Let's put supposed Russian political interference in context

16 Dec 2019

The spectre of Russian influence has long plagued Western imagination. In the Cold War it was the fear of KGB moles. Now, it is electronic interference, planted information, false leaks and inappropriate donations. Sometimes our concerns are valid, sometimes they are not. 


In the run up to this week’s important election concern also emerged. Boris Johnson sparked speculation in November when he failed to release a report produced by the ISC into Russian interference in UK politics (though just today the PM approved its release). Then, just days before the election, Russo-centric speculation is back. This time, with a focus on the opposition. 


A week after the dramatic reveal of UK-US trade talk documents concerning the NHS and the possibility of its part by part privatisation, speculation emerged about the provenance of the documents and the possibility of the ominous Russian hand. 


Graphika, a social network analysis organisation, published a report comparing the leaked documents to online Russian intelligence tactics. The lengthy report claims that “the unredacted UK-US trade documents that were leaked in the lead-up to Britain’s general election were amplified online in a way that closely resembles the known Russian information operation ‘Secondary Infektion’”. It stated that the similarities are not “enough to be conclusive”, but “too close to be simply a coincidence”. 


In the days that followed, the media was awash with reports about Corbyn-Russia links. Leaping from a similarity of provenance into full blown conspiracy mode, pro-Tory press corps insisted that the redacted documents were planted by Russia in an “extremely serious attempt to interfere with our democracy”. 


Leading Conservatives also chimed in on this apparent security crisis. Outgoing culture secretary, Nicky Morgan, said that “those who seem to know about these things say that it seems to have all the hallmarks of some form of interference” adding that the situation was "obviously extremely serious".


James Cleverly went a step further, decrying Corbyn as either a “foolish pawn”, or perhaps more seriously as a complicit agent in “a Russian disinformation campaign”.


Many of those commenting will not have taken the time to read the 19-page report produced by Graphika. One who did was Dr Mark Galeotti. An expert on Modern Russia and all things “murky”, including security politics and intelligence services, Galeotti is a Professor at the UCL School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies. 


Taking to social media to criticise the “tenor” of the reporting about the supposed similarity between the redacted documents and the Secondary Infektion case, Dr Galeotti was less than comfortable with the comparison. 


“The case highlighted by Graphika - the Secondary Infektion - was an attempt to spread fake or modified documents online after a hack. There has been no suggestion that the redacted documents revealed by Corbyn are either. This a significant difference, that sheds doubt of the validity of the parallel.”


As someone with “little time for Corbyn”, Dr Galeotti’s contribution is not a blind rejection of what some on the left may perceive as a partisan attack. It is a defence of reason. Unfortunately, sensible analysis of this kind is confined to academia and the more informed corners of Twitter.  


Misguided fear about the breadth and depth of Russia’s influence is rampant in the West. Russia is seen as a grand spectre with a penchant for trouble. Spurred on by exaggerated claims about the extent of interference in the 2016 US presidential election and long held beliefs about the ex-superpower carried over from the Cold War, we have an entrenched appetite for the kind of narrative that emerged this week.


A further development in this frenzy came as Russia “failed to deny its involvement” in the leak. According to several media outlets, this so-called failure is further evidence of interference. This was used as further evidence that Corbyn must “come clean!”.


This sudden desire to trust the Kremlin’s silence is bizarre, given the tendency to decry Russia as corrupt, authoritarian actor intent on the destruction of democracy. It is also naive. It demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the Kremlin and its foreign strategy. 


Dr Galeotti said: “The lack of denial isn't surprising. The Kremlin benefits from this kind of mythologisation. It makes it seem like everyone is in Putin’s hip pocket, perpetuating the idea that Russia is a big power with untold global influence, when, in fact, it has an economy the size of Spain”.


The idea is that the Kremlin will, on account of its reputation, be treated as a great power. That it will be given what it wants for fear of further interference. Essentially, Putin is trying to fake it til’ Russia makes it, and the British press is inadvertently helping in his quest for greatness.


The other objective, to exploit western divisions, is also an explanation for the Kremlin’s silence. As Dr Galeotti put it, “the Kremlin are not going to go lengths to suppress speculation that will cause frenzy and political mistrust in the UK. Indeed, it is keen to capitalise on situations that will destabilise democracy.” Though of course, Britain needs no help in this department.


This election campaign has seen fake fact checking, manipulated bar charts and misinformation about a supposed act of abuse by a Labour activist. This kind of misinformation, the kind that is invented by senior Government ministers and okayed by CPHQ is the kind that we really, really don't need. 


This isn't to suggest that there is no truth in the speculation surrounding the trade talk documents. There is no doubt that the website from which documents were taken is the same as the one used in the Secondary Infektion operation, but the Russia-Corbyn narrative has been blown so far out of proportion, it has shed doubt on an undisputed truth: the NHS is on table. 


Those peddling the Comrade Corbynitsky narrative may claim to be doing so in the “national interest”, but ill-evidenced speculation does nothing for our already feeble democracy. It may buy the Conservatives some cheap electoral support, but the only lasting beneficiary is the Kremlin.

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