The wave of anti-Russia hysteria that gripped Britain following the attacks earlier this year on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, who were nearly killed by a deadly nerve agent while visiting a mall in Salisbury, has faded since the international community responded with a wave of diplomat expulsions and another round of US sanctions. The UK swiftly blamed those attacks on Russia – a claim that Russia denied. The investigation ended with charges against two Russian men whom the UK accused of carrying out the attack (though the only laws they were seemingly caught breaking were the laws of physics).
But seemingly right on cue, a senior British military official is trying to revive the flagging narrative.
Recently appointed British Army chief Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith told the Daily Telegraph in his first interview since taking over as head of the army that Russia is now “indisputably” a greater threat than ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
Given the defeat of ISIS in Syria – a defeat for which Russia was responsible more than any other foreign power – and the degradation of Al Qaeda, these threats to UK security have diminished greatly. But Russia is constantly trying to undermine the West by improving its cyberwarefare capabilities.
“Russia today indisputably represents a far greater threat to our national security than Islamic extremist threats such as al-Qaeda and Isil,” he said.
“Russia has demonstrated that it is prepared to use military force to secure and expand its own national interests. The Russians seek to exploit vulnerability and weakness wherever they detect it.”
The general sat for the interview shortly after returning from the Baltics, where the largest NATO exercise in decades was wrapping up. And as NATO troops menaced Moscow from directly across its border, Carleton-Smith warned against being “complacent” about the Russian threat.
“The physical manifestation of the Islamist threat has diminished with the complete destruction of the geography of the so-called Caliphate,” he said.
As a result, Britain and its allies needed to focus their attention on Russia, particularly after the Salisbury Novichok attack earlier this year.
“Russia has embarked on a systematic effort to explore and exploit Western vulnerabilities, particularly in some of the non-traditional areas of cyber, space, undersea warfare,” he said.
“We cannot be complacent about the threat Russia poses or leave it uncontested. The most important conventional military response to Russia is the continued capabilities and coherence of the Nato alliance.”
Militarily, the UK should focus on bolstering NATO, Carleton-Smith said, adding that he wouldn’t support the creation of a European Army like what French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed.
“I would not support any initiative that diluted the military effectiveness of Nato,” he said. “Nato represents the centre of gravity of European security. It has been an extraordinarily successful alliance and, in my experience, we should reinforce success.”
His references to Russia’s cyber-capabilities, of course, relate back to the Russia election hacking scandal in the US. Despite all the furor (and indictments), there’s little evidence to suggest that these “sophisticated” efforts to sway the US election (and Brexit) had any impact on the results.
With this in mind, Carleton-Smith’s remarks sound like just one more attempt by a Western official to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for the rise of populist movements that threaten the political status quo.