When members of the Conservative Party select a new British prime minister on September 5, they will be saddling Boris Johnson’s successor with challenges of a gravity not seen in well over half a century.
Not least among these is the threat posed by Russia through its war on Ukraine, its attack on liberal democratic values more widely, and its weaponization of energy. For the moment, at least, neither of the candidates — former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak nor Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (the clear frontrunner) — has laid out a clear Russia strategy, while their approaches to the still-fractious relationship with the UK’s main trading partners in the European Union (EU) and to fiscal management will likely undermine the efficacy of whatever strategy does emerge.
Both have sufficient Cabinet experience and high-level security access to understand fully the threat posed by Russia, and UK policy responses to date. Yet despite the obvious connections across Russia’s war on Ukraine, energy bills, climate change, and global supply chains – all of which Truss and Sunak have identified as policy priorities – neither has set out a bold and encompassing vision for relations with Russia and for European security in the future. Their focus instead on domestic issues has been characterized by one senior pro-Sunak minister as a “holiday from reality.”
With Brexit now less specter at the feast than nemesis (the UK left in January 2020), both Sunak and Truss are at pains to emphasize their pro-Brexit credentials, and the EU is rarely mentioned except in combative terms. Nevertheless, with Finland and Sweden likely to join NATO by 2024, all but four of the 27 EU member states will also be NATO members. All the sensible money should be placed on the US continuing to encourage European states to take more responsibility for their own security; for the EU to continue building its military arm; and for a deepening of EU-NATO relations, even if more isolationist US forces fail to take Congress in November and the Presidency in 2024.
As Foreign Secretary, Truss is particularly well-placed to understand the threat and deliver a nascent policy and strategy outline. But despite acknowledging that Russia constitutes “the most acute threat to our security”, she has rarely spoken of it when campaigning and largely only in reference to Ukraine. It is all the more problematic, then, that Truss has found it difficult even to utter the EU’s name except as an adversary (see her statements about the flashpoint of the Northern Ireland Protocol). On March 4, the EU convened an Extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council, with the UK, Canada, US, and Ukraine in attendance. Truss’s tweet centered on NATO and the G7, referring to the EU obliquely and secondarily as the European Council. As someone who had supported the Remain campaign during the 2016 referendum, Truss tends to role-play the lady who protests too much. Sunak’s Leave position sees him more secure in his Brexit credentials, but he has nevertheless felt driven to prioritize the shredding of EU laws that still have force in the UK.
With both candidates firmly in a corner over Brexit, the UK will continue to fight Russia’s threat with one arm tied behind its back. Truss, for instance, has acknowledged Russia’s destabilizing intentions in the Western Balkans, but has not articulated a strategy for dealing with them. In a region where there is good reason to worry about stability, where the EU has far more influence and scope for action than the UK, and where NATO’s involvement would signal a failure to manage a deteriorating situation, there is no obvious route for the UK to secure this space and no evidence of much thought being given to how to do so. The silence on defense and security cooperation with the EU is deafening.
Sunak’s campaign, by contrast, has made little mention of foreign affairs and has instead focused largely on the UK economy. His messaging regarding NATO spending has been ambivalent, describing the alliance’s 2% of GDP requirement as a “floor, not a ceiling”. In June, the government announced a rise in defense spending to 2.5% by 2030, a target attacked by many Conservatives as inadequate. Perhaps stung by accusations from some commentators that he was lukewarm on Ukraine’s fight for survival, on August 24 Sunak wrote an open letter to mark the country’s independence day in which he promised, “Whatever the changes here in our country, we Brits will always remain your strongest ally”.
By contrast, Truss has consistently spoken firmly of a 3% GDP spend by 2030 and has used some extremely combative language about Russia. Yet the UK will enter recession in the coming months, according to the Bank of England, and faces the worst economic prospects among the G7. Energy companies say that protecting consumers from the full effects of energy price rises for the next two years will cost £100bn ($118bn), about 5% of GDP, which is more than the country’s flagship job protection program during the pandemic. There is therefore no reason to feel complacent about continued UK high-spend support for Ukraine, especially if Sunak wins.
In some ways, this is odd. The UK has long been in a good position to understand the threat posed by Russia: from the effects of kleptocracy, especially the malign use of UK democratic institutions; to interference in UK elections; and the reckless murder and attempted murders on British soil of (former) Russian citizens that have resulted in the death and injury of British citizens.
Successive British governments were slow to address the corrupt and corrupting practices of Russian interests in London, while questions have been asked about whether Johnson served as a “useful idiot” for the Kremlin. Further questions were asked as a result of the long-delayed publication of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s damning Russia report, which identified a string of failures and deficiencies in the UK’s responses to the multi-faceted Russian threat.
There are few signs that either Sunak or Truss has learned the lessons of the Russia report. That spoke of how various security agencies had focused too much on counter-terrorism at the expense of the Russian threat; yet Sunak has given far more detail about his counter-terrorism strategy than on Russia; and his campaign website sets out 10-point plans for what are described as “policies”, none of them addressing Russia. The report also spoke of “the inherent tension between the Government’s prosperity agenda and the need to protect national security”. The combination of Sunak’s economic and trading agenda with the lack of reference to the Russian threat is worrying. It is also difficult to envisage a situation where either Sunak or Truss would follow through on a key recommendation from the ISC Russia report, that Russian interference in the Brexit referendum be investigated and its results be published. Meanwhile, the Conservative government’s action against Russian and other kleptocrats using London to hide their wealth has been poor — they have been accused of sitting “on [its] plan for five and a half years, then bungled it through in a hurry, and we ended up with something riddled with loopholes”.
While there are differences between Sunak and Truss, neither gives much cause for optimism that the UK fully understands the Russian threat or that it can help to lead in making Europe more secure, except in relation to the provision of equipment and training to Ukraine. The scale of the economic crisis facing the UK will severely limit both candidates’ scope for democratic leadership.
Dr Maxine David is a foreign policy analyst, specializing in European and US relations with Russia. She is a Lecturer in the Institute for History at Leiden University, Netherlands, and is co-editor and contributing author to ‘The Routledge Handbook of EU-Russia Relations’, published in 2021.