The current escalation of nationalistic rhetoric in the UK, directed at Russia in the wake of the poisoning of a former British spy and his daughter in Salisbury, provides us with a case study in the domestic dynamic of geopolitical competition.
Such escalations operate in two directions - the extension of threats abroad to rival powers, and the reduction of democratic space within domestic politics. The announcement of new sanctions against the Russian Federation was immediately accompanied by demands in the parliament and the media for the suspension of criticism of the government, and the acquiescence to a united national front against Russia.
The process of escalation poses many dangers on a global scale, including making proxy military violence between Western and rival spheres more likely. But this article will focus on the domestic sphere, specifically the truncation of democratic space and freedom engendered by the atmosphere of standoff, deliberately engineered by multiple powerful institutions and all too often acquiesced to by social forces otherwise critical of the establishment.
This phenomenon itself makes a re-statement of the real balance of forces between the Western alliance and its much less powerful competitors necessary, obscured as this has become by the internal effects of escalation.
But first we will examine the current round of escalation and its immediate domestic impact.
Sergei Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer arrested and tried by Russian authorities for spying for the UK was poisoned along with his daughter on 4 March.
On 5 March Uk Foreign Minister Boris Johnson was already making clear that Russia was the main suspect. By 12 March, Prime Minister Theresa May accused the Russian state of being behind the poisoning. By 16 March, Johnson had accused Putin himself of ordering the attack.
The escalation of rehtoric was as rapid, and as familiar as it is patently absurd.
Commentators like Joyce McMillan in the Scotsman, who compared Putin to Hitler, were echoed by MPs in the Commons, who claimed that Putin’s Russia was an equivalent threat to the Third Reich faced by the UK in the 1930s and 40s – a military force which conquered continental Europe and killed tens of millions.
In another familiar ritual, Labour backbenchers rounded on Jeremy Corbyn and his condemnation of the attack, coupled as it was with calls for a multi-lateral approach and to involve chemical weapons monitors in the investigation.
Stephen Kinnock MP said Corbyn must take the “patriotic position” of stating that the Russian government itself directed the attack, regardless of the existence of any concrete evidence that this was the case.
The SNP, abandoning its erstwhile record of relative calm and pragmatism on foreign affairs, adopted the vacated position of loyal opposition to demand that Russia not go “unpunished” for “attacks on our streets”.
Within days of the official announcement of new sanctions, the media campaign against dissenters had reached fever pitch. The Dailymail front page denouncing Corbyn as a 'Kremlin Stooge' may have been predictable, but the BBC flagship Newsnight programme turning its backdrop into a stylised propaganda poster with the Labour leader depicted as a Soviet icon stunned even hardened critics of the public broadcaster. The programme's chief presenter, Evan Davis, later described the image as a "provocation".
"Shame" and the castigation of dissent
Once again the issue of banning the Russia Today state broadcaster from the UK was brought up by politicians and broadcasters.
This is no idle threat. In 2012 the UK press regulator Ofcom revoked the broadcast license of Press TV, an Iranian broadcaster with a similar remit and style to RT.
The latest threats to close down RT are only the latest of innumerable rounds. A previous controversy which saw critics round on former SNP leader Alex Salmond for hosting a show on the RT platform was dredged up by his fellow LBC Radio host who ordered him to "feel ashamed".
On Victoria Derbyshire, a new BBC news magazine programme, one invited expert said that members of the public who even watched RT "should be made to feel ashamed of themselves."
The pressure on RT has of course been going on for some years, but recent weeks have seen unprecedented Western sanctions. The US has recently registered RT as a foreign agent, twitter banned its advertising and Theresa May branded it "weaponised information".
This Western-wide scope is part of a pattern which has seen all manner of political upsurges and ruptures branded as somehow influenced or even caused by Russian interference.
Support for Scottish independence, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the rise of the Front National in France, Alternative for Deutschland in Germany, Freedom Party in Austria, Syriza in Greece and the declaration of a Catalonian Republic have all been blamed on Russian interference.
Initially, figures and movements on the populist or far-right were the main targets for speculation about Russian support in the media. But as time has gone on, this focus has shifted increasingly onto the left.
Against this backdrop, it is dangerous for figures on the left to accede to anti-Russian conspiracy theories, or to attempt to toy with them in the hopes of advancing other dissident views. A tendency exists among some on the left that room for reform of domestic policy can be won through an acceptance of established foreign policy, including noisy opposition to official enemies like Russia.
Journalist and influential figure on the Corbynite left Paul Mason has exemplified some of these tendencies.
