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Russia is 3rd biggest threat to British security

Does Russia really pose the ‘third greatest threat’ to British security today? Here’s a quick rundown of the threats Russia actually does pose to Britain.

British security services believe Russia poses the third greatest threat to British security.

According to the report in the Times newspaper, agents think only al-Qaeda related terrorism and Iran nuclear development pose greater risks.

Interestingly, no particular reasons are given as to why Russia is such a great threat to British security, so I thought I’d run through a whistlestop tour of what I think are the key threats that the security services think Russia poses to Britain today.

Energy security

In a world of rising oil and gas prices, it should come as no surprise that everyone is worrying about how they can ensure a reliable future supply of energy.

Russia supplies a fairly small, but growing proportion of Britain’s energy needs, and nobody wants to be at the mercy of a country that is prone to cutting off oil and gas supplies to make political points. Particularly when, as was the case recently, cuts in supply to Ukraine mean effective, but unintended cuts for European countries further along the pipeline network.

Currently, energy security probably isn’t the biggest Russian threat that Britain faces, but it’s a growing one and one that security watchers will be keeping a close eye on.

Risk to British military & peacekeeping activity

Russia is – rather like Britain at times – a mid-sized power that hasn’t quite grasped that its glory days are behind it. Like most countries, it likes to meddle in the affairs of others but, because of its relative weakness, it’s influence tends towards the irritatingly destructive rather than the constructive.

Two particular areas that Russia likes to meddle in are the Balkans and Central Asia. And British troops are stationed in both of these areas.

Instability in Kosovo, which Russia sometimes doesn’t seem to worried about provoking, could potentially lead to attacks on British troops in the area or, at the extreme draw British troops into another local conflict.

Meanwhile, instability in Tajikistan doesn’t help the security situation in Afghanistan, where Britain has almost 8,000 troops stationed. (Of course, the flip side of this is that Russia could argue that NATO is prolonging instability in Afghanistan, indirectly endangering Russia’s 7,000 strong military presence there…).

Russians in Britain

There are currently more than 300,000 Russians living and working in the UK. Worries are growing that they bring their disputes with them and oftentimes will settle them in a manner that is outside the law and rarely involves a nice cup of tea (polonium flavoured tea excepted, naturally).

Russian criminal gangs are also active in London – money laundering is one of their specialties – and I’d imagine this takes up quite a bit of the security services’ time, not to mention the police’s. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turned out that at least some of the funding intended for terrorist groups in the UK came via Russian criminal groups. (This isn’t to say that the Russian government is sponsoring terrorism in the UK – more that criminals don’t really worry too much where their money comes from).

Russian spies

The Telegraph reports that there are 30 known Russian spies operating in Britain – that’s the equivalent of one in five of the official Russian mission in London.

Keeping tabs on them is, if you believe the security services, more challenging than monitoring other countries’ agents. Instead of just checking they don’t steal secrets, the security service have to watch them in case they assassinate someone else: “Russia is a country which is under suspicion of committing murder on British streets and it must be assumed that having done it once they will do it again,” said the “senior security services source” quoted by the Telegraph.

Direct military threat

There’s been plenty of coverage of the large numbers of Tu-95 bombers flying around UK airspace recently. The chances of them launching an actual attack are, of course, pretty much zero – can you imagine a Tu-95 making a run at Buckingham Palace? But, even though Tu-95 flights give the RAF some much needed practice, there will always be the concern that so many encounters might result in a misunderstanding somewhere along the line.

Is Russia really the 3rd biggest threat to British security?

I must confess, when I originally read the article, my first thought was that it was over-excitable journalism, feeding on current British paranoia about Russia. Yes, Russia presents a threat to British security, I thought, but it’s not really that great a threat.

Then I sat down and thought through a few of the reasons why we might need to be concerned about Russia and came up with the rough and ready list above. It’s not a huge list of concerns, and it’s certainly not end of the world stuff, but add it all together and I can see why the British security services believe that Russia poses a fairly large threat to British security.

And then I thought – what countries or organisations pose a greater threat to British security than Russia, and why? And, other than al-Qaeda and Iran, who have already been noted, I couldn’t think of any. Can anyone else?

