Its been an extremely challenging few weeks in the international arena. Developments in Russia and the Ukraine have brought about the biggest challenge to regional security for nearly 25 years and seen a decline in Russia’s wider relationships with the West to a level not seen since the end of the Cold War. Across Europe there has been growing concern amid calls to raise defence budgets to meet the emerging perceived risk.
In the UK, some areas there has been criticism of the UK response, suggesting that the predominantly diplomatic solution sought by the UK, coupled with wider defence cuts means that the UK is no longer capable of defending itself, or exerting influence on the wider global stage to help lead in the situation. Perhaps most prominently, the former Chief of the General Staff Sir Richard Dannat has said that the UK should consider leaving a brigade of some 3000 personnel in Germany to act as a visible symbol of British commitment to Europe.
But is Russia really a threat to the UKs national security at present, particularly to warrant a substantial reorganisation of the Armed Forces? There is no doubt that Russia poses a clear risk to some countries in her neighbourhood with whom she shares land borders and where disputes exist. However, it is hard to see this risk translated into a wider desire to take on Western Europe in an existential battle for control of the map. Rather, it is a battle for influence and control of what the Russians consider to be their ‘near abroad’.
For the UK, the issue perhaps neatly sums up the challenge faced by policy makers now about how to exercise UK influence and interests. On the one hand it is easy to call for a significant increase in military expenditure and retain extra soldiers in Germany. But the question has to be what is gained by doing so? The UK defence budget is struggling to support the military we have now, and many years have been spent orientating it to a deployable expeditionary force capable of projecting a reasonable level of power at a significant distance from the home base. Based on the budget, this provides the UK with a reasonably sized Armed Forces capable of doing most military tasks. To shift this focus into a force more capable of defending external aggression from a nation like Russia isn't just a case of saying ‘here is a brigade in Germany’, but instead would require a very significant shift in the training, equipment and organisation of the Armed Forces back into a model not seen since the early 1990s. The money does not exist to do both, and arguably the UK armed forces personnel costs are so great, that enlarging them to any great size is simply not possible without a sustained build up over many years, and with a lot of extra funding.
The real influence the UK can bring to bear in a situation like this is not military in nature – it is rather the ability to co-ordinate diplomatic, financial, political and other influences together in order to allow the Russian regime to make a judgement on whether further action is in its best interest. The idea that deploying a British brigade in Germany will somehow change the Kremlin's assessment of the situation is highly unlikely in the extreme. What matters is the manner in which the UK and other European and NATO allies are able to come together to take wider steps to calm the situation.
While it is easy to suggest that somehow the UK is not a relevant player in these debates, the fact that the UK can bring significant diplomatic clout (e.g. UNSC membership, leading role in NATO, EU and so on) helps ensure its voice is represented at the table. No country on its own could realistically hope or expect to be able to force a step change in Russian policy in this matter. It is only by working together and building a coordinated package of responses that real pressure can be put on the Russian position. While doubtless some commentators would welcome the Prime Minister standing alone and forcing the issue to claim some kind of leadership, in the real murky world of international diplomacy, its far better to work together than take a well intentioned, but ultimately futile isolated stand. It is also worth noting that for all the talk of how the UK seems irrelevant, the fact that US condemnation has not moved the Russians, would suggest that there was little to no chance of the UK ever having the clout or effect that some commentators dream that possession of a larger military would give us.
The problem for the UK and other nations is trying to work out how to handle situations like this, where clearly unacceptable behaviour has occurred, but where military action is simply not going to happen. 25 years of focusing resources on power projection and soft power have ensured that the UK is well placed today to respond to wider challenges (e.g. piracy, low level intervention, UN missions, and disaster relief) and so on. But, they do not help the UK in a crisis like this where putting troops on the ground is simply not going to happen.
Does this mean a radical rethink is required, taking the British armed forces away from their interventionary role into one of deterrence, or does it mean that there has to be a tacit acceptance that there are simply some challenges that cannot be dealt with as some would wish? To change back into a BAOR configuration would be extremely expensive, and would make the ability to carry out the much larger number of defence tasks of real value to the UK far more difficult. For instance, the reports last week talking about how the UK needs to place far more emphasis on the Sahel in terms of stopping terrorist networks, building capacity and trying to ensure that the area doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists. This sort of work requires light forces, able to deploy easily and with a small footprint, and who are able to work as part of a joined up military, diplomatic, police, security and development group to improve the region. This isn't necessarily cheap, and arguably plays a far more vital role in the protection of UK interests than manning an Armoured Brigade somewhere in Germany to deter the Russians.
In a world where the Westphalian system is becoming a cherished memory, the problem is working out at what point, and at what level, it is possible to take a stand in favour of territorial integrity. For the West, it is easy to issue impassioned pleas, send out strongly worded statements of condemnation and threaten economic sanctions when a nation is threatened. For Western countries able to deploy military force, it is arguably possible in some cases to deploy to a neighbouring country and take steps to support the country under threat. But this only works when the West feels it is able to exercise military power in a manner which will not escalate into a wider global crisis – e.g. look at somewhere like Guatemala and Belize in the 1970s and the UK was able to deploy forces to act in support of Belizean territory without risk of escalating the Cold War. What though can the West do when faced with a problem between two nations which share a common border and where one is significantly more powerful and where escalation could lead to much wider conflict?
So, for the West, the Crimean incident has perhaps been a useful reminder of the limitations of force as a tool of coercion when you do not share a land border with a nation. It is telling that despite the strong opposition from NATO, which let us not forget remains arguably the most potent military alliance on the planet, the Russians felt they could act with relative impunity. This suggests that no matter how theoretically strong the military power is, there remains a significant difference between possession and willingness to employ it when not directly in the national interest. Perhaps for the West the Crimean incident has served to also focus the mind that the military option is not the only way to resolve a situation. While Russia has gained the Crimea, it has done so at a considerable damage to its wider international reputation, and the West has rightly realised that economic sanctions are key to helping bring about long term change. While militarily the Russians possess substantial forces, the long term economic potential for the country will be weakened, and ultimately jobs matter more than bullets.
Looking ahead to the wider outcome of this, does it really change anything in terms of the UKs defence posture? The incident has clearly highlighted the importance of cyber-defence, particularly looking at the manner in which hacking seems to have become widespread and as much offensive as it was orientated to information operations. This will serve as a timely reminder of the importance of cyber security – even though it comes at a high price in terms of acquiring skills, equipment and manpower.
More broadly, it reminds us that the possibility of state on state conflict remains real, and that this is a good reason to continue training at the very highest levels. While it is easy to slip into a ‘train for peace enforcement’ mentality, the fact that this situation came about so quickly would suggest this is not always helpful. For the UK, it may help serve as a reminder that no matter how unlikely it feels, there is still a compelling case to train at this level. This though comes at a cost – the skills required to conduct these operations are expensive to train in, and easily lost. The challenge is whether the UK can continue to afford a large Army, or whether it reduces its force in size, but in turn produces one still capable of operating at the very highest levels.
A similar discussion could equally apply to both the Royal Navy, and the RAF, which continue to focus on operating in the most challenging of environments. As HERRICK draws to a close, and the current crisis becomes part of history books, the challenge will be to make a compelling case for the continuation of training at this level. If you believe the media reports, then the UK defence budget seems likely to shrink over the next five years as a result of the 2014 budget, meaning that very hard choices will have to be made as to where to invest effort. Publicly, reducing the forces in order to preserve a high end capability will be very difficult to push through and be politically damaging. But, would the UK have more influence and standing in NATO by still being able to generate forces capable of tackling the more difficult tasks, rather than just having a large order of battle that is less effective?
The media, the public and many politicians will oppose cuts on the grounds that they leave the UK national security dangerously exposed. But, what is more dangerous – having more ships, tanks and planes, or having more but being able to use them to their full range of capability? One suspects that the arguments in the run in to the SDSR will be as much about emotion versus logic, and how one can make a good case for a possibly smaller military as being better for our protection.