In 1992, as the West basked in the collapse of the Communist Bloc, the political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, published a book which would forever haunt him. Titled The End of History and The Last Man, he argued that the victory of liberal capitalism was an inevitable culmination of struggles between ideologies. But then came 9/11, and since then, Russia has reverted back to authoritarianism, and China has never showed any inclination to embrace the Western model as he might have expected. To be fair to Fukuyama, he was merely reflecting the zeitgeist of the time, and his embarrassment aside, it’s not done his career much harm.
But this cautionary tale aside, Fukuyama’s treatise brings us to our first threat.
Open warfare with a major power would have been unthinkable even a year ago, but now, as Russia masses over 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, a shooting war with Vladimir Putin’s soldiers is a distinct possibility. Should one break out, the UK is likely to find itself involved in one way or another. That might not mean actual fighting between British and Russian forces. But with Britain and Europe’s energy needs increasingly tied to Russia as a supplier, and with the West backing the Ukraine with material and arms, Russia might retaliate, especially if any invasion doesn’t go as smoothly as they hoped.
But conflict with Russia is only a part of the story. A more hidden, but serious threat, is an escalation of what the UK has faced before. This was laid out in stark terms in the report issued by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee in July 2020. The report found credible evidence of Russian attempts to influence the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 (though the government avoided the ISC’s attempts to look at the Brexit vote of 2016). The report also concluded that wealthy Russians who were close to the Putin regime had ingratiated themselves into British society, and thus might be able to exercise influence. Evidence of this was the number of PR firms, and charities, and academic institutions which had benefited from Russian largesse.
But most worrying of all is the Russian state’s cyber activities and willingness to deploy violence. With regards to the former, the report concluded Russia was a ‘sophisticated player’, with a ‘proven capability’ to ‘deliver a range of impacts across any sector’. Fake news and the spread of disinformation is one capability, and there’s no reason to suspect Russian actors will do less of this in 2022. But amongst more serious possibilities, should the conflict with Ukraine escalate and draw in Western powers, is pre-positioning for hostile actions. Quite simply, this means Russia has installed backdoors to critical infrastructure for sabotage, should conflict break out.
Of course, the most serious threat Russia may pose is assassination. Numerous murders have occurred in Britain at the hands of Russian operatives, not least that of Alexander Litvinenko, and the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal. Both have been blamed on the GRU, Russian military intelligence. There are a number of other murders and suspicious deaths amongst the Russian émigré population which Russia is also suspected of having a hand in. With conflict looming with Ukraine, there’s a real possibility the GRU might target high-profile Ukrainians abroad.
There’s no reason to believe that this threat has declined, despite the fall of IS’s caliphate in 2019. Indeed, with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s resurgence, many believe the threat from IS and al Qaeda has increased.
The Taliban is trying to suppress ISIS-K, the local affiliate of Islamic State. But ironically for a movement which had such success waging guerrilla warfare against US forces and their allies, the Taliban is now suffering its own insurgency.
And already the world has witnessed its first jihadist outrage, and it’s linked to the UK. Malik Faisal Akram from Blackburn was known to the Security Services as a jihadist sympathiser. Yet he was able to travel to the United State and take hostages in a Texas synagogue. While he didn’t kill anyone and was shot dead by an FBI swat team, his attack is a chilling reminder that 2022 will continue to see a jihadi terror threat.
There are other terror threats undoubtedly. I’ve written about the rapidly growing threat from far-right groups. But jihadi attacks remain the biggest terror threat to face the UK and they historically have caused far more casualties.
In March 2021, the UK Government published a defence, security and foreign policy review, titled ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’. The report described China as presenting ‘the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security’. Furthermore, Sir Alex Younger, a former head of MI6, interviewed on Radio 4’s Today Programme, spoke in stark terms:
There’s no doubt that China represents the generational threat and the reason for that is that the idea that China will become more like us as it gets richer or as its economy matured is clearly for the birds.
That’s not going to happen. On the contrary I expect China’s Communist party to double down on its ideology in the future.
There’s going to be an ideological divergence between us in the future, that’s going to generate rivalry and reduce trust.
Yet despite this, the then Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, was quoted as saying Britain had no choice but to engage with China and that ‘It would not be feasible to go into some old, outdated, cold war.’
So, what threat does China actually pose? What is meant by “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security”?
The same report gives a good indication. After covering the points raised by Raab as to China’s contribution to the world economy, and as a vital trading partner, it adds, ‘At the same time, we will increase protection of our CNI (Critical National Infratructure), institutions and sensitive technology, and strengthen the resilience of our critical supply chains, so that we can engage with confidence’. This hints at a belief that China has an active cyber capability, and that like Russia, they have taken steps to prepare for sabotage should hostilities ever break out.
There is a further risk to the UK posed by China, and that is spying. Both China and Russia have been accused of intellectual property theft from Western companies and trying to master AI in a way which could change geopolitics to the West’s disadvantage. And China too has been accused of trying to influence Western government decision making, including Britain’s. In February 2021, three Chinese journalists were expelled after being accused of spying, while a Chinese woman working as a solicitor in London was accused by MI5 just this year of working for the Chinese government as an agent.
Unlike Russia with Ukraine, there is no immediate conflict likely to break out in 2022 and nor do the Chinese have a history of brazen assassinations on British streets. But as the Chinese continue to flex their muscles, both militarily in the South China Sea and Southern Asia, and economically throughout the world, the UK will continue to have a testy relationship with the country.
It must be remembered that unlike Russia, China’s economy continues to go from strength to strength. For example, China was one of the only countries not to see a decline in GDP in 2020, instead seeing growth of 2.3%. While this is much less than its historic highs, it’s healthy enough figure when most of its competitors saw a contraction. China is now the West’s main competitor and thus the threats outlined are likely to feature throughout the year.