Navalny's death reminds us that Scotland must be grown up on defence

With death in Russia, war in Ukraine and the need for security across Europe, Scotland must not shy away from the serious part it must play in making safer an ever dangerous world, writes Stewart McDonald.

“Every man always has handy a dozen glib little reasons why he is right not to sacrifice himself”, wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the opening pages of The Gulag Archipelago. Alexei Navalny had more than a dozen. His Anti-Corruption Foundation had exposed Putin’s yachts and palaces, bought with money stolen from the Russian people, and shone a light on the similarly ill-gotten gains of the Russian President’s cronies. He had dared to stand as a real opposition politician in Putin’s sham elections and, despite knowing that this would draw the regime’s murderous ire, became the figurehead of domestic opposition to the Russian government.

For all these reasons and more, Vladimir Putin had already tried once to murder Alexei Navalny. Despite knowing that a second attempt would likely follow if he were to return to the country of his birth, despite living in peace and relative safety with his beloved wife, despite a nascent opposition looking to him for leadership, despite all the many reasons Navalny had not to sacrifice himself, Navalny chose to return to Russia. Vladimir Putin killed him there for the same reason that Sergei Magnitsky, Alexander Litvinenko, and Yevgeny Prigozhin were killed: because he was scared of him and because he could.

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Floral tributes the Russian Embassy in London the Russian Embassy in London, for jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny who died last Friday.  PIC: Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire.Floral tributes the Russian Embassy in London the Russian Embassy in London, for jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny who died last Friday.  PIC: Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire.
Floral tributes the Russian Embassy in London the Russian Embassy in London, for jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny who died last Friday. PIC: Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire.
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We have known what Vladimir Putin is capable of for years now. Today, on the twin anniversaries of both the 2014 and 2022 full-scale Russian invasions of Ukraine, governments across the West should look back at their limpid efforts to deter the Russian President and take stock of their failures. How can it be that this month, a decade after the illegal Russian invasion of Crimea, we find out that Dmitry Ovsyannikov, the Kremlin-installed, UK-sanctioned former governor of occupied Crimea’s largest city, was a British passport holder the entire time?

Stories like this, which would almost defy belief if we hadn’t heard so many of them with such regularity, illustrate just how many holes there are in Western governments’ efforts to counter the Kremlin’s actions at home and abroad.

The biggest, of course, is the scandal of NATO defence spending. After the 2014 invasion, NATO member states pledged to spend at least two per cent of their GDP

on defence. Why now, a decade on, have more than half of NATO member states still to put their money where their mouth is? Why was 2024 – after Crimea, Syria,

Bucha, and now Navalny – the first year in which NATO’s collective spending has topped two per cent? Why has that only been achieved thanks to the relative overspending of the United States and those states geographically closest to Russia?

When it comes to the question of European defence, it is clear that governments across the continent suffer – at least in part – from the same problems lamented by the 19th Century Mexican President Porfirio Diaz. “Poor Mexico”, Diaz sighed. “So far from God and so close to the United States”. While the first part of that formulation is above my paygrade, there can be no debate over the second: political proximity to the United States has hurt Europeans by allowing them the luxury of underspending on defence for far too long.

When I look at some European states who are still so far from fulfilling their promise of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, I cannot help but see a worryingly false

sense of security that some of my fellow independence supporters could be tempted to follow. Insulated by geography and far from the top of the list of hostile targets, it is easy to understand how some European states might feel able to “opt-out” of the conversation on European defence and shelter under the umbrella of their larger neighbours.

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Scotland, independent or not, must reject this path. I know that the Scottish Government recognises that our security and way of life is worth paying for – they should not be afraid to say so. We are lucky in Scotland to have a deeply rooted and flourishing defence sector which not only contributes in a meaningful and material way to the security of our northern European neighbourhood, and in Ukraine today, but which brings high-paid, well-skilled apprenticeships and jobs to communities across Scotland. As Europe now looks to ensure it is militarily equipped for the security challenges of today, the Scottish Government should ensure it is supporting our domestic defence sector – vital to Europe and Ukraine – with a strategic plan to help boost productivity and the labour force.

I recognise that it may be unpalatable for some to endorse such a plan and it may come as a surprise to some that an SNP MP should make this argument. But the sea change taking place in capitals across Europe – being driven in large part by like-minded parties of the centre-left - cannot stop at Edinburgh or be expected to pause as we hope for independence.

There is a battlefield near us where human beings are waging war with guns and missiles in a fight for human freedom, self-determination and for the preservation of the international rules-based order. It is highly likely that there will be more battles like it to come. If we return to a world where might makes right, we lose any hope of sustainable and peaceful future on this planet. These are simple facts which are as inescapable as they may be unpalatable.

The urgency of the moment – written in the deaths of thousands of Ukrainians and illustrated most recently by last week’s Ukrainian retreat of Avdiivka because of a

shortage of weapons – is now.

Today, after the murder of Navalny and the deaths of so many Ukrainian citizens, it is more obvious than ever that we in Scotland cannot continue to nestle away in north-

west Europe and indulge in the luxury of avoiding a serious and grown-up national conversation about security and defence. An increasingly dangerous world demands

action of us all – and that means more than just waving Ukraine’s national flag.

Stewart McDonald is the SNP MP for Glasgow South