NATO’s deterrence moves in the Baltic States: falling into Russia’s trap?

Dr Rod Thornton

NATO has decided to increase the number of troops it has operating (technically, either training or exercising) in the Baltic States. Included  in this contingent will be no less than four British tanks. The stated reason for this deployment is to ‘deter’ Russian aggression against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All well and good on first inspection, but scratch the surface and such actions might appear outmoded, more reminiscent of the 19th century than appropriate to the conditions of the 21st.

What are these new forces intended to deter? The answer, seemingly, is a full-scale Russian invasion of a Baltic country. Yet it is far from clear whether this danger is a realistic one. Is it likely that the Kremlin will send tanks rumbling over its neighbours’ borders any time soon? Putin and his generals are perhaps not that maladroit. They will have done the maths. Where such an action is concerned, the cost-benefit balance is very much in favour of the former. Major war is not part of Russian plans – but they do want to create the impression that it might be. Hence, we now have the likes of Moscow’s sabre-rattling; its high-profile preparations for nuclear war, and its bellicose actions in Syria. Such Russian aggression has two goals: 1) to make Russia – aka Putin – look more powerful, and 2) to create divisions in opponents over how best to deal with this aggression and to thereby weaken these opponents.

The Baltic States are on the front-line of all this. For several years now, they have been the target of a substantial Russian (thus far non-violent) hybrid warfare campaign. All manner of means are being used – from information warfare (including cyber warfare); through the funding of pro-Kremlin academics and right-wing groups, and all the way up to using agent provocateurs who organise protest movements and strikes. The overall aim is to raise tensions and to thereby create the divisions that destabilise these targeted states: governing structures are weakened; faith in authority is undermined, and individuals made to turn against each other. A state becomes divided against itself. An ‘inner decay’ is created. And the greater the degree of decay then the more easily – so the theory runs in the case of the Baltic States – it is that Russia can leverage events in these states to its own advantage. Indeed, the ultimate goal of this Russian hybrid warfare is undoubtedly to foster the election of national governments who would look more favourably on Moscow and, by extension, less favourably on NATO and the West.

In essence, the Russians would see a truly successful hybrid warfare campaign as being one that does not involve the use of any external military force. But in the case of the Baltic States it is of enormous benefit for Moscow that its troops are regularly exercising just beyond their borders; that new missiles are being placed in the Kaliningrad exclave, and that Russian ships and aircraft regularly test regional defences. Merely the latent character of such force can create a profound psychological pressure that helps raise the level of tension and thus of instability within these three states.

Moscow, moreover – and here is a crucial element – has another and more convenient way of increasing the level of tension in the Baltic States: namely through the use of Russian minorities within those countries. Ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers constitute over a quarter of both Latvia’s and Estonia’s total populations. Riga and Tallinn, cities where the populations are almost 50 per cent Russian, have voted in mayors with links to Putin’s own political party. Thus, there is plenty of support for Putin and for Russia within the capital cities of these two NATO member-states. It is also worth noting that Russian minorities are mostly denied the chance to vote in national elections, but can do so in municipal ones.

These minorities are referred to as ‘compatriot Russians’ by Moscow and they are worked on assiduously as part of the hybrid warfare campaign. Of course, many of these ‘compatriots’ are quite content with their lot and are not minded to agitate in any way. A substantial number are, however, not content and it is not unimaginable that having been subject to the intense propaganda of a Moscow-directed information warfare campaign for a number of years they will eventually turn against their Baltic hosts. Moscow would probably like nothing more than to see these ethnic Russians protesting on the streets and then being subject to attacks by right-wing groups or to a violent clampdown by local security forces. This is how Russian troops will, if they ever do, re-enter the Baltic states – not in an outright invasion, but rather in a ‘humanitarian’ operation to ‘protect’ fellow Russians. The scenario often raised here relates to a possible reaction to trouble in the Estonian city of Narva. The city is 90 per cent Russian and lies just over the border from Russia itself. Would Russian troops stand idly by if ‘compatriot Russians’ were being killed in disturbances within sight of the border?

If the raising of tension in order to drive divisiveness and instability is a prime factor in any hybrid warfare campaign then the best way that the Russians can do this is through the inculcation of fear. Fear will, in particular, create the overreactions that destabilisation programmes thrive on. The fear of war is obviously a crucial variable in this respect. Moscow’s media messaging to both native Balts and to the Russian minorities plays on this fear. Included in this messaging – this signalling – are reports of everything from Moscow schoolchildren conducting their nuclear-protection drills to the bombing of Aleppo. In particular, this bombing, ostensibly designed to kill ‘terrorists’ in situ, also acts as a means to advertise to others who might oppose Russian interests just how ready Russia is to use lethal force. The Balts naturally do not want their own countries to become subject to the same use of force – to become the battlegrounds they have so often been in past wars. It could be argued that they would do anything to avoid this – including developing friendly relations with Russia. Thus, the more that Russia can stoke up a fear of war in the Baltic States the more likely it is – in theory – that Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians will, in national elections and to lessen the likelihood of that war, bring to power governments that are more amenable to Moscow.

Here is the main threat to the Baltic States from Russia. It is in the creation, though non-violent modes of hybrid warfare, of internal processes that lead to outcomes that suit Moscow’s interests. This Russian threat is an internal one, far more than it is an external one; i.e. from a military invasion. Russia does not need to invade to achieve its strategic objectives.

Indeed, Russia has played a very steady hand so far in its hybrid warfare campaign against the Baltics – there has been, for instance, no creation of terrorist incidents (a ‘late stage’ aspect of any hybrid warfare campaign), which clearly the likes of the FSB, SVR or GRU could organise if they were so inclined.

