- Reuters / Sputnik Photo Agency
- MI6 has elevated Russia to “tier one” threat status.
- The head of MI6 has told NATO its response to Russian interference in Europe and the West needs to get sharper.
- Russia has at least 700,000 security and intelligence personnel on its payrolls.
- Britain has only about 16,000 equivalent people in its special security services.
- NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force is outnumbered six to one by Russian forces.
LONDON – MI6, the secret intelligence service, has reclassified Russia as a “tier one” threat, alongside Islamic terrorism, after years of regarding the nation as a second-rung security issue. Back in 2010, Russia was not even named in the British National Security Council’s annual strategic defence and security review. In 2015, Russia was mentioned but not named specifically as a top priority. Only in 2016 was Russia once again called out – as it was during the Cold War – as a serious threat to national security, in the security review.
Alex Younger, the head of MI6, went to NATO last month to tell the joint forces that Europe and the US need to get their act together when it comes to opposing Russia, according to Edward Lucas writing in The Times.
The British people have been slow to wake up to Russia’s interference in domestic politics. For years, the Russian government has funded misinformation around the Brexit referendum, oligarchs have invested in the London property market via offshore financial vehicles, and Russian espionage services have used the UK as a location for assassinating their political opponents.
But the intelligence community has become increasingly alarmed at the boldness of Russian interventions inside Britain. Fourteen people are suspect to have been killed in Britain by Russian spies since 2003, according to BuzzFeed.
Now MI6 will no longer stand idly by while Putin acts with a “sense of impunity,” Younger told NATO in November.
But Younger has a problem: The sheer size of the Russian security and intelligence apparatus. Britain has about 16,000 people devoted to intelligence and security. By contrast, the Russian state employs between 705,000 and 940,000 people across its various security, intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies, according to Victor Madeira, a Russia expert at the Institute for Statecraft, who testified to the House of Commons defence committee. That’s 42 times as many, for a country whose population is roughly twice the size of the UK’s.
- TOTAL Russian security agency staffing (ca 2006-2015) 705,000-940,000
- FSB: 387,000
- SVR: 13,000
- GRU: 280,000-480,000
- Special Communications and Information Service (Spetssvyaz): 53,000-120,000
- TOTAL British security agency staffing (2015): 16,586
- MI5, MI6, GCHQ: 12,080
- DI, NSS, JIO, OSCT: ~4,506
Of course, not all those people are deployed against the UK. The US remains Russia’s great enemy, Madeira told Business Insider. And many of them will be employed in low-level work, such as border guards. But even so, “you’re talking orders of magnitude [over the UK] that the number of people that Russia can deploy,” Madeira says.
For instance, Russia has a massive official propaganda budget. “The resources we have collectively in the West even since Crimea, since Ukraine, that we’ve thrown at the problem are minuscule compared to what Russia does officially and unofficially, to the tune of annual budgets anywhere from $600 million to $1 billion, the Russians spend on the RTs and the Sputniks and outlets like this,” Madeira testified.
Russia has maintained that force because of the “mindset” of the Russian state, which has a completely different conception of the post-Cold War “peace” than Western nations do. In the West, peacetime is regarded as a dividend to be celebrated, a time to relax and prosper. But inside the Russian state, which is still run largely by former Soviet intelligence officials, peace is regarded as the period you use to prepare for the next inevitable conflict.
“Russia continuously conducts strategic influence operations, especially in what NATO sees as ‘peacetime’, because to Moscow that is when the foundations of wartime success are laid”
The Russian security apparatus, in other words, is in a constant state of war preparation in way that the British government is not.
“Russia continuously conducts strategic influence operations, especially in what NATO sees as ‘peacetime’, because to Moscow that is when the foundations of wartime success are laid,” Madeira wrote to the Commons defence committee. “Recent Russian security and intelligence budgets have grown annually by an estimated 15%-20% – with spending going to operations, not infrastructure.”
“That mindset in the Russian security and intelligence services remains that way today,” he told Business Insider.
It’s not just that the spies are outnumbered, either. NATO is probably not equipped to fend off a surprise attack from Russia, the defence committee heard last year. On that panel, MP Bob Stewart asked Igor Sutyagin, of the Royal United Services Institute, if NATO was capable of reacting in time to a sudden, unprovoked military assault from Russia.
“The problem is that the NATO Very High Readiness [Joint Task] Forces are not enough to cope … the mobility, even if they will be there, they will be outnumbered six to one which is very serious,” Sutyagin said. “Secondly, the forces, even if deployed have some structural deficiencies … the Western side might be unprepared to deal with these environments.”