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  • Timing. Why now and who gave this information to the times? Apart from the unnamed ‘security officials’, this paragraph gives it away for me:

    “The disclosures come as Mr Brown prepares to hold his first meeting with Mr Medvedev on Monday amid rising anger about Russia’s treatment of foreign investors such as BP.”

    Do governments bat for their strategic industries?

    Listening last night to the Beeb, the Russian argument over TNK-BP is that from the beginning it was understood that be an international venture, starting with Russia but then branching out. They claim that BP doesn’t want this because in effect BP could be in competition with itself and deny that they are trying to take control and then sell themselves to the Kremlin/Gasprom.

    Either way, it looks quite messy. Medvedev is offering an ‘olive branch’, yet the British governemt decided to leak this story to the Times. That’s quite a slap in the face me thinks.

    All the stuff about fears of further assissinations in London and violent settlement of disputes between Russians is fluff. Whereas there is no doubt a strong presence of russian organized crime in the west and the UK, where is the empirical evidence that they are whacking eachother off left, right and center. I would have thought that the Metropolitan police would have mentioned such a trend so far.

    The same is true of the supposed Russian ‘meddling’ in the Balkans being a threat to British troops. This is not actually spelt out. Who is actually threatening british troops in Kosovo? The Serbs? The Albanians? The BBC itself reported that the troops that the UK sent had been specially trained in riot control – hardly facing anti-tank weapons and heavy artillery.

    My fear is that with Brown at home facing the flak on all fronts (despite the good work he as done and some real successes which the Media doesn’t actually seem interested in), he’s fallen to classic device advice that politicians in trouble tend to employ. Blow up oout of all proportion the threat from abroad/foreigners. There’s no better rally cry than call for all parties (and people) to stand united against the threat ‘from abroad’.

    I really despair at what is called ‘jouranlism’ these days. Nick Davies has it right, it is ‘churnalism’, not ‘journalism’ – churning out fluff pieces or regurgitating PR copy in a slightly modified form.

    One wonders if Britain is so afraid of dodgy Russians, why do they keep on giving them political asylum (Berezovsky and co), and more recently the leader of Pora.

    How far can recent events in Georgia be factored in to this? Since the last NATO conference in Romania where the Ukraine and Georgia were not invited to NATO but left with promises, it is fairly evident that Russia has piled pressure on both Georgia and Kosovo. I guess because they not only no longer take the west nor NATO at face value (promises were made and broken before, most notably over no NATO expanison east) and so exert maximum pressure.

    Strange things are certainly afoot at the CircleK.

  • Add two donuts and a strong cup of coffee:

    “LONDON (Reuters) – The Russian state backed the murder in London of former KGB agent and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, according to British security sources quoted by the BBC on Monday.”

    So, the ‘british secret services’ really have been let off the leash to brief journos at will (rather than the usual planting news stories)…

    Dirty, dirty, dirty.

  • ” really despair at what is called ‘jouranlism’ these days. Nick Davies has it right, it is ‘churnalism’, not ‘journalism’ – churning out fluff pieces or regurgitating PR copy in a slightly modified form.”

    Have you seen the BBC special documentary on the Litvenenko murder? It painted Russia in the exact tones Bulgaria was painted after the umbrella/dioxin murder all those years ago. I shouldnt have been suprised, but i still was. Russia was basically called an Evil Empire and implied the Russian state/Lugovoi was involved without a shred of proof.
    Unfortunately this kind of journalism is de rigeur now and sells more newspapers than any good-news headline, such as ”Brown and Medvedev sort everything out” etc. Papers over here are just as bad. Its at the stage now where I hardly buy papers ever anymore, and almost consider them a waste of time.

  • No, I missed that documentary. Some of the most interesting info that I ever came across was CopyDude’s piece(s) when he plugged in all the Scaramella info (who seems to have dissapeared from the media spotlight).

    Speaking of the Markov thing, I read that the pressure is now on to pin down/solve it properly because the investigation is coming up against the statute of limitations(?) or the law that says open investigations have to be shut after 30 years.