Thus, it could be argued that what matters most in terms of thwarting the Russian threat to the Baltics is to keep tensions down. This is why sending extra NATO troops to the region at this time may be seen as problematic. It is an easy sell now for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to generate angst among the Balts by providing pictures of long columns of NATO vehicles with the strapline of, ‘here is NATO – all ready to fight a war in your country!’ And to the Russian minorities it is even easier – ‘here are NATO forces – arrived with their tanks to deal with you – the Russians!’

Moreover, there are now four MBTs in the Baltics. These are the only tanks of any description in these three states – and they are all British! So, who is then going to be made out to be the ‘aggressor’ by Moscow in the Baltic States?

Yes, of course, a deterrence posture has always to be maintained by NATO vis-à-vis Russian activities in regard to the Baltic States. But it could be argued that the few NATO ‘composite battalions’ who are already there are sufficient in deterrence terms – low-profile but sending the right signal to Moscow. That is, they were a tripwire – attack the Baltics and you attack NATO itself. Fine. So just what extra deterrent value comes from having a few more troops but who are still so small in number that they still represent nothing more than the same tripwire? Where is the logic given the propaganda coup it is for Moscow?

In essence, NATO has to do its own cost-benefit calculation – to what degree do deterrence measures become part of the problem and not part of the solution? In its new deployment of forces to the region, has NATO merely done exactly what Moscow wants it to do in terms of raising tensions – and thereby fallen into a trap? NATO needs some 21st century thinking.

Image: Russian President Putin Listens as Secretary Kerry Speaks During Their Bilateral Meeting Focused on Syria and Ukraine in Moscow. Courtesy of US DOS Flikr.

Why Islamic State is wrong: Sykes-Picot is not responsible for controversial borders in the Middle East – but the British military is (Part 1)

This is Part One of a two part series on Sykes-Picot and the controversial borders of the Middle East.

Dr Rod Thornton

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, reached during the First World War by Britain and France, has recently been given renewed prominence. This has come about with the claim by Islamic State (IS) that this accord created the current borders of the Middle East – borders which are preventing IS from forming a region-wide Islamic Caliphate. IS, though, is wrong. Sykes-Picot is not to ‘blame’. It had actually been, quote, ‘rescinded’ by the British in October 1917, a year before the war ended. Sykes-Picot thus played no part in the setting up of any post-war borders in the Middle East.

These borders were, in fact, set primarily by the demands of the British military. It was ‘facts on the ground’ created by the advances, sometimes without orders, of British and Imperial troops during the war that ultimately shaped the map of the Middle East, not international agreements such as Sykes-Picot. These British advances (with intermittent retreats) were made northwards during the war from both Egypt and Basra (seized in November 1914) until the war in the Middle East ended in October 1918. They were made against an Ottoman opponent occupying, beyond Turkey itself, what is today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, Iraq and most of the Arabian peninsular.

The fundamental rationales behind the forward momentum of British troops, and thus behind the setting of today’s borders, were, in essence, and to borrow from Lord Ismay, to keep the French out; the Turks down, and the Christians in. My work concentrates specifically on the controversial establishing by British troops of one particular border as a ‘fact on the ground’. This border is that between today’s Turkey and Iraq. There are, currently, many in Turkey who claim that this border should not be there; that it was illegally set by British troops at the end of the war and that today’s Iraqi Kurdish region and the area around the city of Mosul are rightfully Turkish. Thus, according to this logic, and at the very least, Turkish troops today have the perfect right to cross over into Iraqi territory in pursuit of state interests or even to occupy northern Iraq.

Let’s deal with Sykes-Picot first. It was originally a Russian idea. It began to take shape when, in February 1915, Tsarist Foreign Minister Sergei Sazanov came to the British and French with a suggestion for how the three allies – confident of eventual victory over the forces of a decaying Ottoman empire – could carve up that defeated empire. The British MP, Mark Sykes, and a French diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot, negotiated on behalf of their governments. It was initially agreed that the Russians would occupy Constantinople, the Dardanelles and eastern Anatolia. Sykes and Georges-Picot then came to establish how their own countries would create their respective post-war ‘spheres of influence’ in the Levant, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia. It was accepted by Britain that the French, given their historical ties in terms of trade and as the self-proclaimed ‘protector’ of the Christian communities across the region, would be granted control of, or influence in, what is now Lebanon and Syria and a good deal of today’s Turkey. This was despite France having hardly any troops in the Middle East to help deliver any outcomes. The British, meanwhile, who would do all the fighting to gain the territories in question, would hold post-war sway in what is now Jordan, much of Palestine (bar an ‘international zone’ around Jerusalem) and the area around Baghdad and Basra. The remainder of most of the Arabian peninsular was to be left basically to its own devices. This was because of the need, in British Foreign Office-speak at the time, to avoid in that region ‘any entanglement with the Wahhabees’.

What was crucial in this whole Sykes-Picot project was that any putative British ‘sphere of influence’ did not abut against the area of Anatolia assigned to Russia – Britain’s traditional enemy in this part of the world. This would have occurred had the British taken control of the area around Mosul. Thus the French – long-term allies of the Russians – were, as part of Sykes-Picot, also to be allotted what was referred to as a ‘wedge’ or ‘lozenge’ of territory that ran from the Euphrates to the Persian border across what is today’s northern Iraq. This French area would act as a buffer between the Russians and British. It basically comprised the Ottoman vilayet (administrative region) of Mosul. The British were thus ‘claiming’ – of the three vilayets that together were even then known as Al Iraq – only those of Basra and Baghdad and not Mosul.

