By Alex Yeo
The Russia Report sent shockwaves throughout the British political scene last week. The report, in summary, provided evidence that Russia interfered or attempted to interfere in the United Kingdom’s electoral process, namely in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum and the 2016 Brexit vote. Furthermore, it stated that the Government, under the leadership of the Conservative party, not only did nothing to try and stop this but also avoided investigating the matter.
With all this coming out of one report, it’s very easy to assume that the Russian government played a huge role in the outcomes of both referendums and that our democracy is under the control of Moscow. However, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The results do seem to match the aims that Russia would have when attempting something like this. Russia’s foreign policy aims are myriad and extend much further than merely contesting the West. Russia, of course, was once the heart of one of the most powerful states in the world, the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had vast quantities of resources at its disposal when dealing with foreign policy. This has, of course, changed, and Russia as such needed to change how it conducted its foreign dealings. To add to this, the European Union and NATO began to, as Russia’s leadership saw it, encroach on Russia’s sphere of influence. In short, policymakers in Russia have come to the conclusion that they are under a threat from the West that is greater than that which they faced in the Cold War but have fewer resources available to counter it.
This forms the backdrop for Russia’s goals in interfering/undermining electoral processes in the UK. In the cases of Indyref and Brexit, the aim would be to cause disruption to both the UK and the European Union. The UK formed a key part of the EU, continues to play a leading role in NATO, and has a seat on the UNSC. By interfering in IndyRef, it is likely that the Russian leadership hoped that an independent Scotland would greatly diminish the influence of the UK globally, perhaps even bringing into question its place in the UNSC. For Brexit, Russia’s hopes may not be for a complete collapse of the EU, which is merely a fantasy held by the most ardent Eurosceptics, but to both isolate Britain and cause disruption in the EU by shifting focus to Brexit and making clear the faultlines within the Union.
When Russian interference in elections across the West is discussed, it’s tempting to imagine KGB-esque spies infiltrating the electoral commission and stuffing ballot boxes, or whispering sweet nothings in Alex Salmond/Boris Johnson’s ear, but this is far from the truth. How Russia really operates here is through disinformation and campaign funding. Remember the reality of Russia’s position - even if such strong-handed interference was what Russia wanted to do, it simply has not got the resources to pull such a feat off. On the other hand, it absolutely can manage a disinformation campaign. This has been seen in the US, and the report lends credence to the claims that it did indeed happen here.
But was it the most decisive factor? In a word, no. This is most clearly seen in IndyRef - the result that would have benefited Russia did not come to pass. It is certainly possible that Russia did get involved, it would be foolish to dismiss the notion entirely, but it certainly did not have much of an effect. The same can be argued for Brexit - while the result that Russia favoured did win, the reasons for that victory are arguably more deep-rooted in the direction of British politics than they are thanks to the Kremlin’s pockets.
However, Russian interference is still a problem, regardless of how much of a role it played, and it is frankly shocking that three successive governments have known that it may have happened and chose to ignore it. Regardless of the outcomes of these votes, that decision is political. An investigation is urgently required - for even if it was only slight interference, who’s to say that Kremlin-funded disinformation won’t be a deciding factor in the future?
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.