After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a delusion fell upon the minds of strategic thinkers in open societies favourable to liberal democracy. The only real geostrategic threat to the prevailing international order had disintegrated, leaving liberal-democratic capitalism as the undisputed hegemon in the domain of political, economic and social ideas. As the world’s pre-eminent economic and military power, the United States (US) and the ‘Washington consensus’ were to dominate the happenings of global affairs. Or so it was all thought.
The United Kingdom (UK), like most, bought into this assumption. The Royal Navy continued its steady decline in strength and prominence as increasingly interconnected globalised trade altered its role from national defence to one orientated more around policing, diplomatic engagement and combating non-state actors. The British Army and Royal Air Force were also reduced in size, and began, in tandem with the operations of the Royal Navy, concentrating on tackling rogue states and counter-insurgency operations, particularly in the Middle East.
Contrary to Russia’s claims that Western powers seek to encircle it, the Kremlin was actively engaged. Her Majesty’s (HM) Government encouraged Russia’s admission into the Group of Seven (G7), making it the Group of Eight (G8), while London opened its arms to the money of Russia’s elites. The suspected Russian poisoning of Alexandr Litvinenko in 2007 and invasion of Georgia in 2008 were largely overlooked.
If the Kremlin had ‘ripped up’ the rule book of international relations in 2014 … in 2022 Russia cremated the pieces.
Things changed quickly after 2014. The Kremlin’s illegal annexation of Crimea proved a watershed moment in British-Russian relations as it exposed Putin’s true intentions for the European order, just as it revealed his disregard for state sovereignty. Britain and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) stance toward Russia hardened as they attempted to counter the Kremlin’s use of ‘grey zone’ tactics – which were leveraged to occupy Crimea. The 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury further alerted HM Government and the British public to the extent to the threat that Russia posed to the UK.
This is the context in which the Integrated Review was published: Russia was correctly identified as ‘the most acute direct threat’ to Britain. The character and international perception of the Russian state, however, has changed dramatically since its renewed offensive against Ukraine on 24th February 2022. If the Kremlin had ‘ripped up’ the rule book of international relations in 2014 – as David Cameron, then Prime Minister, said it had done – in 2022 Russia cremated the pieces. It is as if Russia has dusted off the strategic books of its imperialist forebears. Operations in the ‘grey zone’ are now supplemented by wars of territorial conquest in Europe.
Different questions must be asked of the Kremlin and how Britain is to engage and respond to it. If Russia is successful in Ukraine, it may feel emboldened to attack a British NATO ally, triggering Article 5. Furthermore, Russian success may encourage other actors hostile to the open international order to attempt to subvert it. Hypotheticals aside, the Kremlin’s current actions are actively stoking an energy crisis in Europe, diminishing global food security, and inflicting immense pain and suffering upon the Ukrainian people, while it threatens nuclear armageddon if anyone intervenes.
How to deal with the state-based threat Russia now poses to British interests, as well as the open international order – in the short-, mid- and long-term – will be of immediate concern to the next prime minister. As will how to re-adjust international institutions and initiatives to isolate Russia to suit British interests.
And yet, notwithstanding Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine, a potentially far greater systemic challenger has emerged from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Indeed, reflecting on the words of Admiral Ben Key, the First Sea Lord: ‘The risk of focussing solely on Russia is that you miss the long term strategic challenge posed by China.’
From Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang to the status of the Taiwan Strait and geopolitical claims over the South China Sea, the PRC’s more assertive posture has worried strategic thinkers in London
In the aftermath of the Cold War, similarly to Russia, HM Government engaged also with the PRC. Britain was amongst the many that facilitated the rise of the PRC through increased economic engagement as the Chinese liberalised their economy and embraced global markets. In 1997, London and Beijing entered into a ‘comprehensive partnership’ and in 2004 upgraded this to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. In 2015, engagement was becoming as close as it had ever been as the two were in a self-proclaimed ‘golden era’ of the bilateral relationship.
Now, however, this ‘golden era’ is over. The UK and PRC are entering into a more competitive relationship, not least as the Chinese political system has come under mounting pressure from an increasingly nationalist, authoritarian and mercurial Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
As he has taken control of the CCP, he has used the PRC’s rising power to quash resistance at home and abroad. From Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang to the status of the Taiwan Strait and geopolitical claims over the South China Sea, the PRC’s more assertive posture has worried strategic thinkers in London about the PRC’s geopolitical trajectory.
This has led to increased hesitancy in London in engaging with the Chinese – best evidenced by HM Government’s reversal on allowing Huawei equipment to operate in Britain’s 5G networks – and increased condemnation of and calls for action against Chinese behaviour by British Members of Parliament. The PRC’s own drive for self-sufficiency in the domains of energy, agriculture and technology is further disincentivising engagement, as is the introduction of the UK’s National Security and Investment Act, which is currently investigating the purchase of Newport Wafer Fab, the biggest semiconductor producer in the UK, by Nexperia, a Chinese company.
Ultimately, the CCP is attempting to carve out for the PRC a global order conducive to its own interests whilst simultaneously weakening the structure and appeal of the free and open international order. This infringes upon British interests, particularly in the context of the UK’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’. HM Government needs to think ever more carefully about how British interests can be best protected whilst not allowing disagreements with the CCP to put the bilateral relationship in an unwanted tailspin.
The strategic environment is moving from one dominated by geostrategic competition to violent struggle. Competition is now not confined to the ‘grey zone’ but has the potential to become violent and indiscriminate. HM Government ought to think harder about how to prepare. Given the changing importance of the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific, Britain will need an array of new partners to compliment its old allies. Certain tools of British statecraft will also require further empowerment to enable the UK to deter aggressors and shape the more competitive and disorderly world of tomorrow. The next prime minister will have an in-tray full of international as well as domestic challenges, which are increasingly entwined. In the geostrategic domain, they are dominated by Russia’s war of conquest against Ukraine, the continued rise and assertiveness of the PRC, and a joint desire of the two to re-write the rules of the international order.
Patrick Triglavcanin is a Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy.
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