Why would Russia want to interfere in British politics?
Russia’s foreign policy seems based on nihilism, said Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. But Vladimir Putin is much shrewder than that.
Evgeny Lebedev’s elevation to the House of Lords barely a week after the publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s deliberations on Russia underlined just how cavalier Boris Johnson is about possible Russian interference in our political system. Even if Lebedev, as he has always insisted, has no relationship with Russia’s intelligence services, his father is a former KGB operative and it was his ability to leverage his contacts which helped build the family fortunes.
The optics, at the very least, are appalling and certainly beyond parody. The day after the Conservatives’ landslide victory in December, the prime minister and his partner, Carrie Symonds, attended a caviar-and-vodka-fuelled party hosted by Lebedev senior at the family’s multi-million-pound stuccoed mansion overlooking Regent’s Park. This was not the first Lebedev party to which Johnson had been invited. A couple of years ago I was returning from a visit to my brother, who lives in central Italy, when I spotted a very dishevelled-looking Boris Johnson on the same plane. I later read in the papers that he had been returning from one of Evgeny’s notoriously bacchanalian parties at the converted castle which the British-Russian owns near Perugia.
The Russia report makes clear two things – the Tories get a lot of money from Russian oligarchs and the Intelligence and Security Committee believes there should be an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
On that second point, the prime minister predictably responded with words to the effect of ‘It’s all old hat and in any case the people have spoken etc. etc.’ With his eighty-seat majority and his propensity to lie, this has become a stock response to any uncomfortable news. So although the report contained information which should have triggered alarms designed to protect the integrity of our democracy, they failed to go off. So far, so Brexit-era politics.
One thing the report skirted over was the question of Russian motivation. Few commentators have asked why Brexit might be in Russia’s interests. In The Guardian Jonathan Lis appeared baffled, noting that many experts argued that “Russia had both economic and political interests to maintain a strong EU – not least as a bulwark against the US”.
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I must have missed the many experts he consulted because running covert operations which work to its strategic disadvantage doesn’t sound like the Russia I know. On the contrary, I would argue that the payout for Moscow as a result of the UK’s departure from the European Union is not quite on the scale of Leicester winning the Premiership or Trump securing the US presidency. But it’s not far off.
The UK was the one country that linked the intelligence-sharing union of the Five Eyes (itself, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) with the criminal and intelligence databases of the European Union. Brexit breaks that critical link in the Western alliance.
To understand why Russia gains so much from that we need to look at how the world looks from Vladimir Putin’s perspective. Why might he welcome the weakening of the EU that Brexit has caused?
It’s the economy, stupid
It is worth reiterating that the Russian Federation under Putin is not the same as the Soviet Union under any of its leaders from Stalin to Gorbachev. We are not, as some would have it, in the middle of a new Cold War. Russia today is a capitalist economy, albeit one in which a small clique often overrides genuine market competition. But it is more integrated into wider global trade relations than the Soviet Union ever was.
Russia’s foreign policy is therefore not merely driven by politics but equally by the requirements of its trade relations. Last year the EU imported some 30% of its oil and 40% of its gas from Russia, in total 60% of all Russian exports to the union. The main consumers of Russian energy are Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. The EU is by some measure its largest trading partner.
Importantly, though, the UK imports very little of its oil and gas from Russia – it is not a significant market. The British relationship with Russia has always been about money and security politics, not trade.
Making Russia great again
Putin’s rule has become progressively more authoritarian especially since Russia’s urban middle classes began making their feelings felt in mass protests from 2011 onwards. This year’s referendum to change the constitution, which allows him to remain in post until 2036, is by some measure the most brazen move in throttling any pretence of his seeking a democratic mandate.
Beyond this lack of legitimacy at home, Putin has other domestic problems to deal with. Russia remains over-dependent on the sale of hydrocarbons, which represent around 60% of its exports and 40% of revenues to the federal budget last year. Furthermore, the country faces a serious long-term demographic crisis. True, Putin’s natalist policies slowed it down for half a decade after 2010. But this has now gone into reverse again and is likely to accelerate as a consequence of COVID-19. With a reproductive rate of 1.58 per woman, the long-term forecast is that Russia’s population will sink to around 110 million from 146 million today (throw in another two and a half million if you include Crimea).
Focusing on foreign policy is a way of deflecting attention from these troubles. Putin’s aim is to present Russia as one of the four decisive forces in international politics, along with the US, China and the EU.
Making up for lost time
Russia suffered a profound domestic trauma during the gangster capitalism of the 1990s, in which living standards collapsed – except, of course, for those of the oligarchic and criminal classes. One of Putin’s great talents after he became president on the first day of 2000 was to exploit that widespread social insecurity to eliminate his opponents using what in the Communist takeovers of the late 1940s were known as ‘salami’ tactics.
This was also personal for the new president. As a KGB officer serving in Dresden in the 1980s, he could have expected the benefits of promotion had the Soviet Union not collapsed. His generation benefited least from the ruptures of the 1990s. On assuming the presidency, he appeared determined to make up for lost time. The main reason he has become more authoritarian is that his coterie has, in resorting to violence, intimidation and extreme wealth accumulation, begun to resemble the oligarchs of the 1990s, rather as the pigs in ‘Animal Farm’ started to resemble the humans after a few years in power.
Russia also has the hostility of the West to contend with. Russians, and their security elite like Putin in particular, experienced the expansion of NATO and the West’s increasing interest in Ukraine after 2004 as an aggressive strategy. For Putin, this was especially galling as he believed that he had bent over backwards to accommodate Western interests in the first few years of his rule. In Afghanistan, for instance, the Russian president ordered his military to allow the US to use Russian facilities in Tajikistan to prosecute its war against the Taliban.
