The UK does not currently have the capacity to respond to the threat of Russia, Rory Stewart has said.
Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday evening, the defence committee chair told MPs that the UK lacks “intelligence and information at every level, from the strategic level all the way down to the ISTAR level of watching Russian kit moving around”.
Referring to the findings in the defence committee’s report 'Towards the next Defence and Security Review: Part Two - NATO', Stewart criticised the apparent lack of Russian analysis and understanding in government.
“We got rid of the Advanced Research and Assessment Group, which did the basic Russian analysis, we sacked our Ukraine desk officer and the defence intelligence service reduced its Russian analysis,” he said.
“When we go to Supreme Allied Commander Europe and look at the American capacity, we see that that Russian capacity is being built up from a very low base again, which is troubling."
Responding to Stewart’s comments, an FCO spokesperson told CSW that the department was investing in ensuring it can “protect the UK’s national interest and maintain Britain’s role on the global stage”.
She said: “Since 2010 we have opened nine new diplomatic missions in emerging countries and in the fastest growing economies to ensure we have diplomats everywhere where we need to have influence. The current government has re-opened the language school which was closed down in 2007, and built a diplomatic academy so we can equip our diplomats with the skills they need to promote Britain’s foreign policies around the world.
“The Foreign Office has a renewed focus on languages as a diplomatic skill and, in September 2013 we opened a new language centre to strengthen our training programme in key languages including Arabic and Russian.”
Responding to Stewart’s concern over the lack of Russian expertise, the spokesperson added: “57 members of staff are on Russian language training and we have 53 jobs that require the ability to speak Russian.”
In the past, Stewart has criticised the Foreign Office for failing to prioritise local expertise in its overseas staff, and yesterday reiterated that the UK must increase local expertise.
“If, for example, the Polish electricity infrastructure were to go down, there might be an immediate claim that it had been taken down by a Russian cyber-attack. Britain would need very rapidly to be in a position to know whether that was in fact the case and to determine how to respond,” he said.
“In order to do that, we would need to have what we currently do not have — namely, the people on the ground in Poland with the necessary relationship with the Polish electricity minister to get to the bottom of the matter very quickly and to pass the information through to us.”
Last week the foreign affairs committee criticised the Foreign Office for what it called an "alarming shortfall" in diplomatic staff fluent in Arabic or Russian. The committee called for greater investment in developing language and analysis skills in "regions where there is particular instability and where there is the greatest need for FCO expertise in order to inform policymaking".