Photo: Major Paul Smyth (crown copyright)
By 2020, the government will have cut the British Army from 102,000 to 82,000. The security and defence review acted as if Iraq and Afghanistan were the last big wars that Britain would fight. The assumption appeared to be that a conventional war, or even a sizable conflict in Europe, is now unthinkable.
But it isn’t. The future stability of Europe should not be taken for granted. Around its border there are threats to European security of such significance that Britain must fundamentally rethink its current defence strategy.
To the east, Russia under Putin is unstable. It suffers from a profound economic weakness in its reliance on oil exports. In order to balance its budget, Russia needs to sell its oil at between $110–$120 a barrel. However, recent discoveries across the globe of cheap deposits of gas are reducing demand for oil and depressing oil prices. Alexei Kudrin, Russia’s former finance minister, warned earlier this summer that Russia should brace itself for a drop to around $60 per barrel. That would drain Russia’s reserves within months; in reaction, and under pressure from resurgent nationalists and communists the Kremlin beset by domestic instability might try to win popular support by reasserting its influence over its “near abroad.” In August, Putin admitted to approving the 2008 invasion of Georgia two years in advance. Under his leadership Russia has extended its influence over Belarus, Ukraine, and even Bulgaria through economic and political ties.
Ukraine is particularly tense, with its age-old division into a Ukrainian speaking west that looks to Europe, and a Russian speaking east that looks to Moscow. In August, when Victor Yanukovych, the pro-Putin president, signed a law allowing regions to select their preferred official language, there were riots in Kiev. Protestors saw it as a ruse to give Russian official status. Meanwhile Belarus, a country that remains jammed in the Stalinist deep-freeze, saw popular demonstrations in late 2011. An unstable Russia with an equally insecure near abroad is entirely absent from current UK and European Union strategic assumptions. If there were a popular revolution in Belarus what would Russia do and how would the west respond?
In Turkey, whose leaders and people were once desperately keen to join the…