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The British state must be transformed to meet the threats we face

(Image: Alamy)

4 min read

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have observed years of Western failure to react to Russian encroachments and Chinese anti-democratic influence.

We have encouraged them to join in thinking that, despite our bluster, Putin’s actions in Ukraine, and China’s expanding influence are in their mutual interests and will remain largely unchallenged. Western governments, and the United Kingdom government in particular, must transform themselves to match and to deter their ambitions.

But President Xi is very different from the usurper Putin. Putin’s rogue regime is fundamentally weak. He is trying to prove its power despite Russia’s internal dysfunctionality and economic failure.  China is building upon a position of strength. Some estimates suggest by 2050 China’s economy will be twice the size of the United States.

Putin’s performance on Russian TV addressing his security council underlined how Putin is acting out his emotions of frustration, his wounded pride and lust for revenge. According to him, only great powers count, and if you cannot bully your smaller neighbours into submission, you are not a great power.

President Xi has dampened his earlier strong support for Putin. He came to realise that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine will mobilise the West and strengthen its competitive stance, not only against Russia but also against China.  Xi is happy to bide his time – no need to highlight the obvious parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan. It is convenient for President Xi to have attention drawn away from his own threats to Taiwan, democracy in Hong Kong and his annexation of the South China Sea.

We have a firm understanding of the Russia problem in our analytical community, and of China, but until recently, successive prime ministers and the government machinery whish should be advising them chose to turn a blind eye to both problems. This must now change. The UK finds itself without the necessary tools to promote international security in an increasingly multipolar world.

Our military has lost its ability to fight a peer enemy – we can’t even field one division against a Russian one. We have 5,000 soldiers per Nato member. Our legal system allows Russians and Chinese agents to exploit the vulnerabilities inherent in our democratic system. 

The UK finds itself without the necessary tools to promote international security in an increasingly multipolar world.

Russia is only the world’s 11th largest economy, but has $630 bn of foreign reserves, provided by gullible Western countries who wanted cheap energy. They have continued to invest lavish sums on hypersonic missile technology, new generations of warships and submarines, nuclear tipped torpedoes and rockets which can shoot down satellites.  

Russia invests in strategic autonomy. The question is whether the UK, and the rest of Western Europe is willing to do the same. Germany has at last abandoned its position of détente towards Russia; it is unclear what will replace it. France’s attempt at independent negotiations ended in failure. The US is divided and very weak.

The post-Brexit Integrated Review was a great step forward, but the stable context in which it was written, has been shattered. The whole of the British state needs now to be put onto a war footing. Rather like the early response to Covid, Whitehall has few of the structures, capabilities, skills or experience to deal with what is happening now.  

Russia has a permanent national HQ, working 24-7-365, masterminding its range of hybrid warfare campaigns. It embraces every aspect of government. Where is the equivalent UK HQ? Our National Security Council has existed for 12 years, but what has it been doing? Ministers have been left blindsided by institutionalised complacency. There now needs to be a transformation of institutions and attitudes so the UK can help the free world compete the despotic threats we face.

Sir Bernard Jenkin is a former shadow defence secretary and former member of the Defence Select Committee.

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