'SKETCH: THE BEAR THAT CAME TO TEA'

The Defence Select Committee just had a very British discussion about a very Russian bear

By Serena Cowdy

The House Magazine – 22 April 2016
(also: PoliticsHome – 21 April 2016)

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Defence Committee: Tuesday 19 April 2016 – Russia: Implications for UK Defence and Security

Witnesses: John Lough, Vice President, Gabara Strategies Ltd; David Clark, Independent Consultant; Ben Nimmo, Senior Fellow, Institute for Statecraft

Location: The Grimond Room, Portcullis House

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Dr Julian Lewis – chair of the Defence Select Committee – reminds one of a kindly, rosy-cheeked country vicar. You can easily imagine him beaming at parishioners over the rim of his teacup, or pottering in his garden deadheading dahlias. Faced with a tricky situation (sabotage at the village’s ‘judge the marrow’ competition, perhaps) he would probably shake his head gently and say:

“Oh, dear me – no no no – that won’t do at all”.

Lewis doesn’t, therefore, immediately strike one as the most obvious candidate to chair a committee focused on grappling with the angry Russian Bear.

Of course, manner and appearances are so often deceptive; in fact the opening minutes of this session demonstrated the committee’s ability to deal adeptly with various knotty issues to do with our relationship with Russia. Prominent amongst these were the levels of misinformation and propaganda the Russian state deploys, and the paranoia that exists within the Russian political elite.

Lewis first asked expert witness Ben Nimmo why the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had responded “so strongly and in such a hostile way” to his written submission.

“Is this a general view within Russia”,

he asked,

“or is it simply an act of propaganda?”

One of the subjects Nimmo touched on in his response was British politicians taking part in discussions on Russia Today, the TV network that describes itself as offering a ‘Russian perspective’ on global events.

“Do you think it’s a good idea,”

asked Lewis,

“for Western democratic politicians to give the channel credibility by going on it – or do you think they are likely to be manipulated in propaganda terms?”

In response, all three witnesses advised that MPs should think carefully before engaging with Russia Today – because it does not present a genuinely impartial viewpoint.

All of this demonstrated the committee’s dedication to understanding the Russian political psyche. When the subject moved on to understanding its military capabilities, however, the panel of witnesses hit a slight bump in the road. Committee member John Spellar began:

“We’ve heard evidence about the impressive deployment capabilities of the Russian forces. Do you think NATO can match this given the timescales needed in responding?”

There followed a very – in fact uncomfortably – long silence. Eventually, David Clark:

“I’m going to talk mainly about the nuclear issue – I’ll leave the conventional stuff to others.”

Then John Lough:

“I don’t profess to have the expertise on conventional forces – so somebody else can take that question.”

There was only one ‘somebody’ left. Nimmo. After quite a bit more silence, he replied:

“My internal knowledge of NATO is now two and a half years out of date … ”

Lewis asked gently:

“Would it be accurate to say that, for all three of you, you’re more comfortable discussing the question of Russian policy rather than Russian military structures and capabilities?”

There were mumbles of “yes”.

“Right, so I think we might have to look elsewhere for some of our queries on conventional capabilities … ”

In a way, the opening section of this committee session epitomised everything that British democracy does best. For example, there was a civilised, respectful and balanced discussion about how best to open a civilised, respectful and balanced discussion. However, one also suspects this tone might be rather what Russia relies on, when it employs its usual strategy of ‘getting away with as much as it can, for as long as it can’.

Learning about a bear’s psyche is all well and good. But at a certain point, it’s also handy to know how to stop it eating us.