What is Scotland's place in the world after Russia's invasion of Ukraine?
When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on the morning of 24 February 2022, naturally people’s first thoughts were of the Ukrainians themselves – fighting for or fleeing from their homeland, it was the type of conflict most people have never had to consider beyond the pages of history books. And suddenly, it was on Europe’s doorstep.
As the war continues, the realities of how interlinked the world is, is becoming clear. With economies only just beginning to recover from Covid, the pressure the conflict puts on global markets is having a clear impact on daily lives, like food and fuel prices. But more than the short-term, also at stake is the relatively stable world order enjoyed by the West for the last thirty years.
“There’s big stakes involved in Ukraine,” says Professor Peter Jackson, chair of global security at the University of Glasgow. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine initially was aimed at imposing Russia’s will on Ukraine, but also at driving a wedge between certain Nato countries and EU countries, and really undermining the consensus that underpins that post-Cold War rules-based order.”
Jackson is also the executive director of a new thinktank, the Scottish Council on Global Affairs. The thinktank has been in the works for some time, but the evolving situation in Europe made for an interesting backdrop for its official launch earlier this year. Its focus won’t solely be on Scotland’s role as a world player, but it’s a good starting point given the renewed importance of the High North in light of Russian aggression.
“While defence and foreign policy are reserved areas in the British constitution, such as it is, that doesn’t mean that Scotland as a political entity doesn’t have foreign policy interests and defence interests,” says Jackson. “It certainly does, especially given its position facing the North Sea up to the Arctic and given also the increased tensions as a result of the war in Ukraine and the possible threat from Russia. The North Sea and the Arctic and the High North are all going to be of increasing importance in security terms... These are issues where, although Scotland doesn’t have its own foreign policy, it does have vital interests that need, I think, special attention.”
Our neighbours want to know that we’re taking our responsibilities seriously
The High North typically refers to the area between Greenland and the Norway-Russia border on the Barents Sea, just south of the Arctic Ocean. It could be used to access the North Atlantic and as such is a key strategic position. Jackson explains: “That whole region is hugely important in terms of imagery intelligence, signals intelligence, listening, code breaking, traffic analysis – in other words, identifying what communications are travelling where, not necessarily their content but their volume. Scotland is a player, or at least the United Kingdom territory that’s Scottish is a player.
“It also creates important alliances of interest with Scandinavian countries in particular, Sweden and Norway and Finland, who are very concentrated on the possibility of Russian encroachment in their airspace. This was important before 2014, and especially before February 2022, but it’s going to be more so going forward.”
The role of the UK as part of High North security has been in a state of change for the last decade. Back in 2010, the UK Government scrapped a major maritime surveillance programme and also considered closing the three airbases in Scotland entirely. At the time, Angus Robertson – then the SNP’s foreign affairs spokesman at Westminster and now the cabinet secretary for external affairs – said the UK Government had “opted out” of its responsibilities to our neighbours.
Since then, the UK’s interest in the High North has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance – the most recent example being a fleet of maritime patrol aircraft now based at RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, one of the bases that had been pegged for closure just over a decade ago.
Stephen Gethins, an international relations professor and former SNP MP who sat on Westminster’s Foreign Affairs Committee between 2015 and 2019, says: “Scottish Government thinking has been, for many years, ahead of the UK Government on [the High North]. We tend to think in terms of hard security and that’s important when you’ve got Russian aircraft, Russian ships, buzzing around Scottish territorial waters and airspace – you need to think about that. And I think it’s an area where our neighbours want to know that we’re taking our responsibilities seriously.”
But what Ukraine has proven is security “is not just about military hardware,” he explains, because that conflict has had a “profound impact” on other areas. “It’s about everything – our food security, our energy security. And actually on those two areas, Scotland – a big food and drink producer, also a big energy producer – has got to take its role in Europe and the wider world quite seriously.”
Indeed, Europe’s reliance on Russian oil has been thrust into the spotlight by recent events, showing up both how much Russia benefits financially as well as the risk to energy security. One unexpected benefit, perhaps, is the fresh focus this has placed on climate and renewables targets, particularly within the European Union.
Here, Scotland has something to offer. Jackson says: “It has an important role to play both in terms of its own production of renewable energy, but also in terms of its role as an example [of] a political community that has attributed decisive importance to renewables, working on the assumption that fossil fuel extraction is not the way of the future.” He also notes that while it is often downplayed by the Scottish Government, North Sea oil remains important.
