Sunday, 17 January 2021

Protecting Britain’s allies from Russia starts at home

Russia is waging an undeclared war on the West. It launches cyber-attacks, engages in diplomatic divide-and-rule games, undertakes military sabre-rattling, exploits organised crime networks, physically intimidates dissidents and opponents, and buys covert and overt influence in Western political systems. The tactics Russia uses vary from country to country, but – wherever, and in whatever combination, they are used – their aim is to demoralise and split the targeted country.

A decade ago, uttering these words would have led to you being dismissed as a hysterical ‘Cold Warrior’. But much has changed over the last ten years, and the conventional wisdom has shifted.

In London, as well as other Western capitals, it is now uncommon to hear that Russia is a Western ally, that Vladimir Putin can be dealt with diplomatically, or that Russian energy supply is just business. There now exists clarity (but not consensus) over what Russia is doing, and why Russia is doing it. The Kremlin’s ultimate aim is to undermine the West. It wants to weaken the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), to constrain the European Union (EU), and to re-write the rules of the post-Cold War international order.

Russia also devotes significant resources to propaganda. This propaganda does not exclusively promote the Kremlin. Unlike during the 2000s when Russia, with its oil-fuelled economy, sought to catch up with the West, now Russia, with a stagnating economy, seeks to drag the West down. The goal is to increase Russia’s relative power. Accordingly, Russia identifies tensions of every kind (ethnic, historical, linguistic, regional, or social, to name a few) and exploits them relentlessly. The testbed for Russia’s propaganda has been Eastern Europe, and in particular the Baltic states and Ukraine.

This helps to explain why the United Kingdom (UK) recently launched a £10 million programme to combat Russian (and other) disinformation and fake news. The three-year Open Information Partnership gives grants, training and other support to academics, media outlets, and think tanks in Central and Eastern Europe involved in exposing fake news, fact-checking, and investigative journalism. The programme is commendable. People outside government (including me) have long argued that something like this was needed.

Hostile influence operations by Russia against the UK’s allies are a real, long-standing threat to British national security. But the British government’s efforts to combat the Kremlin’s nefarious activities also need to focus on Western Europe.

Ultimately, the challenge Britain faces is less about Russia and more about itself. In particular, it is about how British democracy is defended.

The countries of Eastern Europe are, in some ways, safer than they have been at any point since 1991. The United States (US) is spending billions of dollars on the defence of Europe, and NATO has recommitted to the region on a scale unimaginable before 2014. Unlike during the Cold War, Moscow is not the capital of a superpower. Russia’s economy is smaller in size than Italy’s (US$1.35 trillion compared to US$1.88 trillion, according to the World Bank); and unlike Italy, Russia has to pay for a space programme and nuclear weapons.

Some of the policy responses in Western Europe to Russia’s activities are the same as those in Central and Eastern Europe. And there have already been some efforts to combat Russia’s propaganda, including the Foreign Office-funded Institute for Statecraft and its counter-disinformation “Integrity Initiative”. Small and poorly-resourced, the Initiative was hacked last November, allegedly by Russia’s military intelligence service (the GRU), and had a trove of stolen material leaked online. The material was published and amplified by Russian media channels, including the conspiracy-mongering, Kremlin-financed broadcaster RT.

There is much more the UK can do. It could fund fact-checking crusades, or invest in its own army of ‘Baltic elves’ to fight Russian trolls online. True, the Army’s 77th Brigade already engages in ‘non-lethal warfare’, but its activities fall short of its volunteer counterparts in the Baltic. It could follow Finland’s example and take a whole-of-government approach to media literacy, developing a ‘national narrative’ through a compelling public diplomacy campaign.

In Westminster, much of the debate surrounding propaganda, disinformation, and ‘fake news’ centres on the extent of Russia’s interference in the Brexit referendum of June 2016, including its manipulation of social media and how social media companies enabled this. Naturally, therefore, so has much of our response; the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s 18-month investigation into ‘disinformation and fake news’ is an example of this. Some parliamentarians have called for RT’s broadcasting licence to be revoked.

But the concerning thing is that the most visible aspects of Russia’s activities, such as RT, may be among the least dangerous.

Ultimately, the challenge Britain faces is less about Russia and more about itself. In particular, it is about how British democracy is defended. The Kremlin will continue to attempt to influence UK democratic processes, but so too will other hostile states, undoubtedly influenced by Russia’s tactics. How the UK responds on the information battlefield is part of a bigger set of questions about how it responds to the activities of hostile states that fall short of outright war.

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