Posts Tagged Russia

Events that shaped our world: 2014


As 2014 draws to a close, let’s remind ourselves of the big occurrences that shaped international affairs this year. I’ve kept the list purposefully short (and in no particular order) because I want to hear what you think: what were the important events of 2014? Leave a comment below.


  • February saw the Winter Olympics take place in Sochi, Russia and a spotlight was shone on the country’s human rights record. One month later, Russia annexes Crimea.

  • Ebola breaks out in West Africa and spreads rapidly throughout the region, particularly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, causing over 6,000 deaths thus far.

  • For four days in June London hosted the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, chaired by the then British Foreign Secretary, William Hague and Special UN Envoy, Angelina Jolie.

  • ISIS gains territory in Syria and Iraq, and a reputation for medieval-style violence with the beheading of western journalists and aid-workers.

  • A resounding No was heard around Britain as Scotland voted against independence in the referendum.


  • After a ten-year mission, the Rosetta spacecraft lands on a comet orbiting between Jupiter and Mars and everyone goes wild.

  • Western troops leave Afghanistan and Ashraf Ghani is sworn in as the country’s new president.

  • 219 Nigerian schoolgirls are kidnapped by Boko Haram militants. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls goes viral on social media, but to little effect. The Islamic extremist group claims most of the girls have been converted and ‘married off’.

  • The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is marked with conferences, documentaries, museum exhibitions and art installations.

  • On 8th March Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 goes missing on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing carrying 239 passengers and crew. Despite the largest and most expensive multinational search effort in history, no debris or crash site has been found.


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Have we gone too soft? Russia, soft power and military cuts

Last week the House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power produced a report calling on the government to do better when it comes to utilising Britain’s soft power capabilities. Just a few days previous to this, a high ranking military official had voiced his concerns over the potential weakening of that which embodies Britain’s hard power – the Army, RAF and Royal Navy. Meanwhile, back at the Kremlin, Putin has apparently been feeling nostalgic for the days of the Soviet Union and plotting his next annexation (if certain pundits are to be believed). By all accounts, Russia’s belligerence in Eastern Europe has come as a shock. Just as it seemed that the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan signalled a reduction in the UK’s military commitments, suddenly we are faced with the possibility of deployment in Europe. So have we been too busy worrying about our soft power at the neglect of our hard power?

Soft power

According to the committee’s paper, Persuasion and Power in the Modern World, British soft power means…

…generating international power through influencing other countries to want the same things as the UK, by building positive international relationships and coalitions which defend our interests and security, uphold our national reputation and promote our trade and prosperity. This has been described as the exercise of ‘soft power’, as distinct from the use of force and coercion for a nation to assert itself, labelled as ‘hard power’.

In essence, it’s the ability to get others to do what you want them to do without the threat of force; a blend of charisma, charm and persuasion to get what you want. Which reminds me of that lovely quote that ‘a diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip’. But this is about more than traditional concepts of diplomacy. In the view of the committee, the world has changed rapidly in the last few decades and with increased connectivity, globilisation and interdependence Britain cannot be complacent about how it exercises soft power. Rather than the formal treaties, alliances, trade negotiations and military competition of old, twenty-first century foreign relations are to be conducted via less obvious channels such as the BBC, the British Council and our universities: think Britannia rules the international research community. Art, language, music, television, sport, heritage, NGOs, the Commonwealth – all of these represent avenues through which Britain can make its presence known in the world. But it’s not all about Downton Abbey and exporting our boy bands. How Britain is to secure its interests abroad, ensure its own defence and influence those it needs to is an important, difficult and complicated task.

Military cuts

The idea that Britain can get all that it wants without resorting to military resources is an appealing one. After the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has certainly been a perceptible shift in regards to sanctioning use of the UK’s armed forces abroad; experts have argued that it will be a long time before the British public countenance international military action that involves boots on the ground. This aversion to become embroiled in any more foreign conflicts – together with economic needs – has influenced large cuts to the military and a move to relying on reservists. The army will face cuts of 20% to regular troop numbers over the next six years, while reservist numbers will increase. The Royal Navy and RAF will also be losing regulars while gaining reservists.

However, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Putin’s apparently increasingly bellicose attitude has brought this issue of hard versus soft power into sharp focus. Now it seems we could be facing an aggressor very close to home, and the wisdom of such military cuts is being called into question. Retiring Nato deputy supreme commander, General Sir Richard Shirreff, voiced his concerns when he claimed that the military – especially the Navy – would be left ‘hollowed-out’ by the cuts: ‘…“The yardstick by which we measure ourselves is our ability to punch above our weight”. You can’t do that now. By that yardstick, therefore, we’re failing.’ While Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, tried to dismiss Shirreff’s concerns as ‘nonsense’, the Commons defence select committee is also worried about the UK’s future military capabilities should these cuts go ahead. As it argued recently the crisis in Ukraine has shown that the threat of state-on-state conflict had not abated.

Soldiers Patrolling in Afghanistan. Photo: Cpl Mike O’Neill RLC LBIPP/MOD

Getting smart

The committee on soft power is quick to point out, however, that this is not a zero sum game:

We emphasise at the outset that we do not see the use of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ methods in the projection of a nation’s power as alternatives, but as mutually reinforcing. The coercive or ‘hard power’ use of military resources remains a key component in a nation’s armoury. But all our evidence confirms that new and more subtle combinations of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ methods of power deployment are now necessary for national effectiveness and advancement on the global stage. These combinations have been christened as ‘smart power’: the use of both traditional and modern instruments of power to project and gain influence in a fast-changing world.

Again, Afghanistan has had its impact on our current thinking regarding smart power. The recent conflict provides a perfect example of how hard power alone is not necessarily enough to create the international order that the UK wants. Military methods have to be combined with political and social operations to achieve long-term peace and stability in countries ravaged by war. But then, we’ve known this all along. We knew this in the aftermath of the Second World War when the Allies were busy rebuilding Germany and Japan; we knew this going into Iraq and Afghanistan and coined the phrase ‘hearts and minds’ to remind us. There exists an entire canon of work on counterinsurgency (or COIN) that acknowledges the need for political remedies alongside military practices. And yet, when it came to Afghanistan, smart power appears to have been either forgotten or ignored, to the extent that the Lords committee is calling for a review into ‘how well DFID, the MOD and the FCO cooperated in Afghanistan, with a view to providing lessons for any future post-conflict reconstruction efforts’.

All of which means what for Britain’s future international relations? How do we rectify the committee’s findings with the recent military cuts and Russian belligerency? Well the lesson that already appears to be learnt from Afghanistan is that smart power needs to be front and centre of however Britain navigates future military questions. For as much as we should cultivate the variety of ways in which Britain influences the world, there will always be those who will only respond to force. It is understandable that recent events have made people reticent to becoming involved in further foreign conflicts. But we do not always have a choice. If Britain wants to have any kind of position of influence in the world, ultimately our soft power has to be supported by our hard power and we need to be militarily capable of this. Shirreff, the defence committee and others are not saying we should not have any cuts – just that any change to the military should be in line with Britain’s international commitments and defense requirements. At the same time, our military leaders and politicians need to understand, accept and employ the notion of smart power in foreign affairs.

As for Putin: well one of my previous posts demonstrates the affection I have for Russia and its people, and my belief that we should always try to see things from the other’s point of view. However, history provides ample evidence of what happens when we do not stand up to tyrants.

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Why can’t we be friends? Britain and Russia’s troubled relationship

‘I wish indeed that we could bring the feelings of the public in this country into a similar state towards Russia as they are towards France, but this will take some time to effect as there is so much misrepresentation in regard to Russia being circulated through many circles in this country…’                                                                                                                                                           

Sir Arthur Nicolson, 1914

I was watching breakfast news the other day, while getting ready for work, and was struck by what was being said about the Sochi Winter Olympics, specifically the opening ceremony, which was taking place that evening. According to the reporters, the ceremony was designed to showcase Russia as a modern nation fit to take its place among the western states. It would feature a journey through Russia’s history – leaving out the unsavoury bits of course. Even with my fuzzy morning-brain this all struck me as a little patronising, if not outright jingoistic. So Russia’s entire motive for Sochi was to somehow prove itself worthy of respect in British (and presumably American eyes)? And as for the unsavoury bits of its history, I don’t seem to remember any mention of the nastier parts of Britain’s imperial past during the opening of the London 2012 Olympics. All together it seemed an unnecessary jibe at Russia. The last few weeks have seen heavy criticism of Russia, in regards to its anti-homosexuality laws, the enormous cost of the games (apparently due to high corruption) and even the extermination of dozens of stray dogs in Sochi. And rightly so that Russia be criticised. A country cannot court attention by hosting a massive international sporting event and then be surprised when its human rights record comes under fire. China learned as much in 2008. But why the need for such a petty dig at Russia’s history?