    On reflection, I suppose I shouldn’t be suprised that the beeb is going to blow its own trumpet as this was an ‘exclusive’, the ‘senior source from British intelligence’ talking to the Beeb man Mark Urban:

    Balance this with the lack direct comment from the Prime Minister or the Prime Minister’s office on the affair: “UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown is thought to have raised the case…with new Russian president Dmitry Medvedev…”. I guess that they don’t want it to completely overshadow the reporting of the G8 summit.

    The message seems to be ‘back off’: “[It] messes up the relationship big time.” But Britain is already heavily involved in Russia and harbors people like Berezovsky and Zakajev, not to mention the British Council et al. It is the spin that the Russians are ‘paranoid’ about foreign intelligence services operating in Russia, but Russia is posing a real threat to the UK.

    Back to the ‘revelation’, is it really such a big revelation? Even the Russians have admitted that former members of the FSB are/could have been involved and it is fairly normal ‘minimize’ exposure, i.e. admit to a some, but not all. Reading the BBC piece, it is evident that the words used have been chosen very carefully…

    In the big scheme of this, I don’t see the rest of Europe throwing its weight behind the UK in any substantial manner. Sarko & more so Berlusconi (creepy) openly believe in strong ties with Russia and Germany has been very measured in its responses to the excitement over pipelines etc. between Russia, the Balts and the Poles.

  • On reflection, I suppose I shouldn’t be suprised that the beeb is going to blow its own trumpet as this was an ‘exclusive’, the ’senior source from British intelligence’ talking to the Beeb man Mark Urban.

    It was fascinating to watch him on Newsnight – he was trying his hardest to get over the impression that not only was this an exclusive, but that BBC journalists had almost forced the security services source to give up this information.

    All complete nonsense of course – the story was released because someone in the Government had a very clear political objective, whatever that was.

    Aleks – I do agree that this story is being blown up somewhat out of proportion, as governments on their last legs are rather wont to do. But, at the same time, I can’t see how, if Russia really are innocent and the British government know this, they would go to so much trouble to keep the conflict going. It simply doesn’t serve Britain’s interests, particularly when it comes to business in Russia, as BP are finding out.

    In the big scheme of this, I don’t see the rest of Europe throwing its weight behind the UK in any substantial manner.

    Interestingly, on the Newsnight show, one of the talking heads was the Tory shadow minister for security (forgotten her name, sorry). She expressed much the same view about the wider EU’s position but added that, were there to be another Litvinenko style murder linked to Russia, she felt that the EU states would pretty much fall into step behind Britain.

  • I agree that it is hard to see where the interests are in keeping this ‘conflict’ going ($$$). I’m not convinced that it is a case of the UK government’s patience snapping even with the current TNK-BP, the apparently fruitless (what did they expect?) meeting between Brown and Medvyedev at the G8 summit, Russia blocking EU plans for Kosovo and the Georgia ‘crisis’.

    Something is missing, part of the game that we haven’t seen…

    As for another Litvenenko type event, what exactly could the ‘whole’ EU do? Cut off Russia’s energy supply? Sanctions? Risk their own billions of investment??? Veto Russia joining the WTO? The West is not the only economic game in town, sanctions making less and less sense in an increasingly globalized and economically integrated world. I’m sure the EU could come up with something unpleasant, but at what cost to themselves?

    If such an event did happen, there is more than one party who would want Russia to take the rap for it, regardless if they did it or not.

    P.S. I note that Russia has finally agreed to build the branch line to Daquing(?) off the new pipeline they are building to the Pacific.

  • Andy:

    The header at the BBC Europe home page went for the sensationalistic by saying Russia in a manner to suggestively mean Russian government.

    The article itself dealt with the more plausibe (though not necessarily true) view of folks in Russia acting independently of the Russian government.

    What’s noteworthy is the constant downplaying of other plausibe (based on what’s known and not known) possibilities relating to Litvinenko’s death.

  • What could the whole EU do?

    It’s certainly not going to be sanctions, or cutting off their energy supply.

