Vladimir Putin has never stopped fighting the Cold War
The latest hacking attacks are part of a long line of Russian aggression emanating from the dictatorial president
ALAN MENDOZA16 July 2020 • 6:00pm
Perhaps the only surprise about the latest revelations of Russian disinformation and hacking to afflict the UK – with reference to interference with the 2019 elections and attempts to steal Covid-19 vaccine research – is that anyone should have been surprised at all. That they have been suggests that we have become dangerously short-sighted to the continued threat that the Russian intelligence apparatus poses to the UK and our interests.
It is not as if the Russian menace has dissipated in recent years. The whole history of the Putin project of the past two decades is one that has set Russia on a collision course with the West whether it is on human rights, invasion of neighbours, intervention in the Middle East or attempts to influence our own societies. Various British governments may have believed they were exempt from the repercussions of these at different times, but Russian aggression has been an ever-present during this period.
Russian jets buzz our borders on a regular basis, requiring the RAF to scramble to deter them. Russian submarines stalk our own, hunting for nuclear signals so that they can seek and destroy them should the need ever arise. By virtue of geography alone, the UK has always posed an obstacle to Russia, blocking as it does an easy access route to the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean for Russia’s Baltic fleet.
But Britain has long been of more interest to Russia as a venue for interference than on simple military grounds. As an integral part of the Western community of democracies, and one of the age-old pillars of the democratic world, Britain’s very existence and willingness to promote those values in opposition to Russian interests has always attracted Putin’s attention.
Putin dismantled Russia’s nascent democracy with ease in the early 2000s, assisted by the widespread disenchantment with liberalism that had followed from Russian economic weakness in the 1990s. But in order to spread the chaos abroad he has frequently sought in order to distract domestic attention from his failings and prop up his regime at various times, Putin has always been alive to the possibility that it is our democratic societies that he must also infect.
At a base level, Russian propaganda in the UK has been regurgitated endlessly by state-controlled outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik, pumping a daily diet of Kremlin-favoured views into the British body politic. But once it became apparent that the obvious techniques these channels were showcasing would never gain mass acceptance, more devious methods have been employed.
Social media has become one of Putin’s favourite battlegrounds of choice, with Twitter and Facebook having to constantly purge themselves of Russian attempts to infiltrate using fake accounts and bot armies spreading wild rumours and misinformation designed to damage the cohesion of our societies.
These tactics have been employed on other countries – most notably the USA during the 2016 presidential election, but also in the more recent Congressional elections of 2018 – and it was therefore always naïve to assume that the Russians would somehow stop there given the value of sowing the seeds of discontent in a Britain preparing to make its independent way in the world once more. After all, a neutered enemy wracked by internal convulsions is one unlikely to want to resist further Russian adventurism.
Nor have the Russians been shy of using even more aggressive tactics on our soil. The bungled assassination of the Skripals – which it should be remembered drew British blood in the form of deaths of equally innocent bystanders – is but the most obvious example. Just as troubling is the limited lifespans of various critics of the Kremlin who have fled to the UK and then end up deceased in frequently unexplained circumstances, suggesting that the health risks of being a Putin critic far exceed those even of the current pandemic sweeping the world.
Taken in this light, the latest Russian provocations are simply a continuation of a long existing trend. They confirm that, as night follows day, as long as Vladimir Putin controls the levers of power in Russia the attention of his regime will fall balefully on these shores.
Britain today undoubtedly faces a new threat from the Chinese Communist Party, which has shown itself capable of learning – and doing so swiftly – from some of the classic examples of fake news and interference from the Russian playbook. But while we rightly now look further East for additional threats on the horizon, this week’s disclosures are a reminder that we may have forgotten about Russia’s potential for disruption but it has certainly not forgotten about us.
Dr Alan Mendoza is the Executive Director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank