Fourteen years ago, Andrew Levi briefed the Labour Foreign Secretary on the dangers of Putin’s Kremlin. Now the terrifying predictions of that report have been vindicated, it is vital to reckon with our failures
We saw it coming. Somewhere in the MI6 building a “top secret” document from nearly a decade and a half ago, prepared for leading national security officials, sets out a series of hair-raising facts about the nature of the threat posed by Vladimir Putin and his mafia-style leadership cult. And how that could, and should, be neutralised. Permanently.
“I told you so” is rarely a good look. But at times of existential crisis, and this is undoubtedly one, and a reckoning with past errors is essential to survival.
The Russia Project in 2008: ‘A Hostile, Aggressive Dictatorship’
It was late September 2008. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia, a group of analysts met in the Foreign Office, on the Downing Street side overlooking Number 10.
After a month of intensive work, they were putting the finishing touches to “The Russia Project”, a report commissioned to correct the course of UK Government Russia policy. Putin’s invasion had been a huge shock for many.
Some days later it was my job to set out the position for then Foreign Secretary David Miliband. Thinking of it now chills the blood. What might have been – and what tragedy could have been avoided – had we and our allies taken the necessary action in the years which followed.
Russia is run by the people who own it, I told Miliband, principally a small elite, dominated by ex-KGB officials with a worldview formed during the Soviet era.
Putin calls the shots, I continued. His group is driven by personal vested interests in money, survival, and self-serving notions of Russian greatness. They are neither aligned with our values nor our interests. There is only a long-term prospect of a Russian regime which might be.
The Russian leadership feels able to be more assertive internationally, I explained, often in ways which threaten us, even if capability does not always match ambition. Russia seeks to use energy dependency to exert influence over the foreign policy of European countries.
Following Putin’s invasion of Georgia, Russian military interventions are unlikely in the near term (the next few years, after 2008) but cannot be ruled out. Beyond that, they are a real danger. The hope of a strategic or broad-based partnership with Russia is dead.
The Russia we actually face, and have done over all these years, is not the Russia we would wish to face
Current policy should be realistic about this and should be based on the most likely scenario for the medium term (to 2020). That is: a Russian leadership similar, or harsher, in foreign policy outlook and behaviour, rather than hoped-for, more benign scenarios.
I went on to set out how a closely concerted effort with the US and our EU, NATO and other allies, across a range of policies, was of the highest priority.
And I detailed what was in that “top secret” file, one key heading of which was “Espionage, Subversion and Assassination”.
It was just under two years since Alexander Litvinenko had been killed in London, with a radiological weapon. The UK’s extraordinarily weak response to that, expelling four Russian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover in London, was still in painfully fresh memory.
In conclusion, I said that political and economic pressures building up in Russia, and its geopolitical circumstances, would be likely to bring it to a fork in the road around 2020. While positive transformation was one possible route Russia might take, more likely – and essential to prepare for – was a hostile, militarily aggressive, dictatorship.
American Myopia: German Angst: British Blindness
We shouldn’t have needed the Russia Project in 2008. Still less all the startled soul-searching and scrambling to catch up in 2022.
After Putin flattened Grozny in late 1999 and early 2000, and as he continued, on an ever grander scale, the wholesale theft and brutality which had been his speciality working for the mayor of St Petersburg in the 1990s, no one in the UK or any allied government could mistake what was going on. If they chose to pay attention.
But naivety, fear and greed ruled. In the UK, in Germany, in many other NATO allies, and to some extent in the USA.
American Myopia: George W Bush, infamously, “looked into Putin’s soul” and liked what he saw. He should have visited his optometrist. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton declared a reset in relations with Putin’s regime. “Good luck with that”, I thought.
Gerhard Schröder, while no Putin, long shared with him an obsessive focus on power and personal wealth, and became his sauna buddy.
Schröder pursued a strategy which developed under Angela Merkel, her foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (now German Federal President) and his policy chief Markus Ederer (now EU Ambassador to Russia) into a policy known as “Verflechtung” – in English, “interweaving”. Close economic relations would create interdependence and guarantee that apocalyptic war would never again reach Germany.
They would also, it turned out, fund a very comfortable life for Schröder, as ex-Chancellor of Germany (wealth measured in many millions, rather than Putin’s even more numerous billions); promote key political careers, not just in his social democratic party; and influence German policy-making in ways contrary to its national security interests and those of its allies.
Under Tony Blair, the thrust of UK policy was similar. Putin’s Russia was understood as a rational geopolitical actor. Interdependency would create stability and mutual advantage. And, of course, there were vast amounts of money to be made: the UK needed to catch up with Germany.