Sykes-Picot, ultimately signed in secret in May 1916, did not set any actual borders. The only forms of demarcation it had were some vague ‘partition lines’ drawn in thick lines on a very large-scale map. Boundary commissions, however, could sort out all the details later. These Sykes-Picot ‘lines’ were not totally arbitrary. In large part, they can be seen to be following the vilayet boundaries set by the Ottomans themselves. These boundaries thus must have been authorised by the Sultan himself – a man who was also the leader of the world’s Muslims; that is, he also acted as Caliph. Sykes-Picot can therefore be looked upon, and as a point of irony, as being at least in part based on boundary lines set by the Caliphate itself!

Sykes-Picot, however, was to run into trouble. In March 1917, a revolution in Russia brought to power Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government. Liberal in make-up, it felt no need to occupy anyone else’s territory. Petrograd thus told the British and French governments that Russia no longer had any post-war claims on any part of Turkish territory. (It was thus Kerensky’s government that pulled out of Sykes-Picot and not, as generally advertised, the later Bolshevik administration.) This meant, in particular, that if the Russians were reneging then there would no longer be any need for the British to have their buffer of the Mosul ‘wedge’. Thus if the British, later in the war, eventually come to occupy Mosul vilayet then they would not need to hand it over to the French. The Sykes-Picot plan needed to change. As a consequence, and according to a Foreign Office report of 22 October 1917, Sykes-Picot was now ‘no longer applicable’ and would have to be ‘rescinded’.

It actually took some time before the French were officially informed by the British that they would no longer be working towards implementing the agreement. It was only on 14 October 1918 that the British War Cabinet eventually approved the sending of a letter to the French Foreign Minister saying that Sykes-Picot was ‘out of date’. There was now, said the British, a need for ‘fresh conversations’ about the issue of the future of the Middle East.

Sykes-Picot as an agreement was thus to play no further part in the post-war shaping of the political make-up of the Middle East. Yes, French regional interests still had to be accommodated by the British – but not under the banner of Sykes-Picot.

While Sykes-Picot did very little to generate the current borders of the Middle East, another actor did considerably more. This was the British military. It was the demands of this military that ultimately created the facts on the ground which formed the basis for the majority of today’s borders. And while those created by British forces across other parts of the Middle East have their critics, the most controversial is undoubtedly the current border between Turkey and Iraq.

At the time of the Russian withdrawal from their part of the agreement, Anglo-Indian troops in Mesopotamia were still making their slow grind up from Basra and were just about to capture Baghdad (in April 1917). They were thus still some 400kms south of Mosul. But the eventual occupation of this city and its vilayet could, from this time, be treated as a distinctly British war aim and one no longer to be achieved merely in order to hand it over to the French.

But what were British war aims in Mesopotamia? The Anglo-Indian army there was given little in the way of firm direction as to what its goals should actually be. The primary role seemed to be to do nothing more than provide occasional victories against the Ottomans which would boost morale back in Britain. The public in Britain, however, picked up on this aimlessness and questions were being asked about why troops were being wasted in what seemed a pointless enterprise. Rudyard Kipling, indeed, was to write a suitably scathing poem in 1917 about this campaign called Mesopotamia.

By 1918, these troops in Mesopotamia were being diverted to provide support to the rather quixotic detachment of British forces – Dunsterforce – which was operating around Baku. Once this adventure had been concluded in September 1918, all that seemed to be demanded of British forces in Mesopotamia was that their advance northwards kept pace with that being conducted in the far more important campaign in Greater Syria. This was in case Ottoman forces took advantage of any possible flanking opportunities.

It has been suggested in a raft of literature both in the 1920s and also far more recently, that this movement north of British forces towards Mosul vilayet during the war was actually driven by the need to seize the region’s then supposed oil assets. There is, though, no evidence to support this contention. The movement towards Mosul was actually driven by a local need to gain another commodity far more important than oil – food.


Image: Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Capital Mistake: Evidence and Defence in the Brexit Debates

Professor Matthew Uttley & Dr. Benedict Wilkinson

In one of his more exasperated moments, Sherlock Holmes turns to his long-term companion, Dr. Watson and chides him for his impatience, saying ‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.’ Strong words they may be, but wise ones too. And yet, those who watch defence matters will have noticed that we are approaching a Brexit referendum in much the same position that Holmes warns Watson to avoid: lots of arguments and theories and ideas, but little evidence to back any of it up.

Over the last few weeks, the national security and foreign policy implications of a Brexit have become a key battleground. Everyone seems to have an opinion, even US President Barack Obama, who wrote in the Daily Telegraph that ‘[t]his kind of cooperation – from intelligence sharing and counterterrorism to forging agreements to create jobs and economic growth – will be far more effective if it extends across Europe’. The arguments on both sides are well-rehearsed: those in the ‘Remain’ campaign repeatedly claim that leaving the EU would ‘threaten’ the UK’s national security and global influence. They point to ‘grave security challenges’ and existential threats, including the rise of so-called Islamic State (DAISH) and resurgent Russian nationalism, and assert that the UK is in a ‘stronger’ position to deal with them from inside the EU. Those in the ‘Leave’ campaign have responded by accusing their opponents of exaggeration, egregious scaremongering and ‘Project Fear’ tactics.

