The Russophobia of the British State
And so, after over a year in the making, the British government’s Integrated Review, outlining its approach to security, defence and foreign policy – entitled Global Britain in a Competitive Age – has finally been published.
Setting out ‘the UK’s role in the world over the next decade’, it combines breezy rhetoric about openness and opportunity, a deliberately ambiguous attitude to China, and a lot of self-aggrandising puff about Britain’s moral mission in the world, best captured in the awkward-sounding phrase, the ‘force-for-good agenda’ – which, in many parts of the Greater Middle East, will sound like a threat.
There is also a troubling pledge to increase the UK’s nuclear warhead stockpile for the first time since the end of the Cold War. This not only makes a mockery of the British state’s own commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; it also exposes the hypocrisy of its lecturing and punishing the likes of Iran over their nuclear ambitions.
But one aspect of the review that has received relatively little attention is the role played in it by Russia. Not the actual nation Russia, of course. No, the imaginary Russia. The Russia that haunts the Cold War-hewn imagination of the British establishment like no other. In this sense, Russia’s role here is similar to that of climate change. It is the threat that justifies action, the evil that provides the soon-to-be nuked-up British state with a sense of moral mission.
So we’re told several times that Russia is ‘the most acute threat to our security’. We’re told it wants to ‘exploit and undermine democratic systems and open economies’. We’re told that, alongside North Korea and Iran, with which it is routinely grouped, that it is a ‘destabilising’, ‘opportunistic state’.
There is not even a cursory attempt to explain any of this. No attempt to say why Russia is persistently up to no good. That is just a given. Like Kevin, you see, there’s just something about Russia. Something off. Something not right. Something a bit, well, evil.
But then that is the point of Russia. It is the bad guy to Britain’s good guy. Without it, some clearly fear that the British state will lose its moral direction. They need this Russia. They need this chemical-weapon wielding violation of the moral order so as to be for something. ‘We will uphold international rules and norms and hold Russia to account for breaches of these’, the review declares, as if ‘international rules and norms’ were invented precisely for the policing of Russia.
The problem is that this anti-Russian sentiment, which has hung in the air of Britain’s corridors of power for too long, often turns into outright bigotry. After all, there’s a gossamer-thin line between demonising Russia the nation and demonising Russian people. The review’s authors even feel the need to state that ‘the UK respects the people, culture and history of Russia’.
It is a caveat that should not be necessary. But it clearly is, given the tendency of politicians and media alike to brand Russians living in the UK, especially London, as agents of Putin – something The Times had to apologise for recently after it alleged Alexander Temerko, a critic of Putin, was some sort of Kremlin agent.
And no wonder. If anything, we’ve seen an escalation of elite anti-Russian sentiment over the past two decades. In part this has been a reaction to the rise of Vladimir Putin, helped by the arrival of many of his fiercest, most vocal critics in the UK, after arguments and fallouts in the post-Soviet carve-up. They helped create the hellish image of Putin’s Russia that many in politics, academia and the media now hold to be true.
But it was also a product of the elite response to Brexit, when many Remainers, fastening on to this growing anti-Russian sentiment, decided to blame their defeat in the EU referendum on Putin. Indeed, last year’s parliamentary report into allegations of Russian interference in British politics rehearsed many of the same prejudices running, like a red thread, through the Integrated Review. There the Russian state was described, incredibly, as ‘fundamentally nihilistic’. ‘Any actions [Russia] can take which damage the West’, it read, ‘are fundamentally good for Russia’ – which makes it sound less like a nation state than Darth Vader.
And this is just the official caricature of Russian malevolence. Below that we’ve seen the media routinely pin all sorts of wrong on Russia, be it suggesting Dominic Cummings was a Russian spy, or that Russian donors to the Tory Party are doing Putin’s dirty work for it, or even the horrifying portraits of Russian society ahead of the 2018 World Cup.
It seems there is an almost existential need among parts of the British political and media classes to cast Russia as the enemy. Yes, the Russian state is far from a saintly force in the world. But it demands understanding not demonisation. Its annexation of Crimea in 2014, for example, needs to be understood as a strategic, defensive action in the face of perceived NATO expansion, not as an expression of Putin’s evil plan.
And that is what is missing from the integrated review: any understanding of Russia, from its politics to its society. Instead, we have a phantasm. But one that could provoke an all-too-real conflict.