Gethins argues that, despite Brexit, Scotland should be part of a European energy market. “Scotland being a part of that single energy market will be quite important in terms of our broader security. There’s obviously the economic opportunity there, but I think it’s also a security imperative as well.”
In addition to the traditional air, land and sea operations based in Scotland as part of UK infrastructure, cyber-defence is set to be of continued importance. Cyberwarfare has been a key component of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and since February the UK, EU and US have all seen increased cyber-attacks thought to be from Russian sources.
What does the Scottish Government or indeed the parliament or wider Scottish society want Scotland to be known for in the world?
But beyond state-sanctioned cyber-attacks, global cybersecurity is a growing concern as digitalisation continues apace. A recent Scottish Government publication setting out distinctly Scottish responses to security risks singled out cyber as a priority, largely because there have been national security incidents which have focused on devolved bodies. A malicious attack on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency at the end of 2019, for example, saw 1.2GB of data stolen to the cost of at least £1.2m. It is believed an international organised crime group was behind it.
Cheryl Torano, business development manager of the new Abertay cyberQuarter, says: “It’s a great example of why cyber-defence is so important. A lot of organisations, they don’t take notice of cyber until it’s too late, until they’ve been breached. We need to get ahead of that, we need to get people thinking of defence rather than just trying to save themselves after they’ve been attacked.”
The cyberQuarter, based in Dundee, has been set up specifically to help solve global cybersecurity challenges. It has received funding from both the Scottish and UK Government via the Tay Cities Region Deal, highlighting the importance both government place on this area. Torano says: “The aim is to create a Scottish cyber cluster based within Dundee, and the cyberQuarter will be the home for the Scottish cyber economy. We will all be working together, sharing skills, sharing expertise, sharing tools, and just creating a bigger network of defence.”
But despite all Scotland has to offer on the international stage, there is still an undercurrent of public opinion that any international engagement by the Scottish Government is a waste of resources because foreign policy is reserved. Conservative MSP Stephen Kerr, for example, has described efforts in these areas as “wasteful spending on overseas offices”. There is also an element of distrust, as some people believe the only reason the Scottish Government looks to engage with other nations is to further pursue its independence ambitions.
But Anthony Salamone, managing director of political analysis firm European Merchants, argues it is “perfectly legitimate” for sub-state governments to look to engage with international partners – as long as the Scottish Government isn’t doing so for purely political reasons. Even if it were, he says, that might backfire because the partners the government would be looking to work with “don’t want to be involved in the independence debate”.
One solution to this problem would be to clearly set out what the government’s ambitions are abroad, something which Salamone says it has yet to do. The government’s recently published Global Affairs Framework has “no well-defined strategy; there are no well-defined objectives,” he says.
He continues: “For example, what is the purpose of these Scottish Government offices [abroad]? Again, there’s nothing wrong with having offices in Berlin and Paris and Dublin, and to promise to open them in Copenhagen and so on. Other sub-state actors do that – Wales has offices, for instance, in other regions, in Spain and Germany. It’s perfectly legitimate to do so. But what is the core purpose of those offices? I don’t know the answer to that because the Scottish Government has never said.”
Those aims mustn’t only come from the current government, he argues, but from a national discussion. “What does the Scottish Government or indeed the parliament or wider Scottish society want Scotland to be known for in the world?” he asks.
“Is it that Scotland is a world leader on climate change and renewable energy and so on? Is it on human rights? I think you need to decide beyond just one government to the next, but on a higher societal level. What are some core international profiles that you want Scotland to be known for? And you commit to that for a very long period of time, as other smaller countries have tried to do… You have to narrow it down and pick one or two and stick with them. That’s not the way in which Scottish politics has always worked, but it’s the way in which, if you want to be successful as a smaller entity or certainly as a small European state, you have to develop that kind of profile for yourself.”
This is important whether Scotland’s future is within or outwith with UK. As an independent nation, Scotland would be a small state and would need to find a way to use its limited resources to achieve specific objectives, says Salamone.
But as Gethins highlights, even as part of the UK it only makes sense for Scotland to have an input on foreign policy in areas of expertise. “A conversation needs to be had that, yes, [Scotland’s] voice is being heard but its voice won’t be heard on everything. So, where are we world leading? What do we bring to the table? I’d argue these are areas like climate justice, energy, the just transition, our education establishments.
“Having your voice heard doesn’t mean shouting loudly about everything. It means people paying attention to you because you deserve to be paid attention to. And that’s what we need to figure out – and to be fair we are – the areas where we bring added value to these international conversations.”