This gesture was unprecedented. What Putin has been left with, however, are US and European sanctions, which have had both a psychological and economic impact on Russia. This includes some paradoxical aspects, notably how the Russian military has become less dependent on Western components and was forced to up its game in research and development. And it has.
Despite that last point, the overall picture is that Putin faces immense social, political, geopolitical and economic challenges in sustaining Russia’s status as a great power. What, though, of its military power?
As the Russian military’s chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov, pointed out in a much-cited article in 2013, the nature of warfare has changed and Russia must adapt towards the new hybrid strategies that embrace ‘information warfare’ as a central plank. Gerasimov didn’t spell it out (not that he needed to) but Russia has nothing approaching the economic capacity and infrastructure to maintain parity in weapons technology and military investment with the US and China.
Its primary claim to great-power status lies in the residual power of its enormous nuclear arsenal together with some impressive strides it has made recently in missile technology, notably in the hypersonic sector.
Given Russia’s inability to compete with the West economically and technologically, it began to examine how they might exploit the West’s societal and political vulnerabilities.
The Intelligence Committee report suggested that nihilism drives Russia’s foreign policy, and a welter of commentary argued that the Russians want to destroy our way of life. This is hogwash. Who would buy Russia’s hydrocarbons if not the Europeans? Europe imports two-and-a-half-times as much from Russia as its second-biggest trading partner, China. And although Putin has made much of his cosying up to Beijing, especially since Xi Jinping’s rise, Russia has underlying fears about China’s long-term plans, and, what is more, switching its energy exports from the EU to China could not be done overnight. Nor does Russia wish to become overdependent on China as an energy importer.
What Russia wants
Instead, it seeks to drive wedges between and within Western countries to weaken them and to weaken their ability to co-ordinate policy over issues like Ukraine or the Nord Stream II pipeline, which takes oil directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing Poland and Ukraine. This is where trade and security politics intertwine.
The UK was always an easy and popular target for Russia. Since the 1990s, it has been a primary place for Russians to stash their money – not just oligarchs on the run from Putin but those associated with him, too. They observed how successive governments from Tony Blair’s onwards actively avoided investigating Russian money. For two decades, oligarchs have used British lawyers, courts, PR companies and politicians to cajole and intimidate their domestic enemies along with independent investigators or journalists. They have exerted influence in buying newspapers and football clubs.
Blair used a lot of angry rhetoric after the Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko died on British soil from poisoning by radioactive polonium-210 in 2006, and the British police identified a former Russian security official as prime suspect. On the diplomatic front there was much tit-for-tat going on. But there was never the least suggestion that the UK would start to investigate oligarchs like Roman Abramovich, who enjoys a close relationship to Putin. It wasn’t until after the Skripal case over ten years later that Theresa May felt moved to deny Abramovich a work permit as a snub aimed specifically at Putin.
But while Russians enjoyed the light-touch regulation of the City, the UK was a particular irritant to Moscow by dint of it being the only country to both belong to the EU and enjoy the full trust of the US intelligence community as embodied in the Five Eyes relationship.
The Brexit factor
In the debate about Brexit, few people raised the issue of security. But its implications are profound. One of our greatest unsung successes in recent years was the invigoration of Europol under its British director, Rob Wainwright, who left the post after nine years in 2018. Key to his success was the establishment of a cyber department in Europol, which, unlike the rest of the organisation, has developed an operational capacity.
On leaving the EU, the UK left Europol and all the excellent personal and institutional relationships it had built through the organisation since its inception. It will now be able to access the immense data banks held by Europol and EU states with regard to terrorism, espionage and organised crime only through a lengthy application process, which will in most cases render the information obsolete by the time it arrives.
The intelligence services of the UK, France and Germany are also scrambling to maintain their good relations at a time when political hostility between London on the one hand and Paris and Berlin on the other is growing. Regardless of how often Boris Johnson repeats the phrase “our European friends”, the stark truth remains that by leaving the EU, the UK has exchanged its relationship of collaboration with the rest of Europe for one of competition.
It is that competition, both political and economic, which Russia views as beneficial. British Russo-scepticism acted as a balance against Germany’s greater willingness to cooperate with Russia as a cheap and reliable energy source. This goes back to the period of Germany’s emergence as Europe’s most powerful industrialised nation in the late nineteenth century. Since then a string of treaties or policies, from Brest-Litovsk through Rapallo, Molotov-Ribbentrop and even, in a very different context, Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik of the late 1960s, indicate Germany’s dual thinking about Russia.
This is well illustrated by its most recent chancellors, Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel. While his seat was still warm in the federal chancellery, Schröder was announced as the chair of the initial NordStream project. Although Merkel, having grown up and lived in East Germany, has a much more jaundiced view of Russians than Schröder ever did, when it came to the crunch on the development of NordStream II, she did not block it despite vigorous protests from Poland and Ukraine.
The other world figure to have damaged Western relations is, of course, Donald Trump. Together he and Brexit are doing just what Russia wanted them to do – loosen the economic, political and security ties within Europe and between Europe and the US. What Russia under Putin has discovered is that Western polity has become so cankered in the three decades since 1989, with an emphasis on sky-rocketing inequality and the slavish servicing of the 1%, that it takes very little investment in a grand programme of country-size ‘social engineering’ to have a significant material impact on the stability of the US and the UK, and hence the European Union.
With a patsy like Trump in the White House and a Tory party so clearly in hock to Russian money, it’s too easy an opportunity for Putin to pass up. I certainly wouldn’t if I were in his position.
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