Bishop of Leeds comments on the capability of the armed forces and the UK’s relationship with Russia

leeds-20117On 21st March 2017 the Government’s Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2017 was laid before Parliament with a motion to approve. The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines spoke in the debate, commenting on the UK’s relationship with Russia.

The Lord Bishop of Leeds My Lords, I hesitate to follow such eloquent speeches on so much detail, but I want to make one or two general points about a more specific area. I do so from an interest that began when I was a Soviet specialist at GCHQ in a previous incarnation, although I realise that that is probably not the right religious phrase to use.

It still seems to me that an SDSR should enable us to be flexible enough to cope with whatever changes are likely to come. My fear, which I have expressed in the House before, remains that in 15 to 20 years’ time we may end up with a force that meets the demands of now but perhaps not the demands of the situation 15 or 20 years down the line because the world changes so much. When I left GCHQ, the Soviet Union was intact, and we see what has changed since then. Therefore, I want to focus on Russia in particular.

It seems pretty obvious that one of Russia’s tactics at the moment, either deliberate or incidental, is to divide the allies one from another—and it seems to be quite effective in that at the moment—enabling the threat against Russia to be diminished, at least in its mind. When we talk about,

“challenges to the international rules-based order”—

the words of the Motion—this begs the question of whose rules. There always are rules, but the question is whose rules they are, on what basis and criteria they are agreed and who adheres to them. What happens if countries decide to change the rules and operate in a different way, which is clearly what is going on at the moment?

Two things that characterise Russia are not only pride and the nature of glory—and there is much more that could be said about that—but the fact that Russians identify themselves through their suffering, which is why I am still a little suspicious of the assumption that the application of greater and greater sanctions will have a big impact. That might be the case in the material West but I think that in Russia a different narrative is running.

How do we look through the eyes of Russia, for example, in determining our response to how we shape our forces for the future? I draw your Lordships’ attention to an article by Richard Sokolsky from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, entitled The New NATORussia Military Balance: Implications for European Security. I found this one of the most easily understood and probably most helpful and accurate surveys of the situation at the moment, drawing attention to the political and military challenges or perspectives that we face. One point that he makes is that it is incumbent on NATO to draw clear lines if we are to maintain an international rules-based order. For example, when the INF treaty is violated by Russia, even if we think it will not go back on it, we should at least make it clear that that is a violation of rules—a transgression over lines that have previously been drawn in the sand—and perhaps attention should be drawn to that a little more loudly.

The other point that he goes on to make is the importance of keeping dialogue with Russia open, including through back-door diplomacy, and this could be extrapolated to other contexts. When the divisions are increasing in the foreground, how do we maintain those perhaps unofficial back-door routes where the conversation can keep going? If we are to maintain a situation where the same rules can be adhered to whatever the change in circumstances, that conversation will be essential.

I end, noble Lords will be glad to hear, largely where I began. How do we enable our forces to have the confidence that they are being set up to exercise power in a changing environment that has already changed from the assumptions that were set out when the SDSR of 2015 was established? That is where the challenge lies as we pay attention to some of the dynamics of relations with countries such as Russia.


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