Dealing with Putin

Britain and Russia should not be enemies.

In most of the wars our countries have taken par in over the last 208 years, we have fought on the same side against some of the most dangerous and aggressive tyrannical regimes in history. 

Within living memory British sailors, including one of my own late uncles who I remember fondly, fought through icy seas in dreadful conditions to get war materials to the Russian people to help them stand up against an invasion from perhaps the worst of those ghastly tyrannies - and we in turn owe the Russian people (not the government which used them like sandbags) a debt for fighting with great courage and determination against the main armies of that terrible enemy. 

Sadly Russia's President appears to have decided to make an enemy, in no particular order, of the West, of Britain, of the EU, and of all our principal allies. 

As Chris Steele said in his interview which I referred to in my quote of the day,  the Putin regime is interfering in the internal politics of both Britain and most other major Western democracies. The Intelligence and Security Committee of the House of Commons was right to warn against this, although the more I think about the response to that report from Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, the more convinced I am that, sadly, the ISC itself has fallen into one of the traps set by Putin's spinners.

We have to bear in mid that, although Putin's authoritarian kleptocracy is as incompetent at running the Russian economy as the Soviet marxists were, and Russia's military might, while still formidable, is less of an existential threat to the West than it was in my youth, at information warfare Russia remains supremely dangerous.

Further, Russia has been and remain the masters of what they call "maskirovka" or deception and it can be very unwise to interpret the actions of Russia's spinners at face value.

Interpreting Russia's actions at face value is usually a fast track to being manipulated into doing what the Kremlin wants us to do - and sadly under Putin that is not necessarily in Britain['s bets interests.

There is plenty of evidence that the Russian bot-farms and trolls frequently put out lots of different and contradictory narratives. They are not trying to get any one of them widely believed, but to create division and make people uncertain what to believe, and in the process to discredit truthful narratives.

For instance, there is credible evidence that Russian bots and trolls put out some of the more divisive and extreme messages on both sides of the Vaccination debate. Mostly they spread lies, myths, scare campaigns and misinformation on behalf of the Anti-vaccination side, but Russia has also been known to put out divisive attacks on those with concerns about vaccines in order to wind them up and make the debate more nasty.

As Putin appears to be paranoid about Britain, I am sure he would have been delighted if Scotland had voted to break up our country in 2014, and would seek to encourage such as result if there is another referendum: as the Russia regime is if anything even more paranoid about the EU I am sure Putin was equally delighted by the Brexit vote. 

However, I don't believe for a second that Russia's actions during the EU referendum campaign changed anything like the 635,000 or so votes they would have needed to change to have actually altered the outcome. 

I very much doubt that those who think otherwise have ever had a serious conversation with a Leave voter.  I live in an area which voted Leave by nearly two to one and my friends, neighbours and the people I know and have discussed it with on the doorstep split in roughly those proportions. I doubt if a single one those of them who ticked the "Leave" box was influenced by the sort of tweets and social media posts the Russian bots were putting out or by anything else the Kremlin could have affected,

There were a whole raft of reasons behind that vote but the biggest single one is that the "Take back control" message had more-traction, particularly with those who felt left behind and ignored than the essentially negative messages offered by Remain.

This is a key warning, by the way, to the "No" side if the SNP get another referendum. If we want to save the United Kingdom we must have a positive campaign setting out the benefits of the union. A third "Project Fear" won't work no matter what utter lunacy the arguments for repeating the mistakes of Brexit within our own island may be. 

But Russia did get a win from their meddling over Brexit. Not because they changed the result - they didn't. But because there was just enough evidence of Russian meddling to allow those Remain supporters who could not accept that the British people really had chosen "Leave" to convince themselves that the vote resulted from Kremlin interference, undermining confidence in British democracy and leading them to do their best to try to frustrate the result of the "Leave" vote. 

Hence the irony - which I am sure will have been seen as delicious in the Kremlin - of those who thought they were complaining about Russian interference actually doing exactly what the Kremlin wanted them to.  

And Russia got a second hit because these attempts infuriated millions of "Leave" supporters who knew damn well that their votes had not been bought by the Kremlin and saw the attempts to stop Britain leaving the UK as an insult and an attempt to disregard their democratic rights, thus further damaging faith in British democracy. 

If former Russian ambassador Aleksandr Yakovenko ever really did claim that "The British have been played" and "we have crushed them to the ground," and if any such claims were more than an attempt to curry favour with his boss in the Kremlin, we would be wise not to assume that any such manipulation only applied to one side of British politics.

There is no silver bullet that will easily resolve how Britain should deal with foreign meddling from both Russia and other hostile foreign actors. 

But all UK political parties would be well advised to look to their cyber security against external actors - and not just Russia. So should all those responsible for protecting the integrity of British elections and political processes.


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