Andrew Monaghan
Senior Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Although David Cameron has suggested that differences over Syria are ‘narrowing’, and some in London are advocating establishing more cooperation in the fight against ISIS, the recent SDSR puts the UK into direct disagreement and competition with Russia.
British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon speaks to Ukrainian servicemen after military exercises near Ghytomyr, Ukraine on 11 August 2015. Photo by Getty Images.British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon speaks to Ukrainian servicemen after military exercises near Ghytomyr, Ukraine on 11 August 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

Unlike the 2010 version of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), Russia features prominently in the 2015 document. Indeed, it features throughout the document both explicitly, in references to the 'crisis' in and over Ukraine, and implicitly, in references to both the resurgence of 'state-based' threats and state competition and the 'erosion of the rules-based order'. As a result, though it suggests that the UK will 'seek ways of cooperating and engaging with Russia on a range of global security issues', the document in fact sets out London's systematic disagreement with Moscow on a number of issues over the next five years.

Even if (some) differences do 'narrow' over Syria, which is by no means certain, it is important to remember that the longer-term and wider context of the relationship is not propitious for the UK-Russia relationship. The ongoing ramifications of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and numerous disagreements about human rights and governance issues, among a range of other problems, have meant that the political and security relations between the UK and Russia have been difficult for nearly a decade. In many cases, London and Moscow find that even problems that are ’common’ to both parties are not 'shared', in terms of similar understandings of the root causes of problems, appropriate solutions to them and desirable end results. This is amply illustrated by the disagreements first (and lastingly) over Syria, and then over Ukraine since 2014, which halted tentative attempts to revive the relationship.

The disagreements between London and Moscow about the war in Ukraine are well known, but at the same time, the SDSR's content indicates that further disagreements over Euro-Atlantic security loom. The document restates, for instance, the UK's commitment to collective defence and security through NATO as the alliance's strongest military power in Europe, and NATO's missile defence programme. This is important given the agenda that appears to be taking shape for NATO's Warsaw Summit, scheduled for July 2016. At the summit, the alliance plans to announce a package of measures that will include further enlargement (by adding Montenegro), progress on missile defence, enhanced military preparations for defending eastern member states, and possibly enhanced partnership measures with states in the former Soviet space – all of which are chronic points of tension between NATO and Russia, and are ones about which Moscow has long stated its objections.

The view from Moscow

Yet the sense of competition runs deeper and wider than Euro-Atlantic security. The SDSR sets out the UK's position as a 'leading architect of the current system of institutional relations and at the forefront of its expansion since the end of the Cold War'. Indeed, it suggests that the UK adopt a leading role in 'upholding and strengthening' the rules-based international order, and projecting influence through both a 'reconfigured' military that will be ready to use force where necessary, and its 'world leading soft power'.

These statements are important because of how Moscow sees the world and is therefore likely to interpret the statements in the SDSR. Moscow has long stated its belief that the current system of institutional relations no longer works and requires revision, not least since the West, and particularly the Anglo-Saxon powers, are in long-term decline. Furthermore, the Russian leadership sees a world of instability and conflict, one in which Russia is surrounded by complex and multifaceted arc of crisis, a mix of existing conflicts and instability and the potential for a range of threats, even including war, to erupt near Russia. Particularly since the so-called 'Arab Spring', therefore, the authorities in Moscow have been moving Russia onto a war footing, effectively conducting a piecemeal and preparatory mobilization of the power system.

Specific concerns for Moscow include an arms race, in which the major powers are spending significant sums to modernize their arsenals, and US-led regime change, including the possibility for this to be carried out in Russia's neighbourhood, or even in Russia itself. This is the context in which the SDSR statements about reconfiguring the armed forces will be seen, as part of an arms race (with the emphasis increasingly on race), and 'soft power'. 'Soft power' is what Moscow understands to be at the heart of ‘colour’ revolutions, and so the emphasis on financial assistance, the British Council and promoting the 'golden thread of democracy and development' will be understood as the intention to further advance a regime change agenda.

The SDSR suggests that Russian behaviour will be hard to predict, and in some specific senses this is correct. But many of the statements, both explicit and implicit, in the SDSR advocate a world view and responses to it that is in direct competition with Moscow's. It is to be hoped that this agenda has been carried out with clarity of forethought and purpose, since one thing that is not hard to predict is Moscow's disagreement and a response that will seek to advance its own agenda.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback