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Hours before flying to Kazakhstan last week, trucks, troops and armoured vehicles of Russia’s 331st Airborne Regiment lined up in the snow as a drone took dramatic images immediately pushed out on Telegram by Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.
The short film – posted here on Twitter – is part of a much broader message: Moscow is willing to use military force to secure its interests across what it believes it should be its unquestioned sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union and beyond.
The last year – and particularly the last three months – have seen Russia at its most unambiguously aggressive since the USSR unravelled exactly 30 years ago. That timing may be no coincidence – after two decades in power, Vladimir Putin has made it clear he sees reversing the effects of what he sees as that “geopolitical disaster” as his top priority.
How could or should the West – and particularly the UK – respond? Below are five points that Britain – and the UK military – should bear in mind as we begin what could be a highly contested year for mainland Europe.
Russia is using military and other levers – both taking advantage of events, and planning months ahead.
Moscow’s approach to this has been blunt, disciplined and – most likely – months in the making. In April, Russia mobilised tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine, briefly spooking the West invasion might be imminent. Even larger moves began in November, prompting the more recent fears of war. This is something they can keep doing, whether or not they choose to emulate now.
In the summer, Moscow quietly pared back gas exports to Europe, pushing prices higher just as Germany faced its final decisions on when or if to open the Nordstream 2 pipeline. Finally, in December, Russia released what were effectively demands, an un-asked for proposed treaty with the US and NATO that would redefine power in Europe.
That US and its allies will not agree to those – which include a pledge that Ukraine and other four-year Soviet states would never join NATO, withdrawal of NATO forces from former Eastern Bloc nations and US nuclear weapons from Europe – is to miss the point.
Like China in the Far East – and quite deliberately at the same time – Putin is making it clear that he wants regional Western influence rolled back. Like Taiwan, Ukraine now finds itself the totemic centre of a much larger confrontation.
As with Kazakhstan, Russia can also move fast to take advantage of events. The recent protests were largely sparked by domestic anger over fuel price rises, themselves an unintended consequence of Russia’s energy policy.
But Moscow was swift to take advantage of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) between a number of post-Soviet states including Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Belarus. If it needs another opportunity, putting more troops and nuclear weapons in Belarus could offer another win.
This game isn’t limited to Europe. Over the last eight years, Russia has made itself a defining player in several conflicts, principally Syria and Libya, while defence exports and mercenaries such as the Wagner Group boost influence from India to Mali and Venezuela. The Balkans also look particularly worrying, with Russia and Serbia seen quietly backing an increasingly aggressive and uncompromising Bosnian Serb leadership.
The ultimate audience, for this, is usually domestic – Putin needs to keep the Russian people, institutions and powerbrokers believing he is strong, and for that others need to lose.
This is complex, multiplayer geopolitical messaging – with both military and economic pieces
On this and every other front, Russia is using two overlapping forms of messaging. The first is to operate with brutal clarity, stating exactly what it wants and moving hard power in open sight to support the narratives it wants. The second, simultaneously, is deliberate disinformation, muddying the waters of what is really happening – such as accusing foreign powers of provoking the unrest in Kazakhstan, or the US and UK of manipulating Ukraine.
On one level, Russia has already won. By framing the Ukraine face-off as a confrontation of “great powers”, Putin has made sure Russia is once again treated as – if not quite a superpower – then at least a major player. He has put more the onus on the United States as key interlocutor for the West, looking to sideline Ukraine and European states.
Arguably, the US has had little choice but to play this game – but it is getting better at it. There’s a strong case that Biden’s June summit with Putin in Geneva was handled badly, presented as almost a “reward” for Russian sabre rattling earlier in the year. More recent US-Russian dialogue, however, has been punchier, clearer and leveraged alliances.
With Ukraine, Russia now finds itself in a quandary. Despite its strength, it was always doubtful Moscow could manage a complete invasion and long-running occupation of the country. Now, the Russian military appears worried that new weaponry reaching the Ukrainians – particularly US Javelin missiles and Turkish drones – might swiftly erode Russia’s chances or even a more limited seizure of territory along the border.
That reality might yet prompt Russia to invade soon – or at least in 2022. On the other hand, Putin has now been left in little doubt that this would permanently end chances of the opening of the Nordstream pipeline, a long-term Kremlin project that it hopes will give it much greater leverage over mainland Europe in the coming decades.
Russia will make its own decisions – but one of the more positive developments this year has been the US moving to signal clearly what the cost of those might be.
For all the Cold War symbolism, this is a more complex, multiplayer game. That is exemplified by Turkey, which has simultaneously fought Russia in Libya and Syria, now arms Ukraine but also keeps its own dialogue with Moscow including the purchase of Russian S-400 air defences. There are a lot of agendas here, and the UK may need to streamline its decision-making and its messaging.
