve heard Joschka Fischer (former Green Party(!) German foreign minister) give a talk full of realist nightmares of renewed Russian aggression. He mentioned a foreign policy of ‘a big stick’ many times. I’ve heard a senior member of the British military comfortably slip into Cold War rhetoric, almost delighting that an old reliable enemy has appeared again. He seemed to be overjoyed that the UK’s possession of what he called ‘heavy metal’ (that is, tanks) could now be justified in an era of defence cuts. And I’ve heard a briefing from a former member of an intelligence service that was so bereft of political context that it would have made a cartoon aimed a three year olds seem sophisticated: Russian = bad, the west = good. All three talks routinely referred to Russia as ‘the bear’, as though this was a shared code for an aggressive, unknown creature.

None of this is to offer any support for Russian foreign policy or militarism. The Russian bombs falling on Syria are real and have been dropped with a dreadful lack of discrimination. The annexation of Crimea, and the stoking of conflict in the rest of Ukraine, has caused real misery for millions. And Russia’s posture to the Baltic States, and its cyber-warfare, are causing unnecessary anxiety.

The essential purpose of this blogpost is twofold. The first is to point to the absurdity of the new Cold War narrative. The second is to wonder about the motivation of those stoking this new Cold War narrative. Yes, Russia is assertive, but so is the US (600+ overseas bases in 38 countries) and NATO. The Russian economy is in serious difficultly, after being hit by declining oil prices and sanctions from western states. The economy has shrank over the past six quarters, and a modernistation programme for the military is seriously delayed – simply because the state cannot afford it. Even Putin’s seizure of Crimea, hailed by some as a masterstroke of realpolitik, is best seen as a strategic error. Putin is now responsible for an additional two million people who live in an economically unsustainable enclave. The same can be said for his support of Syria’s Assad: Putin has acquired a dependent liability – while alerting western states of his intent. The seizure of Crimea and the entry into the Syrian war hardly present existential threats to ‘the west’. Putin is a mid-sized bully, not a tactical genius on the cusp of world domination: he can’t afford world domination and would face crushing opposition (Russian defence spending is merely one tenth of US defence spending).

This leads us to the second question: Why are so many people so keen to talk up a new Cold War? The most obvious answer is because it justifies their existence – as militaries, defence analysts, and armchair generals. A Cold War – against a permanent but easily identifiable threat – is a good way of justifying increased military spending, the political relevance of the military, and the renewal of nuclear deterrents. Don’t mention the evidence of just how ragged the Russian ‘bear’ actually is.