Alphen, Netherlands. 31 October. I have just returned from this year’s outstanding Riga Conference in the beautiful and historic Latvian capital. My sincere congratulations to Toms Baumanis and his team of young professionals and volunteers at the Latvian Transatlantic Organisation for putting on such a great event.
Some years ago I established the Riga Test. It is a simple test; can the good citizens of Riga sleep soundly safe in the knowledge that their liberties and freedoms are protected and defended? When I established the test some ten years ago it was a very different world. My purpose was to say to NATO and the Allies that this is the real test of Alliance defence and deterrence. To be frank, I did not expect at the time the Riga test to become active. Now, I am not so sure.
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, the shooting down of Malaysian Airliner MH17, the cyber and ‘hybrid’ harassment of Baltic allies, the interference in Western elections, and the soon-to-be unleashed massive Russian assault on Aleppo, quite possibly on Wednesday, the deployment of treaty-busting nuclear weapons into central Europe, all suggest a Moscow that believes Machtpolitik and Weltpolitik are one and the same thing.
However, in saying that I must also confront a dilemma. To what extent does my Riga Test actually contribute to the unease, even the fear that those charge with Russian propaganda clearly want to instil in the people not just of Latvia, but wider Europe? One of my best friends, a senior Latvian diplomat, reminded me over the weekend that the Riga Test also imposes responsibilities on me. He is right and there is a point for me to answer.
In fact this is a responsibility which I take very seriously indeed. You may have noticed that for a bit of fun I style myself a ‘strategic hooligan’. This is to demonstrate my fearless determination to confront power with hard realities, and believe me I did not hold back in Riga. However, the only real strategic hooligan around at present is Russia. My overriding feeling about this is one of sadness as I have great respect for Russia and Russians. Still, Russia’s strategic hooliganism is an observable fact.
There are three things that really worry me about the Riga Test today. The first two are European elite complacency and Russian economic weakness. The third issue I will come to in a moment. Too much of Europe’s leadership simply do not lead when it comes to the defence of Europe. They are utterly complacent about all the challenges Europe now faces, and not just from Putin’s Russia. It is that complacency which creates the space for Putin to cause strategic mischief.
My second worry is not Russian strength, but Russian weakness. For all Russia’s appalling behaviour of late it is no Soviet Union and we are not about to enter a new Cold War. For all the military sabre-rattling Russia’s economy is about half the size of Britain’s economy. Unfortunately, like the Soviet Union before it, Russia’s military-industrial complex is consuming an ever-greater amount of the Russian economy.
In the 1980s Europe ‘got away with it’ because Gorbachev came to power in Moscow and tried to reform an unreformable Soviet state. One of Gorbachev’s aim was to open the Soviet economy up which eventually rendered Moscow amenable to a new relationship with the West. President Putin seems intent on driving the Russian economy in the opposite direction, which will not end well.
Which brings me to my third worry; Brexit and NATO. Britain is committing a significant force to the defence of the Baltic States and rightly so. And yet at the conference there was a distinctly anti-British tinge. Indeed, I became increasingly irritated by the disrespectful tone of many comments about my country. People may not like the democratic decision the British people have taken to leave the EU, and on balance I agree it was a mistake, but that is democracy. Get over it!
There is an even more serious point at stake here. If people expect and want one of the world’s top five powers to go on defending them, to put the lives of their young people on the line in pursuit of their defence, then at least show some respect! There seems to be a disconnect in the mind of many Europeans between Brexit and NATO. The two are entirely connected. If EU member-states who are also NATO members believe they can drive a hard bargain over a soft Brexit AND expect the British to continue to defend them; think again. There could well come a point when the British people get so fed up at the attitude of certain allies that they will begin to ask why Britain should bother. To use the language of my native Yorkshire, the British people might invite them to bugger off and defend themselves!
What is really needed is a new relationship between Britain and the EU as quickly as possible. This will end the uncertainty, the growing irritation, and prevent Brexit becoming an almighty strategic distraction. Britain, after all, is not the enemy!
Ultimately, it is my job to call it as I see it. After all, informed citizens speaking their minds should be how Western democracy functions, however inconvenient oft-too-distant, elites find such challenge. My purpose is to not to make such elites weaker, but better. Therefore, I will of course continue to consider carefully what I write and how I write it, as I do all the time. However, I will not, nor will I ever, demur from my citizen’s right to speak hard truths to lacklustre power. Especially when it concerns the freedoms and liberties of my friends in Latvia and the other Baltic States.
After all, that is ultimately why I established the Riga Test.