The PM has talked tough on Russian aggressivenes. Convincing Washington will be a greater challenge
The American eagle swoops a little closer to the growling Russian bear. Tensions mount between Washington and Moscow. Russian diplomats are expelled by the US chairwoman.
Is this a second cold war? No: it is the first hotdesk war. Its soldiers can work anywhere, on laptops, in internet coffeehouse, or in the heart of the Russian intelligence establishment. Their weapons are bytes , not bullets. Their mushroom cloud is digital chaos.
This is Theresa Mays first full-blooded geopolitical challenge( Brexit was part of her inheritance ). To date, Barack Obama has responded to Russias cyber-attacks during the US presidential election with a range of sanctions; Vladimir Putin has declined, for transparently tactical reasons, to retaliate; and Donald Trump has taken to Twitter to praise the Russian chairmen decision as very smart!( Isnt there something especially pleading about that exclamation mark ?)
The prime minister must now decide how to posture herself in this spaghetti western stalemate between the Good, the Mad and the Fugly. She could do nothing, of course. But that would be a craven lapse into paralysis, given the manner in which she has managed Putin in recent months. In October she accused Russian forces-out of sickening inhumanities in Aleppo, and undertook to send 800 troops to Estonia, one of four Nato brigades dispatched to deter Russian aggression.
In November, the cabinet of ministers declared that the west needed to keep up the pressure on Russia over its conduct in Syria. Meanwhile, she authorised the transfer to Estonia of high-precision long-range missiles to be deployed alongside dronings, tanks and RAF planes. I doubt that May ever believed Putin could be driven out of Syria. But the buildup of forces in the Baltics is an unambiguous warn to him not to push his luck.
She knows too that conventional warfare is but the half of it. As Andrew Parker, director-general of MI5, said in his Guardian interview last year, Russia is employing its whole scope of state organs and powers to push its foreign policy abroad in increasingly aggressive routes involving propaganda, espionage, subversion and cyber-attacks. Russia is at work across Europe and in the UK today.
In this context, May is also difficult to now pick up the pom-poms and join Trump on the cheerleading mat. And merely to remove any doubt, her allies are categorical that there will be no strategic shifting in response to a single tweet by the president-elect. As a starter, she indicated over the weekend that Russian oligarchs with links to Putin would no longer be welcome at Tory fundraising events hardly a dagger in Moscows flesh, but a clear enough indication that she has no aim of following Trump down the road of appeasement.
Still, he is going to be president in less than three weeks. It is central to the prime ministers vision of Britains place in a post-Brexit world that the special relationship should survive and prosper, especially in the form of a new bilateral trade bargain. Her allies were delighted that Trump created the precedent of Ronald Reagans bond with Margaret Thatcher in his first phone call with May.
To be fair, they are realistic: nobody knows how the 45 th chairwoman will respond to the counsel and promptings of his foreign counterparts. But Team May is determined at least to try. Aside from the prime ministers forthcoming visit to Washington, there are plans for senior No 10 staff to make a separate journey to gratify their opposite number in the new White House.
The specific conundrum May faces is that the stalemate between Russia and the US is( apparently) about to yield place to a love-in. The greater threat in the era of Trump and Putin is not conflict but convergence and not a convergence of peace, but a new struggle on many fronts, within and between nations, in which Russia and the US are on the same side.
Already, one can see the lineaments of that struggle: internationalists versus nativists; dictatorship versus liberalism; traditionalism versus pluralism. It is fast rendering obsolete the old matrix of left-right, and east versus west. Trump and Putin are very different legislators. One is a tycoon and television superstar; the other a pitiless product of the KGB. But in this newly ordered world they are potential allies of the worst sort.
How chilling are the resonances with Nineteen Eighty-Four and especially the passageways from The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism read by Winston Smith. This text describes a world in which great geopolitical blocs are not divided by any genuine ideological difference, in which the fighting, when there is any, takes place on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average human can only guess at, and in which the cultural integrity of each bloc is its true priority. From this fictional warn, it is not such a great leaps to Trumps Oceania and Putins Eurasia.
To persist with the metaphor, Mays priority must be to dash any hopes the president-elect may have that Britain will be a wholly compliant Airstrip One. In this regard, she faces a more nuanced diplomatic challenge than tackled, say, Thatcher or Tony Blair. Reagan and his dear friend, Margaret agreed on practically everything. Blair and George W Bush were from different sides of the political divide, but detected common ground after 9/11.
It is self-evident that Trump and the prime minister do not enjoy any such identity of conviction. Yes, they are conservatives who share a core belief in the primacy of the nation-state. But on Nato, protectionism, climate change, Islam and much else, they differ basically. Mays mission is to find common ground without selling out. It is a chore of spectacular complexity.
On Russia, however, she cannot budge an inch. Her task as the only G8 leader in Europe not facing an election in the next 18 months is to confront Trump with the ineluctable facts about Putin: that he is an inveterate regional assailant, a globally active enemy of democracy, and a mostly unchecked threat to the stability of the west. That his campaign of cyberwarfare alone mandates those nations he has targeted to enact farther sanctions and not only the symbolic kind.
Somebody needs to tell the president-elect that his political crush on Putin, as well as dividing his own party and country, and dividing the west, will send the worst possible signal to an dictator just waiting for the green light. As the Iron Lady once said: this is no time to go wobbly.
Read more: www.theguardian.com