Sir Hugh Bayley: EU is still a valuable ally if we are to counter Putin

Police in the Salisbury cul-de-sac where it is believed Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned.
Police in the Salisbury cul-de-sac where it is believed Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned.
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BRITISH citizen Sergei Skripal is still critically ill in hospital, the latest victim of Russian would-be assassins.

It is not only its former intelligence officers that Russia hunts down and kills. Human rights campaigners, lawyers, journalists and opposition politicians have been murdered too.

President Putin is a dangerous autocrat, who has misused political power to become one of the world’s richest men. Under communism, he was a KGB officer, and still blames the West – not Soviet corruption, inefficiency and terror – for the collapse of the USSR.

Now he is trying to control a ring of client countries and territories around Russia’s borders – his “near abroad” – to keep foreign influence out.

Putin annexed Crimea, and sent military forces into eastern Ukraine, where they shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight from Amsterdam, killing 298 passengers and crew. Russian troops occupy Transnistria in Moldova which, like Ukraine, borders the EU. Russia went to war with Georgia and now occupies Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Putin uses Russian forces in Syria to keep Bashar al-Assad, its chemical weapons-using president, in power. Syria does not directly border Russia, but it provides Russia with Tartus, its only naval base in the Mediterranean.

President Putin’s policies directly affect us in the West. Russia used fake news and social media to boost President Trump’s election prospects, and similar tactics in Britain to influence the Brexit referendum.

Russia is the source of countless cyber attacks on Britain, some from criminals seeking to defraud businesses and consumers, or steal personal data, and others from their Russian government targeting our infrastructure. We end up paying more for goods and services because we need to spend millions countering these attacks.

Russia has closed all the British Council offices there, which provide English language classes for Russians and information about life in Britain, but we still allow RT, the Russian government-funded TV station, to churn out clever pro-Russian propaganda from TV studios here. Maybe we should send RT, and Russia’s Sputnik news agency in Edinburgh, packing, even though our liberal values will still allow Russian propaganda to be broadcast and published in Britain.

Russia gets away with murder (literally) because we do less to protect our freedom, and champion our values, than Russia does to advance its autocratic alternative world view.

Our defence spending in the UK fell from 2.5 to 2.1 per cent of GDP between 2010 and 2015. Across Nato as a whole, it fell from 3.0 to 2.4 per cent. Over the same period President Putin increased Russia’s defence spending from 3.8 to 4.8 per cent, and the gap is still growing. Last year, the World Bank reported Russia spending 5.4 per cent, the USA 3.3 per cent, France 2.3 per cent, the UK 1.8 per cent and Germany 1.2 per cent.

Russia is modernising its nuclear weapons. It has the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal with 4,300 operational warheads, 332 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 13 ballistic missile submarines and 76 long-range nuclear bombers.

We must be careful not to stumble into a new nuclear arms race, but we, and our allies, need to increase our defence spending on equipment, training and deployment to deter further Russian aggression.

Russia has also increased spending on propaganda and espionage, which explains why there are so many Russian spies to expel from so many countries.

Some democratic countries, especially in central and Eastern Europe, are highly dependent on Russian oil and gas. The EU should support investment in alternative energy sources.

After each Russian outrage, Western countries respond with sanctions, expulsions and military deployments, but as time passes we sometimes let down our guard, and cosy up to Russia again. Putin sees this as weakness, which simply encourages further aggression.

Theresa May did well to persuade so many countries to expel Russian spies. Our security services will have helped some to identify who should be expelled. She is turning up the heat, but this time we, and our allies, must maintain the pressure.

Just before the Brexit referendum, I wrote in The Yorkshire Post that the EU plays an important part in Britain’s defence and security. Let’s not forget that Theresa May was able to attend the EU summit, and persuade other countries to support us by expelling Russian spies, only because we are still in the EU.

As such, Parliament needs to weigh the security implications of leaving the EU into the equation at the end of the year when it debates the final terms for Brexit, and decides whether it is in our national interests to leave.

Sir Hugh Bayley was President of the Nato Parliamentary Assembly from 2012-14, and Labour MP for York Central from 1992-2015.