The 2008 Georgia crisis led to a reassessment by Gordon Brown and David Miliband, and a more realistic approach to Putin’s regime. Even then, there was a sense that despite recognising we needed a return to a policy of containment, we would never in practice be able to mobilise resources or unity of purpose in the way Cold War containment focused Euro-Atlantic policies on the Soviet Union. And that it would be hard to coordinate a clear, robust Western policy towards Russia as the shock of Georgia faded.
Subsequent Conservative-led governments have taken an often idiosyncratic approach to the lessons of earlier years, which it is unclear their leaders ever fully absorbed, or really wished to hear.
How to Deal with Putin
If you want to be right about Putin’s Russia, a good rule of thumb is to believe the opposite of what you hear from the naïve, the fearful or the greedy.
Provocation: when they tell you we provoked Russia and should back off, remember Russia launched a war of aggression, the “supreme international crime”, under the 1946 Nürnberg principles. There has never been any credible suggestion of intent or capacity of NATO – still less Ukraine – to invade Russia.
Escalation: when you hear that weapons deliveries to Ukraine should be stopped to prevent escalation, and our highest priority should be to find a diplomatic solution, recall that the escalation has come from Russia, that Ukraine has the legal and moral right to self-defence, and that any territory Russia occupies must now be assumed to be subject to the high probability of appalling, mass crimes: against humanity, war crimes, and possible genocide.
Hypocrisy: when you are asked “what would the USA do if China took over Mexico”, bear in mind that answering questions – or general whataboutery – implying hypocrisy on the part of the US, will not save Ukraine or Europe (or even the US).
In Europe, we rely for our safety on American power, and such strategic force as we can develop ourselves. That safety, as it turns out, is from a murderous, heavily armed Russian regime, determined to steal territory and resources on a gigantic scale.
When warned that we mustn’t impose sanctions which hurt us more than Russia, the test is whether sanctions help to stop Russia hurting those they have brutally attacked, or those they are threatening. Western allies are wealthy and can afford to take much pain, on the shoulders of those best able to bear it.
The prospect of nuclear war is (genuinely) terrifying. No one can provide certainty that Putin will not use nuclear weapons. He is banking on the terror he creates by apparently threatening nuclear war, to minimise his losses and maximise his opportunity for territorial and associated resource gains, to reconstitute some version of the former Russian Empire, with the personal power, security and wealth (even with massive destruction) that such a scenario would confer.
Allowing such aggression and blackmail to succeed increases rather than diminishes the danger of military escalation. It signals that further Russian aggression would have a high prospect of success, for a minimal price to Putin. Every further Russian war of aggression raises, once again, the potential for nuclear confrontation.
Rectifying these Failures
The Russia we actually face, and have done over all these years, is not the Russia we would wish to face.
Putin, his narrow leadership group and their outriders, look upon Western prosperity, freedoms and rule of law, with raging contempt, mixed with deep feelings of inferiority and humiliation at the gulf between Russia’s level of development and the West’s – and with fury whenever “hypocritical Westerners” get in their way.
They deploy propaganda about NATO and Russian “security concerns” in the West because they know it resonates with enough people to weaken American and European resolve. They do the same with Russian neo-imperial exceptionalism at home, because they know it taps into deep-seated desires among many – fellow Russians whom, at the same time, they despise, rob and brutalise.
The job of the US President, NATO, EU and other allied leaders, in the immediate military and humanitarian crisis, is threefold.
First, ensure the victims of Russian aggression in Ukraine can defend and free themselves.
Second, provide massive humanitarian assistance to all who need it and can possibly be reached, inside Ukraine and those who have fled.
Third, by use of sanctions and clearly signalled deterrence, military and other support to those under attack, back-channel diplomacy, and covert action against Russian capability we must avert nuclear escalation; disable Russia’s war machine, severely degrading Russia’s resources and confidence to wage future wars of aggression; and dissuade China from the extraordinarily dangerous path of seeking to exploit Putin’s criminal violence.
All this must be done, while also taking radical steps to secure and reinforce our democracies and alliances, engaging in urgent action against climate disaster, protecting public health, and mitigating poverty and conflict around the world.
In the long term it may become possible to integrate Russia into peaceful, mutually-supportive, European security, economic and social structures.
If we can summon the collective strength, courage and clarity of thought, we should never replay the slow-motion catastrophe of the last couple of decades.
Russia threatens our security, prosperity and well-being. We preferred to pretend otherwise. No longer. There is no peace in Europe with Russia, until Russia has fundamentally changed.
OUR JOURNALISM RELIES ON YOU
Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.