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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Telegraphing a Warning on Russia

An editorial in Britain's Telegraph newspaper on Sunday:

Prepare to face the Russian Threat

Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, has cemented his growing reputation as a belligerent leader whose preferred method of diplomacy is confrontation. Last week, he ordered the resumption of regular flights across the globe of Russian military planes capable of dropping nuclear bombs. As he made that announcement, President Putin watched a joint military exercise between Russian and Chinese troops. Iran's President Ahmadinejad was present as an observer. President Putin has invited Iran to join the Shanghai Group, Asia's equivalent to Nato Russia has also signed a deal to supply Iran with "peaceful" nuclear technology, in defiance of international treaties.

As if that were not enough, Russia's broadcasting authorities forced the BBC World Service off the FM airwaves. And the Russian state remains the strongest suspect for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a suspicion reinforced by its obstinate refusal to cooperate with the British police investigation into the killing. Last summer, Russia's parliament passed a law that authorised the Russian president to order the assassination of anyone living abroad considered to be a threat to the Russian state.

Russia may be a country on the brink of demographic collapse, with a diminishing life expectancy and a falling birthrate - but it still possesses a colossal nuclear arsenal, some of which is no doubt aimed at Britain. President Putin's aggressive rhetoric may be no more than posturing. But Britain cannot afford to assume that that is all it is.

The way that Russia has treated the republics that gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union provides ample evidence of the way the country is prepared to bully less powerful neighbours. Russia has, for instance, simply cut off gas supplies to Ukraine when it wanted the country to pay a higher price.

Russia's potential seriously to threaten Britain has two consequences. First, it provides an important argument for retaining some form of effective nuclear deterrent. Until recently, the arguments for the renewal of Trident looked thin: Russia's belligerence has given the case for replacement unexpected force.

Second, Britain should try to diminish its dependence on supplies of essential raw materials, such as natural gas, from Russia. That means building more nuclear power stations: nuclear generation is the only viable, non-carbon spewing alternative to power stations that generate electricity by burning gas.

Tony Blair's policy towards Russia was based on the conviction that he could ensure that Vladimir Putin, and whoever succeeded him, turned Russia into a responsible, liberal and democratic state. President Putin's behaviour has demonstrated the fallacy of that belief. It has to be recognised that there is much more continuity between the old Soviet Union and the present Russian state than was previously thought, especially when the President is a former head of the KGB and the secret police have been given back many of their old powers.

The present ruler of Russia appears to want to return to something approximating to the Cold War. Britain should try to stop that happening - but we must be in a position to respond effectively should we fail.

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