Amongst the op eds, the interviews and the speeches, there is little evidence or rigorous analysis to substantiate claims made by either side. In our view, this is worrying: in the first place, it means that key elements of national security have been overlooked in what has been described as a ‘blizzard’ of sweeping claims and counter-claims over whether Britain’s defence and international status would be undermined by departure from the EU. Indeed, as we have argued in the International Affairs journal published by Chatham House and elsewhere, one of the most important omissions in debates thus far has been any consideration of what a Brexit might mean for Britain’s defence procurement and domestic defence industries.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the lack of evidence and analysis raises the spectre of UK voters being forced to make their referendum choices without key information on the possible Brexit implications for a vital sector that provides secure military supply chains, ‘technology advantage’, and a domestic industry with an annual turnover of £30 billion and employs 215,000 predominantly skilled personnel as well as supporting a further 150,000 jobs in supply chains.

Without the data and evidence, it is difficult to understand what a Brexit might mean for defence procurement and defence industries. This is worrying because the Brexit debate is highly partisan and ideological, so there is the real possibility that long-term choices will be coloured by the politics of sovereignty versus the politics of integration, rather than evidence relating to the defence-industrial base and defence acquisition.

As things stand, the debate is being played out between four factions. On the one hand, there are pro-Brexit and pro-Remain ‘factions’ that emphasise the importance of national sovereignty, but disagree on the implications of a British exit. On the other, there are pro-Brexit and pro-Remain ‘factions’ that subscribe to the goal of integration through ‘ever closer union’, but disagree on whether the UK is essential for, or an impediment to, that goal.

The domestic British political debate is likely to be dominated by cases presented by two pro-Brexit and pro-Remain ‘factions’ that emphasise the ‘so what?’ for national sovereignty and independence. These factions are likely to rehearse the predictable and well-worn claims and counter-claims characterising the Brexit debate as a whole. The argument of the ‘pro-UK, pro-Brexit’ camp will be that ‘leaving will not undermine the national defence procurement options or industrial capabilities’ because EU integration in this sector has thus far been limited, so Britain would remain free to pursue a ‘sovereign’ defence procurement policy. Set against this, the ‘pro-UK, pro-Remain’ camp would argue that ‘there’s nothing to lose by staying in, but there are plenty of risks for the UK in leaving’. It would also argue that if the UK would be no worse off in leaving, then it would be no worse off in staying. Correspondingly, it is likely to reiterate the broader mantra that a Brexit might deter future foreign direct investment, and that Britain would have to comply with EU regulations when trading with Europe, but without influence on the future content and direction of those regulations.

The two pro-Brexit and pro-Remain ‘factions’ subscribing to the goal of ‘ever closer union’ are likely to produce narratives premised on assumed benefits from integration. A ‘pro-EU, pro-Remain’ faction is likely to argue that ‘leaving will undermine the EU’s defence industry so that the EU and UK will rely on the US to an even greater extent’. It follows well-worn assumptions in Brussels that the reluctance of EU member states to relinquish sovereignty has created protectionism and fragmentation in Europe’s defence procurement and industrial spheres. The solution to the ‘costs of non-Europe’ is a strategically independent European Defence Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB) able to compete with large US defence contractors. On this basis, a Brexit will undermine the emergence of a genuinely competitive and strategically autonomous EDTIB, which, in turn, risks undermining the future of ‘security of supply’ of defence equipment sourced from within Europe, leading, in turn, to greater EU reliance on US-sourced defence systems. Against this and as we argue in the IA article, we envisage a pro-Brexit faction that argues that ‘a British exit will remove a barrier to other member states’ desire for “ever closer union” and a European Defence Union’. This perspective is likely to emanate from frustrations in European member states among those who feel that the UK is an impediment to EU integration.

Nonetheless, all of this is difficult to prove – not least, because of the dearth of data, the paucity of evidence and the absence of analysis. The real threat, amongst all this, is that British voters will be forced to chose between partisan and ideologically motivated claims and counter-claims. The risk is that they end up like Dr. Watson – making judgments without all the evidence and, perhaps, coming to regret those judgments.


Image: 47th Munich Security Conference 2011: David Cameron (le), Prime Minister, Great Britain, Dr. Angela Merkel (ri), Federal Chancellor, Germany, and Kevin Rudd, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Australia.. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tale of Two Visits: THE UK’s Outreach to China and India

This post is based on a seminar series talk organised by King’s College London’s Regional Security Research Centre (RSRC), which took place on 24 November 2015.


As the UK tries to reenergise its economy, manage its diverging interests with the US and the EU, and debate its role in the Middle East (especially the latest decision to bomb ISIS in Syria) and Afghanistan, it has reached out to the two Asian giants – China and India. Given their economic prowess these two competing Asian powers have tremendous global appeal. Reciprocating the UK’s overtures, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited London in October and November 2015 respectively. Going by media optics and the series of economic and other agreements signed, both the visits were big successes. For the UK to increase its strategic appeal in the long run, however, it needs to ensure that it is seen more than just a trading partner in Beijing and New Delhi. For, despite the importance of increased trade, the UK still does not figure high in the political agenda of both these countries. What will go a long way in bringing some strategic parity, however, is a sustained dialogue on some well-known political roadblocks. If China’s tendency to build massive trade surplus with its partners and complicated human rights records were two problem areas, Pakistan and Afghanistan were the (literally) unspoken thorns during Modi’s visit.

Golden Era?