Responding to the Skripal poisoning from Austria, Paul Mason told his social media followers the UK had to prepare for Russian pressure:
"...we in Britain do need to think about ways we can stand together in the face of this big pressure that's going to now come on us.
"The deputy prime minister of the far right party here in Austria is basically in an alliance with vladimir Putin. The party which just won the Italian general election is pro-Putin. And of course in the Whitehouse there is a guy who is basically a Putin stooge...
"Above all, you cannot face down pressure like the pressure we are going to come under, if you are severely depleting your own armed forces."
Opponents of the establishment in the UK cannot control anti-Russian sentiment, which is generated by the establishment and its institutions, in order to advance their own efforts.
But this perspective on the global order, which views Russia as a very real threat to Western societies, even a military threat, grossly misunderstands the international balance of forces.
The balance of forces
At the end of the second world war, the US emerged as the world's strongest power, and since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 it has been a world hegemony without rival and without comparison in human history. But the US does not exercise complete control. In order to maintain its influence against regional powers it must make alliances with other, smaller, but still powerful states or sponsor proxy or client regimes. The US's most important ally is the UK, which has acted as a military ally, a key node in the US centred global nexus of economic power and a bridge between the US and other important European powers, particularly through the NATO military alliance and the EU.
The scale of western global dominance is astounding. On the military front, the US accounts for almost 40 per cent of the total global military expenditure. Combined with its Nato allies, the western alliance represents well over 50 per cent of arms spending.
By comparison, Russia represents just over 5 per cent of military spending.
The US economy soars ahead of international competition. The US nominal GDP is 14 times that of Russia. In fact, Russia's GDP is just half that of California.
Stark though they are, these differences underestimate the true gulf in power and influence exerted by the US and its allies on the one hand and the capacity of its competitors on the other. Russia has experienced a torrid few decades with the collapse of its sphere of influence.
Following the loss of its Warsaw Pact allies, it endured an unprecedented 40 per cent collapse in GDP. With its global position rocked, Russia faced a struggle for the survival and homogeneity of its state, using violence to crush secessionist movements and struggling to maintain cohesion in the face of epidemics of addiction, disease and organised crime.
Promises made to wind up the cold war NATO alliance and cease the west's hostile stance towards Russia were rapidly abandoned - and the project of containing Russia by spreading US military bases, weapons systems and military and diplomatic alliances continued and extended. Vladimir Putin's triumph has not been to turn Russia back into the major global force it was in the 20th century, but only to stabilise its precipitous decline.
At the same time, the western alliance consolidated its own global position. The EU and NATO expanded towards Russia's borders. The apparent ideological victory of market orientated neo-liberal capitalism re-enforced the dominance of the west's economic model and the coterie of transnational institutions which promote it, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Before the economic crisis of 2008, the west's ability to set the global rules for trade appeared beyond challenge.
Russia is, quite simply, in no position to challenge this dominance.
Sanctions at home and abroad
The new sanctions actually imposed by the UK Government on Russia, principally the removal of 23 Russian diplomatic officials, have next to no impact whatsoever on the Russian state.
The escalation between the West and Russia is having a much more immediate and profound impact on domestic dissent in the West. The constant campaign of association between leftwing movements, parties and figures with the mainly unspecified Russian threat is the major thrust of this campaign.
A second major thrust is the ramping-up of pressure for movements calling for domestic reform to accede to a 'united front' against foreign enemies. A cursory history of attempts at this sort of bargaining on the left show how dangerous it is. Movements forced to show loyalty to the geo-strategic priorities of the state will simply come under increased pressure to be 'loyal' on domestic policy matters as well. The media and political establishment are just as capable of portraying demands for progressive taxation or housing reform as a Russian ploy as opposition to Trident (indeed, they already do).
A third thrust is to limit the parameters of acceptable media operations. 'Fake news', the commercial production of falsified news content by micro publishers is a real phenomenon. But as is now widely acknowledged, the phraseology has taken on a life of its own. It has become routine for non-establishment media outlets to be derided as propaganda outfits and dissident views to be likewise maligned as 'post truth'. The threat level against foreign publications and broadcasters is a barometer of the state of media freedom. It matters less the quality and intention of these platforms than the reality that should they face a clampdown, wider media freedoms will undoubtedly suffer thereafter.
Above all, UK dissidents who seek a change on the UK domestic front must not be pressured into supporting a united front with the establishment when it comes to foreign policy and supposed national enemies. This will lead to the frustration of ambitions for domestic reform, and add to future rounds of escalation.
Scares over Russia, and no doubt other foreign competitors for the UK, will increase as polarisation and fractures continue to appear in the Western alliance. Accommodation to the psychological atmosphere of escalation now will only lead to greater danger in the future.