Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Britain Is Botching This Cold War Just Like the Last One

| July 29, 2020

British politicians and spies are continuing a tradition of sticking their heads in the sand against inconvenient attacks.

Britain's long-awaited intelligence report into Russia has finally been published. The report, suspiciously delayed for seven months until after Britain's December 2019 general election, is a damning indictment of London's failure to recognize Russia's threat. The British government took its eye off the ball regarding Russia, concludes the report, with its attention focused instead on counterterrorism. While Britain looked away, Russian President Vladimir Putin pursued an aggressive clandestine foreign policy against Britain and other democracies, carrying out assassinations on British soil, launching cyberattacks, unleashing disinformation to meddle in elections, and using Russian money to buy political influence in London—laundered through an industry of bankers, accountants, and lawyers in "Londongrad." Driven by a relentless desire to be treated as a great power again and to defend against perceived Western aggression, Putin's strategy appears a zero-sum game: Anything to weaken Britain and other Western democracies means Russia is winning.

The British government has made similar miscalculations about Russia in the past. During World War II, when Britain was allies with Soviet Russia, it took its eye off the ball regarding Moscow's long-term threat. The result was disastrous for Britain and its closest ally, the United States, in the postwar years as the Cold War set in. The same is happening today.

Although it now seems remarkably naive with hindsight of the Cold War, when Soviet Russia was drawn into World War II by Nazi Germany's invasion in June 1941, the British government imposed a moratorium on all British intelligence collection on its new wartime ally. It did so on the grounds that allies apparently do not spy on allies—especially when fighting a shared enemy posing an existential threat. Some British intelligence officers were unconvinced that the Soviet Union's threat had disappeared. After the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia, MI5 circulated a memorandum to senior government officials, "lest we forget," warning that the Russian leopard had not changed its spots. The head of MI5's counterespionage department, Guy Liddell, noted in his now-declassified diary in March 1943 about the continued threat of espionage by Britain's ally:

There is no doubt to my mind that it is going on and sooner or later we shall be expected to know all about it. On the other hand if we take action and get found out there will be an appalling stink....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walton, Calder.“Britain Is Botching This Cold War Just Like the Last One.” Foreign Policy, July 29, 2020.

The Author