Britain and Russia as depicted during the Great Game

This seemed to me just one small example of the nature of Anglo-Russian relations – a relationship seemingly built on foundations of enmity. The late twentieth century may have been dominated by the rivalry between America and the Soviet Union but it is in Britain that Russia finds its constant archfoe, and this bitterness runs deep. The pattern for such interaction was set during the Great Game of the nineteenth century – when Britain and Russia vied with each other for supremacy over Asia. During this time Britain was awash with Russophobia. Popular literature regaled the public with scenes of Russian hordes invading England’s borders, while liberal commentators denounced the autocracy of the Romanov dynasty. (Russophilism existed in Britain too, although not quite as prevalent or as vocal as Russophobia). Britain and Russia may have been allies during the First World War, but the Great Game feeling did not die in 1914, as Arthur Nicolson lamented. Indeed, it lingered on after the 1918 armistice, becoming mingled with the intense opposition to Bolshevism that was born of the Russian Revolution of October 1918. Britain looked on in horror as Lenin and his comrades made peace with the Central Powers, declared their intention of bringing down the British Empire through subversion, and set about murdering Tsar Nicholas II and his young family. The feeling that it had been betrayed by Russia during the First World War was compounded for Britain when the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in 1939. And more recently the death of Alexander Litvinenko has further soured relations.

Britain’s animosity has not escaped Russia’s notice along the way. In 1907, during one of those rare periods when British and Russian politicians found they needed each other as allies rather than enemies, a treaty was signed between the two countries. Yet, the criticism directed towards St Petersburg which continued in the British press after 1907 angered Russia, and threatened to derail the whole friendship-process. During both the World Wars there was a nagging feeling amongst Russians that the other Allies were probably not too concerned about the Eastern front, happy instead to allow the Germans and the Russians to batter away at each other. And yet, every time Stalin complained that the Allies were not doing enough to help the Soviet Union after 1941, Churchill quickly pointed out that Britain had been fighting alone for a number of years while Moscow and Berlin had been cosying up together. Which gives some idea of the problem besetting Anglo-Russian relations. Britain has always felt that Russia was not to be trusted – that it would say one thing but quite as easily do another. To act duplicitously was, in British eyes, just not cricket. Russia, for its part, could not escape the feeling that it was the outsider, even before the birth of the Soviet Union put it on a political path divergent to the west. And Britain would always fail to understand the paranoia of Russia when it came to invasion – Mongolia, France, Germany, even Britain, have all planted their troops on Russian soil. This does not excuse the creation of the Soviet bloc – it just perhaps helps to understand things a little better.

For that is the name of the game really – understanding. Being able to realise where Russia is coming from when it does what it does is one step towards better Anglo-Russian relations. It does not mean agreeing with the acts of repression committed by Putin’s regime. It does not mean that we stop criticising the way homosexuals are treated in Russia. It just means that perhaps our response can be a little more measured – that we realise, as Professor Christopher Read points out, that such laws also exist in many European countries and American states, which haven’t received half as much criticism as Russia. Friends can still tell each other off and remain friends. Because friends give each other the benefit of the doubt and friends know the other just wants what’s best for them. So please, let’s just try to be friends with Russia, ok? And stop making digs about their less than savoury past – after all, every nation has things in its history it would rather forget.

Reading List

R.P. Churchill, The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 (Iowa: Torch Press, 1939).

J.H. Gleason, The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain (London: Oxford University Press, 1950).

M. Hughes, Inside the Enigma: British Officials in Russia, 1900–1939 (London: Hambledon Press, 1997).

K.E. Meyer and S.B. Brysac, Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (Washington DC: Counterpoint, 1999).

K. Neilson, Britain and the Last Tsar: British Policy and Russia, 1894–1917 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).


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