Russia 101: How To Lose A War
On March 14 2018, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her package of measures to “punish” Russia for launching a chemical weapon attack in Salisbury.
May and her Government failed to address almost all key, immediate actions necessary to respond to hybrid warfare, condemning the beleaguered United Kingdom to a slow demise at the hands of Putin's reinvigorated and increasingly hostile Russian state.
“On a day which defined Britain's future, the Government led by May made bad choices and, with a failure to immediately address the critical aspects of Russian hybrid warfare, the Kremlin disinformation campaigns being waged against the UK have already succeeded."
There's not really an easy way to break this news so it's probably best to start with the light relief.
Central to Theresa May's response to the Salisbury chemical weapon attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia using OPCW undeclared Russian nerve agent Novichok, May announced she would be punishing the Kremlin by “confirming there will be no attendance by Ministers — or indeed Members of the Royal Family — at this Summer’s World Cup in Russia.”
To calmly highlight the most glaring of weaknesses: to punish a nation which famously killed its royal family, we aren’t going to send ours for a jolly at the World Cup.
Unfortunately, that is as light as the relief gets. Britain is in real trouble. More than ever before. And, despite everything, what happens next is going to take everyone by surprise.
Before May announced her responses, it was clear we would all find out whether the country was signalling submission to Russia, plotting a misguided counter-attack which would see dire consequence, or if sufficient understanding existed in Parliament to provide the correct response.
On a day which defined Britain's future, the Government led by May made bad choices and, with a failure to immediately address the critical aspects of Russian hybrid warfare, the Kremlin disinformation campaigns being waged against the UK have already succeeded.
Anyone monitoring the Russian active propaganda measures around the nerve agent incident would notice some arguing the British have stocks of the same chemical, while others claim it doesn’t exist. Others even claim the attack was carried by the British themselves, to distract from or stop Brexit.
This is how co-ordinated disinformatsiya functions, by destroying up and down. And it is working. These narratives have entered into every day conversation as if they are fact.
In many ways this is unsurprising, as trust in government has been continually eroded in Britain over the last twenty years, aided and abetted by an unchecked Kremlin — who have also worked hard to destroy faith in the mainstream media, creating the perfect storm in which fake news becomes reality in the blink of an eye.
“a more subtle message to the security services was embedded: a chemical weapon was used on the doorstep of Winterbourne Gunner, the Defence Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Centre, where national training is designed and delivered.”
The truth of the Skripal story is not a complex one.
The Kremlin picked on a vulnerable and weakened British state, in which it has spread its tendrils without parry for many years, knowing it would likely get away with a nerve agent attack in the public’s eyes because doubt in the establishment is embedded, and used the attempted assassination to send a message to the Government to stop mouthing off about Russia being a threat.
The staging was quite deliberate, with the nearby Porton Down R&D facility making the perfect pre-packed conspiracy, and a more subtle message to the security services was embedded too: a chemical weapon was used on the doorstep of Winterbourne Gunner, the Defence Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Centre (DCBRNC), where national training is designed and delivered.
Skripal himself was selected because he provides a wealth of potential in terms of pliable narrative, from his history as a double agent to alleged links to Christopher Steele, to his daughter continuing her life in Moscow and the deaths of his son and wife.
Even the choice of nerve agent was meticulous.
While we know only Russia had the chemical weapon Novichok, developed during the days of the USSR as untraceable, it was never officially declared to the OPCW. This plays perfectly to disinformation as, only in September 2017, Russia was officially recognised as having destroyed all of its declared chemical weapons.
Unless you know about NIT or dig a little deeper — which most people will not as studies are continuing to show — all you find on the internet is records of Russia playing by the rules. And it takes a huge amount of effort to even begin undoing the damage of a successfully implanted false narrative.
Additionally, the incident was critically timed to allow Putin to project power to his home audience during elections.
There is nothing complicated about what Russia does. It operates with a horrible simplicity which is time-served, well tested, and undeniably effective.
A world masterclass in maskirovka taking place before our very eyes and, due to May failing to grasp the nettle, the reality of what's going to happen next is Russia will see it has a golden ticket to behave as it wants with a weak state.
“The very best achievable outcome was a stalemate. A commitment to permanent hyper-vigilance on the part of Britain, focused on defence and fire-walling the nation, but short of the provocation of a Cold War style nuclear stand-off in perpetuity.”