    More likely there would be a slight shift in the way that EU members deal with Russia – countries would generally become slightly less friendly, making it more difficult for Russia to achieve its foreign policy aims. Support for groups opposed to the Russian government, and to countries on Russia’s periphery, such as Georgia, could increase. These are all rather dull in the eyes of the world’s media, so the odd expulsion of Russian diplomats might enter the frame, too, so that members could be actively seen to be ‘doing something’.

    Whether they would take this approach, and whether this approach would do any good is very much up for debate, of course…!

    Mike, I think the blurring of the distinction between the Russian government and people acting independently of the Russian government is quite deliberate on the part of the British government.

    Their argument would be that either

    (a) the Russian government is actually behind this, in which case the Russian government is directly to blame; or

    (b) individuals within the Russian state apparatus (ie, the FSB) are behind this, in which case the Russian government is indirectly to blame because it is not controlling its employees.

  • Andy, the Beeb is supposed to be independent of the British government. At times, the former has been critical of the latter in its reporting. There’re other times when this aspect seems to lack. IMO, the recent coverage of the Litvinenko matter serves as a case in point. Like I said, there’re other perfectly reasonable scenarios regarding Litvinenko’s poisoning – based on what’s known.

  • ‘less friendly’? None of the options you mentioned really carry any weight (as in it could hurt Russia) or are not already being practised in one way or another. The Euros may be quiet in comparison to active US policy, but that hardly means that do not support US policy on Russia’s periphery to some degree.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there is something nasty that could be done such as maybe throw Russia out of the G8 (as if it is really more than a talking shop as most economists say these days), but apart from it being embarassing….

    I’m suprised Russia hasn’t tried to create their own version with China and India, after all they created the SCO which many western ‘analysts’ scoffed at and has actually matured into something more than just a talking shop.

    Apparently gazprom has offered to buy all of libya’s energy output. LOL. Kind of puts the EU in a sticky situation:


    Russia falters over Zimbabwe agreement

    Is this a case of Russia ‘b*tch slapping’ payback for the ‘Russian state involvment in whacking Litvinenko’? Most entertaining.

  • There’s “BRIC” (Brazil, Russia, India, China).

    Obama’s advisers openly stated disagreement with McCain’s idea to kick Russia out of the G-8.

    Unless something new and substantive comes out on Litvinenko and against the Russian government, this recently raised issue will probably die down a bit.

    As of now, I’d like to think that all of the parties can take a step back and a deep inhale and exhale, while recognizing the realities of globalization – that involve an interdependency, which is best kept uninterrupted unless there’s some really pressing issue.

  • I had to comment on this piece myself.

    The telltale part is that the focus of the story was Russia, even though it came a poor third place threat, behind Iran – who might have one working clockwork missile in 2015, maybe – and Al Quaeda – as if anyone believes that fake terror scare anymore.

    We still don’t know for sure whether Al Zarkawi had one leg or two, despite four years of reporting by ‘informed sources believe’ etc. It’s pathetic.

    Of course it’s a diversion, as British banks and Gordon’s debt mountain economy goes down the tubes. ‘Let them eat xenophobia’.

    As Tony Wedgewood Benn, one of Britain’s longest serving MP’s said: ‘The average British family has more to fear from repossession than Al Quaeda’.

  • There are a few things the EU could do to Russia:

    1. Make it harder, even if unofficially, for Russians to travel to the EU. An extra charge here, a medical check there, a letter of invitation in the host country language, etc. Childish, but we’re talking politics here, and Russians like to travel.

    2. Make it harder for Russia to finance their development projects, the capital for which is almost exclusively provided by western financial institutions. This would hurt Russia considerably as they would either have to pay more for their capital investments, or seek funding elsewhere.

    3. Dampen support for the Nord Stream project, which could result in one or more of the states vetoing the whole thing.

    4. Start increasing the percentage of nuclear power generation.

    None of the above are very likely at present, if at all. But the EU is not, at least in theory, completely powerless.

  • This is RIDICULOUS——-Russia is no threat to anyone, BUT the USA and Britain are a threat for everyone, bypassing UnitedNations, not respecting any agreement they previously signed or the Geneva convention, Invading countries with no reason except to control their Oil production, legalizing and making torture mandatory and uniterally attacking countries using NATO for intimidation and encircling Russia with military bases to trart the arms race anew

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