The Chancellor to the Exchequer George Osborne termed the 21st century as a ‘golden era’ in UK-China bilateral relations, and PM David Cameron projects UK as China’s ‘best partner in the West’. China for its part invested nearly £40 billion (US$ 62 billion) in Britain, the proceeds of which, government claims, will help create 3,900 new jobs. Reflecting a pragmatic angle to bilateral ties, economic relations between the two countries have grown tremendously over the past ten years. The UK attracted nearly US$12 billion of Chinese foreign investment in 2013, more than France and Germany combined, while China became the sixth largest goods export market for the UK in 2014, up from rank 14 in 2003. With its steel production reaching over-capacity, China requires buyers lest its growth bubble deflates (though unlikely). This was one reason why the nuclear power, automobile, healthcare, public works, and railroad sectors in the UK benefitted tremendously from Chinese investment. And all this happened despite the worries of an ‘aggressive’ and ‘expansionist’ China, which has no democracy, is routinely charged for violating human rights, and is the biggest source of cyber attacks against Western targets. Though a cyber-security pact was signed to convince London that China would not undertake commercial e-espionage against British firms, there was no mention of the human rights issue.

The US, Britain’s traditional strategic partner, not surprisingly, did not take kindly to London’s pragmatism towards China. How will the UK negotiate its Chinese ‘golden era’ with Washington? Arguably, this should have been the least of London’s worries given the whopping US$579 billion (2012 estimate) trade between the US and China. But even the free trade debate was at its most intense this year, as the US’ trade deficit (with China) surged to US$ 51.4 billion in March 2015 from US$ 35.9 billion just a month earlier. There has been no sign of this deficit reducing anytime soon. Not just the US, but also its allies – including India – complain that China’s massive trade surplus gives it a strategic edge over its competitors. The fact that the UK is entertaining Beijing, at the exact moment when the latter’s primary strength – excessive industrial production – is becoming its primary weakness, is difficult to accept for many in the US. More than the economic implications of the same, it is the political symbolism that ruffles the feathers.

Huge moment?

Modi’s visit, despite having divided the South Asian diaspora and some members of the UK Parliament, was termed a ‘huge moment’ for UK-India relations. India had just overtaken China to become the fastest growing economy in the world. For the second half of the 2014-15 fiscal year, India’s growth rate touched 7.4 per cent whereas China stood at 6.9 per cent. Further, Modi and Cameron signed deals worth more than £9 billion and pacts on wide-ranging issues such as defence, cyber-security, railways, and nuclear power. Ranking 18th in the top 25 trading partners of India, bilateral trade between the two countries stands at US$ 14.34 billion. The biggest strength of this relationship, however, is the 1.6 million plus strong Indian diaspora that occupies an important place in Britain’s social and economic fabric. The grand welcome reception at Wembley stadium, where close to 70,000 British Indians were present to cheer Modi on, was a reflection of these cultural links. And unlike Beijing, New Delhi is not seen as much of a threat by any of the UK’s Western allies barring on the issue of climate change. But some critical issues remain, such as the UK’s approach towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have done much harm than good to this relationship.

Kashmir and the Afghan war are issues on which New Delhi and London don’t see eye to eye. In 2009, for instance, British foreign secretary David Miliband said that the road to peace in Afghanistan was connected to Kashmir, cementing the perception in India that London was favourably biased towards Pakistan. The 2010 London Conference on Afghanistan that baptised the reconciliation process with the Afghan Taliban was also seen as a sell out to Pakistan. Britain wanted Kabul and the Afghan Taliban to launch a dialogue without any preconditions. Such talks, New Delhi argued, would be sabotaged by Pakistan. London’s persistent questioning about the role of Indian consulates in Afghanistan and their alleged anti-Pakistan activities only added to India’s consternation. Not surprisingly, Modi refused to discuss either Pakistan or Afghanistan with Cameron. Despite progress in all other spheres, the UK is one of the most mistrusted coalition members in Afghanistan among Indian officialdom. Even Cameron’s delicate handling of this issue during his 2010 India visit (and afterwards) did little to change New Delhi’s mind.

Strategic Parity

Political hot topics that are untouched in such situations are often the most critical in making or marring relationships. Despite Cameron’s three visits to India with major business delegations since 2010, London was Modi’s 27th stopover in his busy travel itinerary since becoming PM in May 2014. Xi’s visit too occurred at a time when China was witnessing a financial downturn. Despite the various promises made and deals signed, the context in which these two visits occurred, reflect the fact that the UK is not a strategic priority for the two Asian giants. And trade links will take these relationships only so far. What is needed is an ongoing dialogue not just with China and India on these political ‘no-go’ areas, but also an alignment of ideas with the US. London can easily mismanage its outreach to China and become Beijing’s lonely partner in the West – and eventually lose its appeal in the long run. Or else, it can take the political lead and become an effective ‘bridging power’ that brings these two world powers closer. As for India, having set the ball rolling during Modi’s visits, London should ensure that the damage its Afghanistan-Pakistan policy has done, is addressed. Even just showing that it cares about Indian sensitivities on these key regional issues – for they matter a lot among Indian officials – will make a considerable difference.

Image: PM Modi with President Xi in New Delhi, September 2014. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The UK Decision on Syria: The Only Solution Is a Political Solution


An outline of a modus vivendi with Russia is required if there is to be any progress in the fight against Da’esh. Otherwise, the vaunted 70,000 strong ‘moderate’ forces will continue to be attacked by Russia. Indeed, their bombing campaign to date has been almost exclusively focused on forces other than those of the Da’esh and the Assad regime.

Of equal importance is persuading this 70,000 – or as many of them as possible – that they must concentrate on Da’esh and not the Assad regime. Presently, reports emerging from representatives of these forces claim quite the opposite: that the Assad regime is their primary enemy. As long as this is the case, Russia will continue to attack them and they will be of little use to Cameron and others seeking to primarily attack Da’esh.

On paper, at least, it looks like there is a deal to be done here.

Russia does, in fact, at some stage, want to counter Da’esh. This motley group killed hundreds of its citizens in the Sinai plane attack, and it has released a propaganda video of the execution of a Russian citizen. But Russia wants to guarantee its role in a future Syrian scenario too. This is the primary reason that it is so eagerly fighting the array of extremists and moderates ranged against Assad: it is protecting the Syrian regime.

Similarly, these moderates want Assad to go above all else. They – rightly – see him as the ultimate cause of the Syrian civil war and the one who indirectly founded Da’esh through policies of actively stoking extremism. But this will simply not happen as long as Russia supports the Syrian regime. This statement of basic geopolitical fact needs to be relayed to these groups and driven home.

The deal is, therefore, quite obvious. The bulk of the Assad regime remains in place – Russia will not have it any other way – but Assad himself is scheduled to pass on power in a designated timetable. For this concession, Assad is saved from prosecution, Russia gets a say in the future government to guarantee its interests, the 70,000 and those they represent get rid of Assad and can have some (likely minor) say in a future government, and everyone can concentrate on dismantling Da’esh.

Doubtless, an approximation of this bargain is being discussed. But the fundamental problem is the fractured nature of the opposition groups. Persuading the dozens of militias and fronts that make up this 70,000 grouping of relatively moderate fighters to sign up to such a plan will be likely be near-impossibly difficult. In the end, Cameron and his allies will likely have to support and work with far fewer local forces.

The overarching ‘solution’ to this crisis is, then, political and involves a range of distasteful compromises. That British fighter-jets are now attacking targets a few hundred miles west from their current zone of operations in Iraq will not – cannot possibly – make any wider, strategic difference.

But it can, of course, make a tactical difference. Well targeted attacks can slowly degrade Da’esh capabilities. Especially in conjunction with allied support, it is plausible to suggest that the group’s abilities to operate in parts of Syria could be hampered.

Ultimately, the success or failure of this vote and of the resulting campaign depends on what its goals are. Destroying Da’esh is an absurd, impossible aim. It is an insidious franchise that can demonstrate that it has ‘won’ (i.e. not been wiped out) by any individual anywhere on earth with a flag, a camera, and an internet connection, to say nothing of its resilience in the great lawless swathes Syria, Iraq, Libya, or Nigeria.

The hope, then, is that this move by the British government is more important for its symbolic value signalling a new era of concerned international political alignment and pressure, than for its kinetic impact on the ground in Syria.

Image: Strikes in Syria and Iraq, ISIL Finance Center in ar-Raqqah, Syria. Unclassified DoD Briefing, 2014, courtesy of DoD via Wikimedia Commons.

The UK Decision on Syria: Lions roar, mice squeak – the response of a ‘terrorist sympathiser’


Yesterday’s vote approving the PM’s desire to bandwagon with the UK’s US and French NATO allies in bombing IS targets in Syria will make little difference to the majority of Syrians. The British strikes against oil facilities that came in the immediate wake of the vote might make a small dent in IS’s finances. Given that most of IS’s oil is consumed by Syrians, it might also promise a colder and hungrier winter for those locals most immediately affected. A few more refugees might hit the road, and over the indefinite span of the UK’s bombing campaign a few more civilians might die. If the RAF’s Iraqi campaign figures are reproduced – only 25% of sorties result in strikes – these numbers might be kept mercifully small. Russia and Iran’s far greater commitment to their ally in Damascus will ensure that they will determine that the regime – responsible for over 80% of the Syrian war’s casualties – will remain in power. The UK’s contribution will not tip any balance that the US’s far greater commitment has spent more than a year unable to tip.

Syria’s Sunni majority might also wonder why the west is so obsessed by IS. It is Assad’s forces that do most of the damage, and there are other groups – AQ-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and Turkey and Qatar-backed Ahrar-al Sham come immediately to mind among the 450 or so groups that are engaged in the war – that are also jihadi in ideology, indulge in public beheadings, and are no friends of the west. Indeed, on the ground some of these groups are stronger than IS. The west’s Arab allies have long since turned their attention to their largely sectarian fight in Yemen. NATO Turkey’s anti-Kurdish strikes are literally hundreds of times more numerous than their attacks on IS, and its relationships with Syria’s jihadis are murky. The Syrian moderates remain hard to identify – hence the abandonment a few months back of Washington’s expensive programme to identify, train and arm them. Cameron has been fulsome in his praise of the Kurdish contribution to the struggle against IS, and most US efforts have been in support of them, but their Syrian leader is barred from entry into the US while the arming of Iraq’s peshmerga remains subject to Baghdad’s whim. In short, the politics of the Syrian war look like the very model of a quagmire.

And what might the British get out of it? The foreign secretary’s remark that as of now the British public can sleep more safely in their beds is tragically laughable. The French were already bombing IS before the recent Paris attacks – which is possibly an explanatory factor – and 9/11, the Madrid and London transport network bombings, and the Mumbai attacks were all committed before IS even existed, and typically involved locally-based perpetrators. There was a great deal of rhetorical flourish during yesterday’s debate that aimed itself at IS’s evil and ‘fascistic’ tendencies. Aside from the fact that such epithets could apply to many of Syria’s factions, sentiments of emotion and revenge are never a good guide to strategy or to politics. And if, off into some distant future, IS in Syria is ‘degraded’ – the most that can be expected given that mobile, disguised, hidden, unidentifiable and experienced irregular fighters with some modicum of both local and global support do not offer target-rich environments – what then? Should Raqqa – and Mosul – ever be liberated, rest assured they will pop up somewhere else, perhaps wearing a new and more fashionable label – in Libya, Yemen and Sinai already, surely in London and Paris, and who knows where else? One other marginal difference the British bombing campaign might make is to add just a bit to the anger, the disaffection, the scope for adventure and the general all-round chaos that offers jihadism its appeal and opportunity.

