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The best response to Salisbury is to put an end to the relentless hollowing out of our Armed Forces

4 min read

Salisbury shows that the downgrading of defence must be reversed. We need a spending target of 3% of GDP, writes Defence Select Committee chair Julian Lewis

Near the end of the second world war, the joint intelligence sub-committee of the British chiefs of staff produced a report on ‘Relations with the Russians’. From years of experience of the Anglo-Soviet alliance against Nazi Germany, the JIC concluded that Russia would respect only strength as the basis for any future relationship.

Not much has changed. Alexander Litvinenko died in London on 23 November 2006. Four days later, the BBC News website published an article headed Russia law on killing ‘extremists’ abroad. It explained that: “A new Russian law, adopted earlier in the year, formally permits the extra-judicial killings abroad of those Moscow accuses of ‘extremism’ ... In July, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament – the Federation Council – approved a law which permits the Russian president to use the country’s armed forces and special services outside Russia’s borders to combat terrorism and extremism … Much more controversially, the law also defines ‘those slandering the individual occupying the post of president of the Russian Federation’ as extremists … [and] permits the president – alone, and apparently without consultation – to take such a decision”.

If anyone had doubts about Russia’s responsibility for the Salisbury poisonings, its contemptuous failure to respond to the prime minister’s 24-hour deadline should swiftly have dispelled them. An innocent regime would have rushed to explain how a nerve agent that only it produced could have been acquired and employed by anyone else.

We should also have been spared sarcastic suggestions in the Russian media that the United Kingdom was an unsafe place for “traitors” to settle, as well as the ludicrous claim that we ourselves were behind the attack. That was a charge straight from the playbook of those who blame the Jews for 9/11 and US intelligence for the Kennedy assassination.

Vladimir Putin is a product of the KGB, schooled in the suppression of captive countries, steeped in the culture of Communist domination and filled with regret that the Soviet empire imploded.

According to him, its break-up was the greatest disaster of the 20th century – a revealing and curious choice when compared with the millions killed in two world wars, the Russian civil war, the forced collectivisations, the mass deportations and the hell of the gulag.

Until the Bolshevik revolution, there was some chance of Russia evolving along democratic lines, but then the cancer of Marxism-Leninism gave psychopaths and dictators their ideological excuse to seize total control. Their opponents were denounced as enemies of the people and put, or worked, to death with no semblance of due process.

Now the ideology has gone, but the ruthless mindset remains. Russian leaders no longer claim to be building a workers’ paradise, but they still believe that western capitalists will sell them the rope with which to be hanged.

For 40 years from 1949, two factors ensured the containment of Russia and the maintenance of peace: the deterrent power of western nuclear weapons and the collective security provided by Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty. No longer could an aggressor attack small European states without the Americans immediately entering the war.

Such preparedness did not come cheaply. In the early 1960s, UK defence spending accounted for 6% of our GDP – the same percentage as welfare. The current welfare budget is six times the size of the defence budget. In the mid-1980s, defence constituted 5% of our GDP – the same percentage as education and health. Now, education spending is two-and-a-half times, and health spending four times the size of the defence budget.

Since 2016, the Defence Committee has been making the case for a defence spending target of 3% of GDP, which is what it used to be in the mid-1990s, even after the cuts following the collapse of the Soviet empire. Yet, our government seems mesmerised by only part of the picture.

It rightly claims that we must tackle new and intensified cyber, hybrid and propaganda threats; but that does not mean that older threats have gone away. The best response to the Salisbury outrage is to put an end to the relentless hollowing out – under successive governments – of our army, our navy and our air force. Salisbury shows that the downgrading of defence must now be reversed. 

Julian Lewis is Conservative MP for New Forest East and chair of the Defence Select Committee

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