Russian naval manoeuvres reveal Irish neutrality is untenable

State needs more muscle in unsettled security landscape than using word ‘unwelcome’

 

Leon Trotsky once said “just because you aren’t interested in war, that doesn’t mean war isn’t interested in you”. For decades, Ireland has attempted to pretend otherwise, using neutrality as a means to avoid having a security policy. The news that, in the context of a seemingly inevitable renewed offensive in Ukraine, Russia will be conducting naval exercises off the coast of Cork is a reminder of how untenable that stance has become.

During the cold war, Ireland was able to shelter beneath Nato’s shield without contributing to its spear. By contrast, Austria and Switzerland pursued a more genuinely neutral course, by investing heavily in indigenous defensive capabilities. Dublin’s policy of freeriding was arguably cynical, but defensible as it essentially kept Ireland in the anti-Soviet camp cost-free.

In the decades after the Soviet collapse and the lack of major challenges to the European security order, Ireland’s neutrality allowed it to play a valuable role in peacekeeping operations across the globe. In the present day, where America no longer has the means or the credibility to act as the “world’s policeman”, the security landscape in Europe is becoming more unsettled.

During the cold war, Ireland was able to shelter beneath Nato’s shield without contributing to its spear

Additionally, in the information age, battles are fought as much in cyberspace as in the physical realm, meaning Ireland’s location on Europe’s Atlantic frontier no longer insulates it from conflict. On the contrary – for decades Ireland’s economy and development have been heavily focused on information services and technologies. Ireland hosts about a quarter of Europe’s data centres, as well as the headquarters of several major technology firms, making it a crucial link in Europe’s digital infrastructure.

Cyberattack danger

The 2021 ransomware attacks against the Health Service Executive have already demonstrated all too well how cyberattacks can have “real world” impacts. The HSE case appears to have been conducted by rogue criminal actors within Russia and caused substantial diplomatic embarrassment to the Russian government when it occurred, limiting the scale of the damage. Nevertheless, almost a year later, Ireland’s healthcare infrastructure is still recovering.

In any conflict between Europe and Russia, Ireland’s role as a key infrastructure provider means it will be a target, no matter what proclamations to neutrality Dublin maintains. If Ireland is targeted by a pervasive, and unrestrained cyber offensive, it would take a heavy economic toll on the State and even a cost in lives as well.

That said, the forthcoming Russian naval exercises are a reminder that “traditional” security threats remain as well. The royal navy has been sufficiently degraded due to years of defence cuts that it is struggling to fulfil its core missions, much less the maritime defence role that successive Irish governments have outsourced to it.

While Ireland on its own could not, of course, be able to field a fleet capable of directly challenging Russia’s, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be able to deploy naval assets that can monitor Russian manoeuvres. Even better, it should able to call upon allies to ensure any Russian fleet is left in no doubt that Irish waters are not undefended. Instead, our Minister for Foreign Affairs is left in the humbling position of declaring Russia’s exercises “unwelcome” while admitting that we can do literally nothing about them.

Adopting a closer “lean” towards Nato can mitigate some of this threat, but only temporarily. For one, for decades the US has been seeking to reorient its security policy towards the Pacific and make European nations responsible for European defence. More worryingly, the Republican Party’s embrace of Trumpism means that there is no guarantee that the US will continue to share the liberal democratic values that underpin the transatlantic alliance between Europe and America.

Defensive capabilities

France has begun to recognise this reality with President Emmanuel Macron arguing, albeit in an often disruptive and unhelpful manner, for Europe to get serious about security policy and its role as an independent strategic actor. While several other key European states – notably Italy – have begun taking their security capabilities more seriously, the continued reluctance of Germany to rearm, and the steady degradation of the UK’s defensive capabilities (as well as its alienation from Europe) have kept Europe from being able to maintain a genuinely autonomous, European defensive capability.

Our Minister for Foreign Affairs is left in the humbling position of declaring Russia’s exercises “unwelcome” while admitting  we can do nothing about them

Given these facts, Ireland must make a strategic choice: it can either engage seriously with pan-European security policy or it can aim to be a “truly” neutral state in the manner of Austria or Switzerland.

The policy of neutrality-on-the-cheap is no longer plausible – if Ireland wants to be a neutral state, it will have to be prepared to pay the costs to maintain it. Alternately Ireland can leverage its diplomatic assets to play a proactive role in building a new European security architecture, one aligned with the US, but not dependent on its future goodwill. This would both limit the costs of maintaining security in Europe and ensuring our particular cyber vulnerabilities are taken account of in crafting Europe’s collective defence. The alternative is a future in which hostile actors threatening our vital interests can only be impotently told that they are “not welcome”.

Daragh McDowell is a commentator and analyst on Russian and post-Soviet politics

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