Image: Azaz residents pick up after aerial bombings. Bombed out buildings (2012). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The UK Decision on Syria: The View From Russia


The news that the British parliament had sanctioned airstrikes against IS in Syria, and that the first missions had taken place, has been widely reported in Russia. The move is likely to be seen as vindication for Russia’s ongoing operation there: with the French launching airstrikes against Syria at the end of September 2015, followed by the Russians, and now the British, Moscow is now able to cast its mission as part of an international coalition against IS. Russia has been conducting a diplomatic and PR campaign warning of the threat that countries around the world face from IS. It now looks to have achieved a significant foreign policy coup, apparently ending its isolation from the West less than two years after its annexation of Crimea and its continuing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. In the UK parliamentary debate yesterday, PM David Cameron described Russia as a ‘key player’, along with the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran, a description that will have gone down well in Moscow. However, the strategy outlined by the PM could signal a bumpy road ahead, as it envisages the installation of a ‘transitional government in six months’, implying the removal of al-Assad, an objective that will require Moscow’s support.

Problems could arise with the sheer number of aircraft in the skies above Syria, particularly as it was reported on 2 December that Russia was considering establishing a second airbase there to facilitate its operations in the south and the east of the country. Russian media reports cited a Kuwaiti newspaper report that the Shairat airfield, 35km southeast of Homs, was likely to become the base for an increase in the Russian air group, boosting the number of its aircraft in Syria to 100. Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet last week highlights the challenges ahead, both in terms of military operations and diplomacy. The war of words between Putin and Erdogan shows no signs of abating, and the chaos of Syria risks claiming another victim, as Turkish-Russian relations reach an all-time low.

Image: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and President Vladimir Putin of Russia met in Moscow to discuss the military operations in Syria, 21 October 2015, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

SDSR and the Return of Deterrence


The National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015 has brought deterrence back to centre stage for the United Kingdom more than at any other time since the end of the Cold War. The primary context for this in SDSR 2015 is the resurgence of state based threats. This is both understandable and unsurprising given Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Moreover, the UK’s increased emphasis on deterrence was presaged, most notably in the Prime Minister’s priorities ahead of the NATO Wales Summit in September 2014:

6 months after Russia illegally violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of her neighbour Ukraine, we must agree on long-term measures to strengthen our ability to respond quickly to any threat, to reassure those allies who fear for their own country’s security and to deter any Russian aggression.

The nature of Russia’s confrontational approach places the deterrence challenge in stark relief. Through its ‘hybrid’ methods – as typified in Crimea and eastern Ukraine – Moscow has sought to prosecute its strategic objectives through a combination of conventional and unconventional means, wrapped in a targeted and effective information campaign, and which has sought to camouflage its direct involvement and complicate deterrence efforts against it. Moscow’s nuclear sabre rattling – which has taken many forms, including the concept of potentially using nuclear weapons to de-escalate conflicts – has added a menacing element to the challenge facing the UK and allied defence planners.

The SDSR’s answer to this challenge is to place an emphasis on using ‘the full spectrum of our capabilities – armed force including, ultimately, our nuclear deterrent, diplomacy, law enforcement, economic policy, offensive cyber, and covert means – to deter adversaries and to deny them opportunities to attack us’. Full-spectrum deterrence is certainly not a new concept, far from it. But it has been a key topic of discussion in UK defence and security circles over the past 18 months, and rightly so.

Developing a credible full-spectrum posture, however, is no straightforward task. It will require in-depth knowledge and understanding of potential adversaries (their strategic intent and their domestic political imperatives), including but not confined to Russia, in order to ensure that the requisite deterrence capacities are in place, that they are shaped into a coherent whole and their application is effectively coordinated across government agencies and with allies.

One of the main challenges here is that – outside of a very small community of military and civil service personnel, as well as a few academics and think tanks – for a quarter of a century, little serious and systematic thinking has been applied to the role of deterrence as a British approach to conflict prevention and international security management. Most recent post-Cold War thinking prior to SDSR 2015 has been limited and primarily focused around the rationale for retaining the nuclear deterrent in the long-term. This general lack of attention is not a challenge unique to the UK of course and it is shared with other NATO allies.

There are clearly some intellectual requirements that flow from SDSR 2015’s renewed emphasis on deterrence:

First, there is a need to ensure that personnel at all levels across government and the armed forces are given the opportunity and the time to relearn deterrence: its core tenets, how it has been applied in the past, how things are different now and the challenges of developing a full-spectrum approach and effectively communicating this to potential opponents.

Second, there is a requirement to reinvigorate thinking, research and debate around deterrence as a tool the UK can apply for security management and conflict prevention. What should the balance be between punishment/retaliatory and denial-based approaches to deterrence? Many non-western countries, for example, have increasingly focused on denial-based approaches in recent years. China’s anti-access and area denial (A2AD) approach to deterring external intervention in a regional contingency is one prominent example.

Third, the full spectrum approach will require new and innovative deterrence thinking particularly in terms of cross-domain linkages and interactions. Addressing specific challenges such as attributing attacks in the cyber domain further demonstrates the complexities involved.

SDSR 2015 states that within NATO the UK will ‘lead a renewed focus on deterrence to address current and future threats’. Addressing these intellectual challenges should be at the heart of Britain’s leadership push in this area.

