Friday 14 December 2018

The West must quickly wake up to true threat posed by vengeful Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

William Hague

When we look back, in decades to come, at when the West woke up to the threats it faces in the 21st century, it is unlikely we will be able to identify a single decisive moment or event.

The brutal and irresponsible use of a nerve agent against former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter dominates the news today, but in years to come it will be just one sad data point in a larger emerging picture, which the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the cyber attacks against Estonia, the invasion and annexation of Crimea, the destabilisation of Ukraine, and the development of major new military and digital weapons to attack the western allies all help to make clear.

While small in the sweep of history, the outrage committed in Salisbury contains all the elements of the Putin regime at work - vengefulness, deniability, inventiveness, and an eye for the weaknesses of free and open societies.

It is of a piece with the Russian soldiers who invaded Crimea not wearing their uniforms or insignia, and the massive effort to disrupt and distort the US election campaign which Moscow still breezily denies.

So, it's not surprising that last week's atrocity is being connected with the Russian Novichok programme identified by Theresa May.

Moscow's success relies partly on the ease with which all facts can be contested in the "post-truth" world we have now entered. But it also takes advantage of a deep psychological weakness in the West - that we really don't want to admit to ourselves that we face new threats, rival systems and alternative ideologies, just when we thought we were free of all that.

Admitting that Russia is a serious, long-term threat to our security is an awful, excruciatingly painful exercise for a great many people.

For military planners, it means nearly 30 years of downgrading the need for large and strong conventional forces has been a mistake.

For neo-conservatives, it means the assumption that democracy will prosper even in areas where it has few foundations was hopelessly wrong.

For the likes of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, it means fawning admiration of Putin was naive.

Can it really be true that Russia is equipping itself to snap the undersea cables on which all our communications and finances depend? Afraid it is.

Are they actually positioning themselves to hack into our vital infrastructure and disrupt it? Looks like it.

Can they possibly maintain Soviet levels of espionage and covert activity in our free European societies? You bet they can.

Are they flying aggressive sorties to test our air defences? Yup.

And surely they're not developing new chemicals and deadly poisons as well? Of course they are.

What makes the mental adjustment harder still for westerners is that our new rivals, like Putin, have adopted a veneer of our own practices. This Sunday there will be an election in Russia, and President Putin will genuinely win it. That looks like democracy, and some people in the West, still addicted to lazy thinking, will be fooled by it.

Of course, most of us know enough to understand that if intimidation and media control are used for years to stifle all opposition of substance, it isn't really democracy at all. And if the same person is elected over and over and over again, it ceases to be democracy, since that relies on a diffusion and rotation of power.

Russia has become a rival system to our own, one of authoritarian capitalism, in which an enterprise economy functions but murder, extortion and external aggression by the state are allowed.

China, deciding as it did on Sunday that Xi Jinping can be president without time limit, is evolving a totalitarian version, with strong adherence to party ideology and the thinking of a single man alongside what is meant to be a market economy.

Yet in the elevation of one man to permanent and total power, we know that a great mistake is being made.

Almost all such cases throughout history turn out badly for the individual concerned, who becomes consumed by power; for the nation in question, since new thinking by others becomes stifled; and therefore for the world in general, which has to deal with the consequences.

It will have little immediate effect for anyone in the western democracies, but it is an unambiguously unwelcome development for the future. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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