Frustratingly, May did not have to respond with an act of war — and though it is pleasing this has not yet been notioned, the 29 NATO members are convening and the topic of an Article 5 response is firmly on the table — but she has failed to play the necessary chess moves.
The very best achievable outcome was, in fact, a stalemate.
A commitment to permanent hyper-vigilance on the part of Britain, focused on defence and fire-walling the nation, but short of the provocation of a Cold War style nuclear stand-off in perpetuity. A defriending, if you will.
In order to achieve this all the Government had to do was send a clear message and clean the slates — snubbing the predictable punchiness of the man from Leningrad by walking away from his nonsense with some modicum of dignity.
Yet, even setting aside the Artisan Jam Lovers royal family and football measure aimed at Daily Mail and Sun readers, May failed to address simple, core issues.
Deporting less than thirty undeclared intelligence operatives masquerading as diplomats will have no effect alone, nor will the halting of high-level bilateral relations. The Russian Ambassador needed to be declared persona non grata and returned to achieve the right impact.
All Russia will do is eject some British diplomats in response, knowing full well such archaic notions of embarrassment only affect one party in the transaction.
Discussions around RT and Sputnik should not have been left to a lowly regulator OFCOM, either. These key components of Russia's state machinery do not form part of any 'freedom of speech' or 'press freedom' issue.
By their own admission a mechanism of information warfare and something the Kremlin was truly bothered about losing, this was squarely a Government nettle to grasp and the relief caused by May's lack of action is palpable across Russian state media.
The British public should not be exposed to unfiltered Russian propaganda and disinformation from the Embassy or state-media, yet the Government opted to leave this key area untouched.
And then there's the money. £820,000 from Russian donors to the Conservatives alone since May became Prime Minister.
This was the perfect opportunity to disentangle Parliament from its questionable financial connections and yet May did nothing.
This is pure Kompromat. And Russia has been allowed to keep control of it.
What should have been a clear tab for British politics will be the cancer which finally kills it.
In terms of military options, all May had to do was commit to an increased defence spend, to get our national house in order and exceed NATO commitments — a show of force Russia most fears — bolstering our troop deployments on the EU borders with our partners - and at further strategic locations to preserve, where possible, gas an oil reserves while we are reliant upon them, and to protect critical infrastructure.
Further, in terms of security services, all the PM had to commit to was a shift in focus for GCHQ from monitoring and mass surveillance to the provision of a controlled fire-wall, preventing cyber-attacks and disinformation inflow.
Combined with a forceful command of social media platforms by declaring them publishers, and the ejection of RT, this latter measure would have disabled the most damaging of all Russia's current operations: the destruction of truth and the creation of division and chaos.
But again, May failed to act.
Subsequently, her package of measures — which contain no real, time-critical actions and which place impossible burdens on agencies such as the NCA — are hollow. Laughable in fact. And Russia is in hysterics.
Changes to legislation with Parliament and the civil service wrapped up exlcusively in Brexit will either suffer delays, long grass kicks, or be misguided.
With a balanced and thoughtful response package, the defriending of Putin option, the main consideration was the obvious one: Russia is going to respond eye for an eye, so any damage needs to be limited or zeroed.
There is nothing the Kremlin could have done in reply which would have caused Britain any real trauma without becoming a more open aggressor themselves — and bathing in sunlight is never Russia's desire.
They could have ejected the BBC, which would have had no impact on Britain at all. They could have sent home our Ambassador, so what? Under a hyper-vigilance design it's irrelevant.
They couldn't even have bolstered troops at the EU borders, because they already outnumber NATO troops by tens of thousands and would not want to provoke a full military response under the glare of the world.
Sure, come winter they would start to play the usual gas games but we're a resourceful nation at the start of spring and we have really good neighbours. For now.
Which leads to the last strategic manoeuvre May failed to make.
“May had a singular opportunity to set down partisan politics and internal party civil wars not to cancel, but to suspend the British departure from the European Union during a period of conflict...Instead, she chose to ignore the clear risk completely.”
Brexit is the biggest strategic win for Russia in the world — after the installation of a managed democracy in the United States with Trump at the wheel, of course.
May had a singular opportunity to set down partisan politics and internal party civil wars not to cancel, but to suspend the British departure from the European Union during a period of conflict which requires one hundred per cent of national attention. She would have mitigated risk by re-building bridges with those standing close beside us - all in open solidarity despite our recent petulence, one might add.
The EU would have accepted this suspension, and May could have set fixed review dates with a firm plan to return to the negotiations undistracted at a later time, without any of the growing concerns around Brexit being tarnished by the undue influence of a hostile state.