Wyn Bowen is author of ‘Deterrence and Asymmetry’, Contemporary Security Policy, 25 (April 2004) and co-author with Jasper Pandza of ‘Radiological Terrorism: Is There a Role for Deterrence?’ in Andreas Wegner and Alex Wilner (eds), Deterring Terrorism: Theory and Practice (Stanford University Press, 2012).

Image: A Trident II D5 missile is fired from HM Submarine Vanguard during tests in the Western Atlantic in 2005. Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons.

The Act of Killing


Previous Defence-in-Depth blogs have covered ‘forgotten battles’: this blog addresses the consequences of a forgotten war: the undeclared war fought between Britain and Indonesia from 1963-66, termed by the Indonesians Konfrontasi (Confrontation).

Small wars often have large consequences, even if those consequences do not always impinge on western consciousness.

In Jakarta, fifty years ago, on the night of September 30-1st October 1965, elements of the Indonesian Presidential Guard launched an attempted coup. The coup failed, but the events that it initiated led to the toppling from power of the then leader of Indonesia, President Sukarno, and his replacement by a military regime under General Suharto. This process was welcomed in Britain. The UK, in concert with Malaysia, and latterly with Australia and New Zealand, had been fighting an undeclared, low intensity war against Indonesia in the jungles of Borneo in defence of the newly created federation of Malaysia. General Suharto wound down Confrontation, signing a peace deal in August 1966.

Confrontation had a low profile at the time. In part, this was because both the British and Indonesian governments wished to avoid escalation into full-blown war. But it was also partly because, from a British perspective, the campaign seemed so successful. Dennis Healey, Minister of defence from 1964, characterised the campaign as ‘a textbook demonstration of how to apply economy of force, under political guidance for political ends.’ Confrontation appeared in many respects to be a mere adjunct to the Malayan Emergency: simply another example of the effectiveness of British counter-insurgency techniques. It appeared to be a clean, low-cost, tightly controlled conflict. But the process by which Britain helped to end Confrontation was neither clean nor uncontroversial, and the claim that Britain won Confrontation and Indonesia lost is also contestable.

The September 30 coup was not caused by Britain and its allies. The rebellion was related to a longer running power struggle between the Indonesian communist party, the PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia), and the Indonesian army, the TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia). President Sukarno had sustained his position in part by maintaining a balance of conflict between the two. By the second half of 1965, however, the Confrontation campaign had contributed to a deepening internal crisis in Indonesia, and had helped push Sukarno further to the left. The Army, fearful of the growing power of the PKI was primed to act.

In consequence, the coup of September 30 did not just begin the process by which Confrontation ended; it also began the process by which the Indonesian army and its allies began a reckoning with the PKI. In the months that followed the coup, somewhere between 500,000 and a million communists, suspected communists, or those labelled as communists were killed. The events, explored in chilling detail in the documentary The Act of Killing, were not the consequence of a spontaneous outburst of violence. Indeed, the massacres were activities in which the TNI, and such other groups as the Islamic Nahdlatul Ulama, were active agents. It was three weeks after the coup that the massacres really began, and they took place in the context of systematic efforts by the TNI to organise and motivate groups into action at a local level; and in the context also of a broader programme of legal and administrative measures against the PKI.

Britain was no neutral bystander to the bloodletting. There is no evidence that the UK (or, indeed, the US, which had also become hostile to Sukarno) caused the coup, and for a time, the government was unclear about its possible consequences. But UK policy-makers saw the process initiated by the coup as potential opportunity to end the war with Indonesia and to build a positive relationship with Suharto’s military regime. At the very least, it was hoped that British efforts to lengthen and intensify the internal crisis in Indonesia might make a resumption of Confrontation by the TNI less likely. So, for example, Britain reduced its military operations against Indonesia, providing the TNI with assurances through informal channels that the UK would not exploit Indonesia’s internal tensions, allowing Indonesian troops to focus on the task of eliminating their opposition.

The UK also turned its propaganda and psychological warfare assets towards supporting the TNI’s activities. The British ambassador to Jakarta, Sir Andrew Gilchrist argued that ‘the most important political warfare objective at the present moment is not to support friends (overtly) but to keep the pot boiling and to magnify confusion’. In general, UK efforts sought to help mobilise opponents of the PKI to crush communism in Indonesia. Key to this was the task of de-legitimising the PKI in Indonesian eyes. The messaging pursued by Britain to aid the TNI focused on reinforcing the Indonesian army’s own narrative: that the PKI was a threat to Indonesia; that they were brutal; that they were opposed to Sukarno. Moreover, British efforts also sought to highlight the PKI’s links to China, and the role of the PKI as an agent of Chinese interests. Developing British experience from the Malayan Emergency, Britain sought to reinforce the idea that the PKI threat was also a Chinese threat, playing upon already existing anti-Chinese ethnic tensions in Indonesia.

The accounts of the massacres cover very well the pitiless brutality of TNI efforts. One British embassy official in Jakarta commented that ‘I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.’ But for Sir Andrew Gilchrist, the outcomes seemed much more ambiguous: ‘What have we to hope from the generals? 400,000 people murdered, far more than the total casualties in Vietnam and nobody cares. “They were communists.” Were they? And are not communists human beings?’

Thus, wars may be ‘small’ in terms of the impact that they have on the British consciousness; but that doesn’t mean that their impact on others is limited similarly. The end of Confrontation was accompanied by events that had a profound impact on Indonesia. In the end, perhaps the biggest winner wasn’t Britain, but the Indonesian army.

(Dr Christopher Tuck discusses Confrontation in more detail in his book Confrontation, Strategy, and War Termination: Britain’s Conflict with Indonesia)

Image: Soekarno 1947 Indonesia stamp, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.