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If you think Russia poses no danger to Northern Ireland, then think again

The attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia may sound like something torn from the pages of a Robert Ludlum thriller, but the threat Putin represents is real, says Steve Aiken


Police in protective suits at The Maltings shopping centre, where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found critically ill

Police in protective suits at The Maltings shopping centre, where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found critically ill


Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin



Police in protective suits at The Maltings shopping centre, where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found critically ill

With our seemingly never ending series of crises here in Northern Ireland, we could be forgiven for thinking that the recent events in Salisbury are of little concern to us.

However, I think it is important to note that Russia's attempt to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, is more than a form of Putin "housekeeping", but a serious escalation in an ongoing conflict between Putin and the West; a conflict that, by its very "hybrid", or "asymmetric", challenge, is making the world a much more unstable place.

So, what's this got to do with us in Northern Ireland? There are three main areas we need to be concerned with: firstly, the potential for "hybrid" attacks on our economy and political system; secondly, the "Gaz" energy tri-lemma; thirdly, and most worryingly, what I call the "law of unintended international consequences".

But before I describe these concerns, it's probably useful to put Putin and Russia in context. The first and simplest observation is that we are not dealing with the USSR and the mass military power that the Politburo exercised until the late-1980s.

Today, despite some modernisation, Russia's conventional and nuclear power is a mere shadow of itself. It is very hard-pressed, fighting a "two-front" war in Syria and the Ukraine, and the cost of replacement of limited supply of high-tech and precision weapons means that it is - and will remain - incapable of directly challenging Nato.

Its economy is heavily reliant on oil and gas and, in a decarbonising Western global economy, coupled to low oil prices, Putin has huge fiscal issues that could undermine his legitimacy in the eyes of many Russians.

Finally, Russia has a massive demographic problem; quite simply put, there are fewer and fewer ethnic Russians in an increasingly uncertain neighbourhood and health and longevity outcomes for the average Russian citizen have not materially improved. In many ways, Putin presides over a Potemkin village writ large, whose weaknesses Putin seeks to mask using the remaining "hard power" of the state.

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Given these challenges, he has turned Russia into a "hybrid" state, utilising all the tools at his disposal to ensure the prestige of Russia is maintained and, in consequence (bearing in mind the fate meted out to Russian leaders in the past who have failed to support the motherland), his continued survival.

A "hybrid" power like Russia can be a truly disruptive force for either good or ill. Russia, realising the West's vulnerability to a wide range of cyber-attacks, has worked out how to disrupt poorly protected infrastructure; unfortunately, there is more than anecdotal evidence to suggest that Russia may have been behind recent attacks on our NHS, influencing electoral results in the US, France and across Europe and is constantly probing for our weak spots - looking for back doors, if you will.

On a cyber-battlefield, the weakest point is found in the most unexpected of places, including in our NHS and power grids here. On a more positive note, while our cybersecurity industry here in Belfast is a target of Russian security services (as well as others), our skills are helping to disrupt these attacks and our capacity continues to grow.

Our energy system in Northern Ireland is uniquely vulnerable, because when the wind doesn't blow, we are reliant on gas-powered generation.

Indeed, in the recent "auction" run by SONI Ltd, part of the presumption is that Northern Ireland will have a secure gas supply.

However, a prolonged reduction in gas pressure from Russia will have a massive effect on gas price (if not, initially, on supply) and dependent on the time of year and weather conditions, as the reduction continues, those at the end of the network will suffer the most.

Northern Ireland is undoubtedly at the end of the "pipe" and, with the shutdown of Kilroot, the only way we may be able to retain domestic supply is to mothball what's left of our industry if a major international crisis develops.

But, for me, the greatest concern is that rationality in international relations is always in the eye of the beholder.

There needs to be careful calibration and calculation on the use of "hybrid", or "asymmetric", power, particularly when the use of military and security power becomes part of that calculus.

For instance, we regularly hear of Russian Naval Air Force long-range bombers probing Nato airspace just to the north and west of us; however, many of these aircraft are very old and of susceptible reliability. Imagine what would happen, as has regularly occurred in Syria, when one of these aircraft crashes and how this could be spun.

The Russian Navy's safety record in its submarines is questionable and it is not so long ago that the Kursk perished during a routine training exercise.

It does not take too much to realise that an unexplained Russian accident in our, or Irish, waters could again lead to escalatory consequences.

While some of these perspectives may be argued as being speculative, we have to remember that the shooting down of airliners, the use of military-grade chemical weapons, utilising nuclear poisons and deploying thousands of "little green men" in the Ukraine and Caucasus, cyber-attacks on our banking, energy, industry and health networks, are all tactics that have been - and continue to be - used.

Appeasement of Putin has never worked - and never will work.

In a globalised, interconnected and integrated world, we cannot be isolated from Putin's challenges. We cannot avoid the threat.

But we must be aware of the challenges and, despite our own local crisis, we cannot - and should not - forget that Putin is, indeed, a concern to us all.

Dr Steve Aiken OBE MLA is Ulster Unionist MLA for South Antrim. A former Commander in the Royal Navy, he held a variety of senior appointments at the Ministry of Defence, including leading the influential Global Strategic Trends group, advising on issues such as climate change, energy security, Europe and the Middle East

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