British security services believe Russia poses the third greatest threat to British security.
According to the report in the Times newspaper, agents think only al-Qaeda related terrorism and Iran nuclear development pose greater risks.
Interestingly, no particular reasons are given as to why Russia is such a great threat to British security, so I thought I’d run through a whistlestop tour of what I think are the key threats that the security services think Russia poses to Britain today.
In a world of rising oil and gas prices, it should come as no surprise that everyone is worrying about how they can ensure a reliable future supply of energy.
Russia supplies a fairly small, but growing proportion of Britain’s energy needs, and nobody wants to be at the mercy of a country that is prone to cutting off oil and gas supplies to make political points. Particularly when, as was the case recently, cuts in supply to Ukraine mean effective, but unintended cuts for European countries further along the pipeline network.
Currently, energy security probably isn’t the biggest Russian threat that Britain faces, but it’s a growing one and one that security watchers will be keeping a close eye on.
Risk to British military & peacekeeping activity
Russia is – rather like Britain at times – a mid-sized power that hasn’t quite grasped that its glory days are behind it. Like most countries, it likes to meddle in the affairs of others but, because of its relative weakness, it’s influence tends towards the irritatingly destructive rather than the constructive.
Two particular areas that Russia likes to meddle in are the Balkans and Central Asia. And British troops are stationed in both of these areas.
Instability in Kosovo, which Russia sometimes doesn’t seem to worried about provoking, could potentially lead to attacks on British troops in the area or, at the extreme draw British troops into another local conflict.
Meanwhile, instability in Tajikistan doesn’t help the security situation in Afghanistan, where Britain has almost 8,000 troops stationed. (Of course, the flip side of this is that Russia could argue that NATO is prolonging instability in Afghanistan, indirectly endangering Russia’s 7,000 strong military presence there…).
Russians in Britain
There are currently more than 300,000 Russians living and working in the UK. Worries are growing that they bring their disputes with them and oftentimes will settle them in a manner that is outside the law and rarely involves a nice cup of tea (polonium flavoured tea excepted, naturally).
Russian criminal gangs are also active in London – money laundering is one of their specialties – and I’d imagine this takes up quite a bit of the security services’ time, not to mention the police’s. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turned out that at least some of the funding intended for terrorist groups in the UK came via Russian criminal groups. (This isn’t to say that the Russian government is sponsoring terrorism in the UK – more that criminals don’t really worry too much where their money comes from).
The Telegraph reports that there are 30 known Russian spies operating in Britain – that’s the equivalent of one in five of the official Russian mission in London.
Keeping tabs on them is, if you believe the security services, more challenging than monitoring other countries’ agents. Instead of just checking they don’t steal secrets, the security service have to watch them in case they assassinate someone else: “Russia is a country which is under suspicion of committing murder on British streets and it must be assumed that having done it once they will do it again,” said the “senior security services source” quoted by the Telegraph.
Direct military threat
There’s been plenty of coverage of the large numbers of Tu-95 bombers flying around UK airspace recently. The chances of them launching an actual attack are, of course, pretty much zero – can you imagine a Tu-95 making a run at Buckingham Palace? But, even though Tu-95 flights give the RAF some much needed practice, there will always be the concern that so many encounters might result in a misunderstanding somewhere along the line.
Is Russia really the 3rd biggest threat to British security?
I must confess, when I originally read the article, my first thought was that it was over-excitable journalism, feeding on current British paranoia about Russia. Yes, Russia presents a threat to British security, I thought, but it’s not really that great a threat.
Then I sat down and thought through a few of the reasons why we might need to be concerned about Russia and came up with the rough and ready list above. It’s not a huge list of concerns, and it’s certainly not end of the world stuff, but add it all together and I can see why the British security services believe that Russia poses a fairly large threat to British security.
And then I thought – what countries or organisations pose a greater threat to British security than Russia, and why? And, other than al-Qaeda and Iran, who have already been noted, I couldn’t think of any. Can anyone else?