The UK Government was left in the dark while Russia annexed large parts of Ukraine because British diplomats can’t understand Russian, according to a scathing new report by MPs.
Language skills at the Foreign Office are said to have become so poor that officials were unable to adequately advise the Government on the unfolding annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
“British diplomacy towards Russia and elsewhere has suffered because of a loss of language skills, particularly in the Foreign Office,” Sir Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Moscow, told the House of Lords External Affairs Sub-Committee.
“There was quite a lot of complaint in Whitehall after the annexation of Crimea that the Foreign Office had not been able to give the sort of advice that was needed at the time. I think that is regrettable and it marks a change from when I was there.”
The revelations came to light in a report by Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which has been scrutinising the Foreign Office’s performance.
The committee's MPs found that only 27 per cent of Russian “speaker slots” at Britain’s foreign ministry were filled by someone who could speak the language to the specified level.
The figure across all languages was only 38 per cent, a fact the committee described as “alarming”.
The cross-party group of MPs found that cuts to the FCO’s budget meant the department was finding it difficult to retain the right level of expertise.
Further government cuts would “probably” mean a significant reduction in Britain’s world influence and a scaling back of its foreign policy ambitions, they concluded.
“The cuts imposed on the FCO since 2010 have been severe and have gone beyond just trimming fat: capacity now appears to be being damaged,” the committee’s MPs wrote.
“If further cuts are imposed, the UK's diplomatic imprint and influence would probably reduce, and the Government would need to roll back some of its foreign policy objectives.”
The committee’s report also said there were serious shortages of capable Arabic speakers at the Foreign Office – despite a long history of instability in the region.
“It is alarming that the strongest criticisms that we hear about FCO capability relate to regions where there is particular instability and where there is the greatest need for FCO expertise in order to inform policy-making,” they said.
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