Mainland European players are critical – and arguably more important than Britain
Part of the Kremlin’s agenda in its actions on Ukraine has been to shift decision-making on that conflict away from the Normandy Group of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany to a more bilateral discussion with the United States. Washington is making no secret of its growing feeling that it must rebalance Asia to contain China, and that gives the Kremlin hope that it could be persuaded to pull back in Europe.
The European Union also sees opportunity to up its game amid the Ukraine face-off. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell visited Ukraine in the first week of January, and the bloc is demanding its own seat at the table in talks of Ukraine’s future.
European Union membership is another carrot that might be offered to former Soviet but non-NATO states such as Georgia and Ukraine, pulling them further into the Western fold while perhaps antagonising Moscow less. Even more importantly, there is a growing view in Washington that the EU and its organs may offer the best hope of truly integrated European defence, reversing a decade-long belief that such thinking is better done through NATO.
Most important, given its decision-making power on Nordstream, is Germany – now under new direction under Chancellor Olaf Schultz and Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Russia will be wondering whether both France or Germany will increase military aid to Ukraine in the event of war, but Moscow may be hoping the French presidential election this year leads to more chaos and division there.
In the non-defence arena, the EU can already offer useful tools to constrain Russia and its allies. EU pressure was key this year prompting multiple Middle Eastern nations to cease commercial flights to Minsk, cutting off much of the supply of migrants being pushed across the border by Belarus.
When it comes to NATO, the views of European members will be critical when it comes to deciding on the future of the bloc – for example, on enlargement to the Balkans, or allowing Finland in. European institutions now inevitably view the UK with a degree of suspicion – but there is much the UK can do.
Brexit Britain has opportunities
At its best, Britain marries both serious military and diplomatic capability with clear, incisive communication – as with the June 2016 announcement that the UK would lead a NATO battle group in the Baltic states, a serious measure of commitment even as the dust from the referendum was still rising.
Despite being outside the EU, Britain adds weight when it communicates clearly in conjunction with European allies – such as in its joint statement with European partners in December criticising Mali for alleged use of Russian “Wagner group” contractors despite denials by the government in Bamako. What actions might be taken to follow up such words will vary, but there is often a clear value to the UK signalling exactly where it sits on a host of topics from Nordstream to Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
In the more covert space, Britain is well placed at the centre of the global financial system to be to be particularly effective when it comes to sanctions and the like – often in conjunction with allies and partners.
Beyond NATO, there also remain real bilateral opportunities – with some recent solid interventions. Britain’s offer of military engineers to Poland to offer support amid the migrant crisis with Belarus saw the UK delivering a degree of support to the right-of-centre Polish government that other European nations would have felt uncomfortable with at the time. That was controversial given that government’s stance on LBGT rights, but still valuable to shore up Europe’s eastern flank and limit the ability of Belarus to weaponise migration.
With Ukraine, the UK has publicly upped its defence engagement over the last two years, dropping elements of 16 Air Assault Brigade into the country in September 2020 and conducting high-profile exercises in 2021 as well as the transit of HMS Defender through disputed waters near Crimea. That activity has, by and large, been well received – both being welcomed in Ukraine and criticised by Russian media, at least implying it was noticed.
More recent messaging, however, has been less refined. In November, “senior defence sources” told the Sunday Mirror that in the event of a Russian invasion, up to 600 members of UK Special Forces and 16 Brigade could fly or even jump into the country – a story more heavily picked up within Russia and Ukraine. This was not rebuffed until mid-December, when Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the Spectator that sending troops was “highly unlikely” if Russia invaded and “we should not kid people that we would”.
Loose-lipped UK defence officials were again in action over Christmas, with the Express quoting them on Boxing Day saying UK troops carrying out training and Ukraine were ready to evacuate across the border if Russia invaded – a story again gleefully amplified by hostile Russian media and others around the world.
This confrontation has years yet to run – and will be the UK military main effort
While Britain’s allies are generally too polite and diplomatic to comment on such mixed messaging, the truth is that they go down like a F-35 falling off a flight deck. This face-off with both Russia and China could last decades – and both openly desire to deliver a follow-up to what they see as the rightful humiliation of the US and its allies in Afghanistan.
Some parts of the UK military are handling this new dynamic more than others. Over the last decade, the Royal Navy – and now the RAF – have had to relearn their Cold War submarine-hunting skills as Russia returned to that arena. Intercepting long-range Russian bombers is now routine for UK fast jet fighters, while the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battle group in Estonia and reconnaissance squadron in Poland have managed that task well.
Is that enough? Probably not – this is a marathon, not a sprint, encompassing potentially years of hybrid confrontation, periodic serious escalations of and the potential prospect of a truly cataclysmic confrontation. The UK military needs to accept and understand its role.