The Kremlin is now using every tool it can find to foment divisions within the Nato military alliance
CON COUGHLIN DFENCE AND FOREIGN AFFAIRS EDITOR
17 August 2023 • 6:00am
Russia may be struggling to achieve its military goals in Ukraine, but that has not stopped the Kremlin from continuing its efforts to undermine Western support for the Ukrainian cause. While Kyiv’s counter-offensive is not making the rapid progress many had hoped for at the start of the campaign, it is questionable whether the Ukrainians would even have been able to make the modest gains they have so far achieved were it not for the constant supply of military shipments they continue to receive from the West.
The Ukrainian war effort, moreover, is about to receive a major boost with the arrival of US Abrams main battle tanks, which are due to reach the battlefield next month. This should give the Ukrainians a significant advantage over their adversaries.
To date, Russian efforts to provoke splits within the Western alliance have failed to achieve the desired result, even if the enthusiasm of some Nato countries towards maintaining support for Kyiv is waning. This was evident at last month’s Nato summit in Vilnius, where Ukraine’s attempts to secure a commitment on future membership of the alliance were rebuffed.
The suggestion subsequently made by a senior Nato official that Ukraine would first need to cede some of its territory to Moscow in order to secure membership presented a more accurate picture of what some Nato leaders are really thinking. This is despite the fact that compromising Ukraine’s territorial integrity is completely unacceptable to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who dismissed the notion as “ridiculous”.
Even so, with opinion polls in Europe identifying a clear divide between those who want to maintain solidarity with the Ukrainian cause and those, especially citizens affected by the cost of living crisis, who back a negotiated settlement, there is undoubtedly fertile ground the Kremlin can exploit to exacerbate divisions within the Western alliance.
In such circumstances, it would hardly be surprising if the Kremlin were to intensify its spying operations against the West. The more intelligence and information the Kremlin can glean about Western thinking on the Ukraine issue, the better equipped it will be to sow division and discord.
Indeed, British intelligence officials warn that there are now more Russian spies operating in Britain and Europe than at any time since the Cold War. At the same time there has been a significant upsurge in hostile Russian activity against key Western infrastructure, such as mapping key communications and energy networks that can be targeted in the event of an escalation in tensions with Moscow.
A fleet of Russian spy ships was recently detected operating in the North Sea where they were suspected of identifying possible targets for sabotage operations. Russian attempts to test the readiness of Britain’s air defences, meanwhile, resulted in RAF Typhoon jets being scrambled to intercept Russian bombers earlier this week.
As a former senior officer in the Soviet Union’s KGB intelligence service, Vladimir Putin particularly understands the value of high-grade intelligence, which no doubt explains the recent increase in activity by Western security forces aimed at disrupting Moscow’s intelligence-gathering operations.
This week’s arrest of three members of a suspected Russian spy ring following a British counter-espionage operation comes against a backdrop of other arrests being made across Europe. Last week, a German military procurement officer was arrested after being accused of passing secrets to Moscow, while an official with Germany’s Foreign Intelligence Service (BND) was arrested on similar charges last December. A security guard working at the British Embassy in Berlin was jailed for 13 years in February after pleading guilty to passing a “significant amount of material” to Moscow.
Efforts to send a clear message to Russia that the West remains united in its support for Ukraine have not been helped by the fact that more than 50 per cent of European companies operating in Russia before the war are continuing to do business with the country.
The collapse in the value of the rouble, which has fallen by 40 per cent since November, prompting the central bank to raise interest rates to an eye-watering 12 per cent, bears testament to the effectiveness of the sanctions regime imposed against Russia in the wake of the Ukraine invasion. Yet these sanctions are surely being undermined by the insistence of leading European companies, such as the UK’s Unilever group, to maintain operations in the country.
The willingness of big European concerns to continue doing business with Moscow not only undermines the effectiveness of international sanctions. It sends yet another signal to the Kremlin that there may be a significant constituency within Europe’s elite that believes their interests are better served by engaging with Russia than making sure Ukraine emerges victorious from this bitter conflict.