Instead, she chose to ignore the clear risk completely. Resulting in the inevitable economic downturn, reduction in diplomatic and trade power, and the overburdening of every aspect of Britain's state. While, of course, breaking crime and terrorism information sharing protocols and opening the country up to new waves of criminality and tax evasion arising from the necessity of national desperation.
The perfect conditions Russia's criminal state likes to thrive in.
Rather than punish the Kremlin by disengaging with it, May's catastrophic choices have rewarded it with unprecedented opportunity.
“In every conceivable way, this does exactly what Putin has tried to achieve with internal disinformation for years: it paints the West as military interventionists and allows a claim of hypocrisy which will never be shaken off.”
Britain now is faced with two likely ends, and that particular fork in the road is going to be traversed at the NATO summit.
If an Article 5 response — based around the concept “an attack on one is an attack on all” — is authorised, Russia will likely be targeted with cyber-attacks rather than military force, aimed at disrupting media channels and critical infrastructure.
May has already signalled this, by invoking the use of force wording enshrined in the international law of war, telling the House of Commons: “This [attack] represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.”
This course of action is perilous for two reasons.
Firstly, it destroys the very values of NATO by causing unavoidable disruption and hardship to already impoverished and suffering Russian citizens — who are by no means to be regarded in the same way as Putin's criminal state.
Should, then, Putin be replaced, the national memory of NATO and Russia's European neighbours will forever be muddied.
It also provokes a very real risk of disruption to gas supply across Europe, which would require nothing short of military incursion and land grab to rectify.
In every conceivable way, this does exactly what Putin has tried to achieve with internal disinformation for years: it paints the West as military interventionists and allows a claim of hypocrisy which will never be shaken off.
Secondly, Russia and its close ally China are the premier superpowers of cyber-warfare.
These states exist in a state of perpetual preparedness for conflict in a way the West does not — as so ably demonstrated by how quickly members of the G20 have fallen to hybrid warfare operations targeted at nothing more complex than elections and referenda.
Any such attack would result in a co-ordinated and relentless response, creating an almost certain worst case scenario — one which would collapse Britain in under a week without a single bullet fired.
“Britain will be condemned to the tumorous and painful death of annexation without military deployment. In effect becoming the perfected creation of the techniques Russia has developed in Ukraine over many years.”
Should an Article 5 response not arise from the meeting, Britain will be condemned to the tumorous and painful death of annexation without military deployment. In effect becoming the perfected creation of the techniques Russia has developed in Ukraine over many years.
As Ukrainian poet Steve Kormarnyckyj put it last year: “The war against the West is using bullshit rather than bullets- but it is no less deadly for that. We may find that no British troops die as a result of Putin’s attack. But in ten years Britain will no longer be Britain but an oligarchy. The British will be an enclave at the edge of Europe providing a theme park for an international caste of oligarchs.”
Having established the sheer level of Russian money laundering through the city of London, and the current government’s almost inexplicable alignment with the insanity of Trump’s White House, this rings wholly true — especially when set against May’s inevitable creation of a tax haven state on the doorstep of an increasingly united and tax-regulated Europe.
“One day, nobody will care because it is normal. That's what happened in Russia. And it has already been happening in Britain for many years. The slow drip of poison straight to heart of our democracy.”
Theresa May has sealed the fate of a nation, despite the growing swell of MPs getting to grips with hybrid warfare and Russia's true nature, and she must own those consequences.
Meanwhile, Russia will become bolder and more brazen.
Fake personas and disinformation will dominate social media until the platforms become unusable and trust in media is eroded fully. Lies will become truths and public and political discourse will be changed forever.
One assassination will likely follow another without justice and public figures and journalists will become the focus of threats and violence on an unprecedented scale.
Then, one day, nobody will care because it is normal.
That's what happened in Russia. And it has already been happening in Britain for many years. The slow drip of poison straight to heart of our democracy, now accelerated with rabid deployments of human malware.
There is time, however, to correct the course. Two weeks to be precise. In which the only measures which will work can be implemented.
But that rests on a Government which stopped listening to its citizens two years ago, choosing to create its own false narrative instead. A fantasy of jam and jingo and “the will of the people.”
All that's left to say, in a nod to our Roman past — which seems most popular among Britain's more pro-Kremlin polticians — is “in bocca al lupo.”
While it means good luck, the direct translation is: “in the jaws of the wolf.”