“Two world wars, an exhausting cold war, plus small wars — all destroying millions of lives. Isn’t this a high enough price to pay for adventurism, arrogance, contempt for the interests and rights of others?”Mikhail Gorbachev, 8th December 1987, signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
In the last AssessRep we described British overseas deployments as a rough crescent running from the Baltic, through Eastern Europe and the Middle East before arcing west through East Africa and the Sahel. British service personnel at the northernmost end of this crescent are now at the centre of global politics with the apparent scrapping of the 30-year Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by both Washington and Moscow at the beginning of the month.1 This is significant. Troops based in Estonia and Ukraine and those conducting exercises in the Baltic over the summer sit at the forward edge of the area in which medium-range missiles could now potentially be deployed as part of future political manoeuvring.
Fortunately, there is no need to lose our minds quite yet. Washington has been highlighting Russian breaches for some time, though Russia was quick to counter-claim that the US was also in breach, which the Pentagon refuted. Some of the argument comes down to whether you can tell the difference between a missile and a drone. Russia Today insists that if you have not so far been confused about the difference between the two, then you should be.2 In the uncertainty, there is time for the treaty to be updated, though both Putin and Trump will want to avoid any accusation of getting locked into a bad deal. It is also worth noting that states such as China and India were never bound by its terms. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the time for them to hop aboard: China and the US are too busy weaponising trade tariffs,3 and India has the world’s largest democratic election to worry about this year.4 It looks like there will be some hard diplomatic distance to be covered before a positive outcome can be reached.
Geopolitics on the Ground
The AssessRep seeks to remain detached from political squabbling, and as such is it is not bound to an anti-Russian perspective. In fact, when not avidly preparing for Operation Yellowhammer,5 the AssessRep can be found in Waterstones Piccadilly browsing the aisles of the Russian Bookshop and fondly returning the odd Russian book to its own shelf if it has encroached into neighbouring sections.6 Yet, as defence personnel, it is clear that the British military has been tasked with a significant role in facing down Russian revanchism in Eastern Europe. At the political level, this can take the form of sabre-rattling – whether by brandishing our new F35s or threatening to turn the lights out in Moscow.7 On the ground, these grand gestures come down to the basics of joint training, and the building of personal relationships between British (and Danish) troops and our Estonian and Ukrainian counterparts.
Our work in Estonia builds on shared history in Helmand, where the Estonians added their weight to the British footprint. The Enhanced Forward Presence represents a far bolder and more confident stance than NATO was able to take prior to Russian aggression in Ukraine. As British troops gain experience and interoperability, so we reassure our allies and raise the perceived cost of aggressive action. Our work in Ukraine is more complicated. Ukrainian soldiers are at war – they are fighting, killing and dying at a slow but steady rate along the contact line with Russian-backed separatists.8 Having arrived too late to prevent the carving out of separatist enclaves, our work now becomes the deterrence of further aggression and the support of Ukrainian soldiers engaged in a deeply divisive struggle.
Longevity and Latitude
One question arises. Do we have the longevity and latitude to prove a staunch ally, or will we waver as time runs on? British defence has shown in Afghanistan that it can commit to a prolonged campaign that spans the course of several governments. Deployments in Ukraine and Estonia come under the framework of NATO – multilateral action lends strength and a revitalised NATO would be a bastion against insecurity and uncertainty in Europe. Yet at the operational level, we must establish the right framework to build long-term relationships and leverage. If we do not, then we are condemning ourselves to the six-to-nine-month institutional amnesia that blights trust and credibility. If by the time we understand the problem, it is already time to start writing handover notes, then we are hobbled from the outset.
The question of latitude is more complicated. So many of Moscow’s measures occupy the uncertain space between information operations and unacknowledged yet aligned activity. The debate is already well-worn, but suffice to add two points. Firstly, the majority of activity in the ‘grey-zone’ is not military, yet the military does have a significant role to play as a purchase point for messaging. The rough rule is that if British troops are involved, then military information activities can support and amplify that presence. Secondly, though we can be devious, the conventional military is perhaps best to play with a straight bat, leaving subterfuge to those with the mandates to conduct such activity. Our greatest challenge is not the limitation of our imagination, but the limitations of our permissions process, our restriction by a rank-based hierarchy, and an inherent discomfort with ‘everyone-to-everyone’ engagement (hence strict curfews in both countries). These systemic issues must be overcome before agile information activities can be seriously considered.
The AssessRep team would love to hear your views. This is not a lecture, it is a conversation. Every email will be read and answered by the AssessRep editor (see email below). So, our question for you: do we have the longevity and freedom of action necessary to back our allies in Eastern Europe? If not, what needs to be done differently?