Britain is heading for a political earthquake as evidence mounts of Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum campaign.
The latest news is that Arron Banks, a prominent Brexiteer whose fortune (made in diamonds and insurance) has murky roots, had previously undisclosed meetings and business discussions with the Russian embassy. More revelations are expected. Economic woes are growing; the Conservative Party is in ferment; the government’s Brexit strategy is in chaos.
This is slowly undermining the Brexit camp. The Daily Mail, a splenetic critic of the European Union, is to have a new (anti-Brexit) editor. Also, the British political classes are beginning to get to grips with Russia.
A new Cabinet Office unit is organizing a cross-government response to “hostile state activity,” on the lines of an existing anti-terrorism body. A new law will allow the border police to detain suspected foreign agents as if they were terrorists. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee is moving ahead with a much-delayed inquiry into Russian interference. Another committee is working on “fake news,” and is hoping to grill Mr. Banks in a forthcoming hearing. A police investigation into the use of nerve agents against a retired British double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, leaks interesting tidbits.
All this is welcome and may even bring some results. It is also infuriatingly late and solipsistic. The British commentariat and decision-makers are aware of Russian mischief-making in American politics, where Robert Mueller’s inquiry into election interference is grinding ominously forward. Some of those threads involve activity in Britain. Russian hacking-and-leaking attacks on Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign gained some attention. Russian influence-peddling in Germany arouses a flicker of interest, as does the pro-Kremlin stance of the new governments in Austria and Italy.
But joining the dots further afield is much too hard work. When it comes to Russian meddling in Ukraine (or the western Balkans), old reflexes kick in. These are what Neville Chamberlain so fatefully called “faraway countries of which we know nothing.” The names of people and places are hard to pronounce and remember. Ukraine’s mounting casualty toll is easily overlooked. Politics there are complex and murky – a perception aggravated by the strange story of the purported murder plot against the journalist Arkady Babchenko. Shoulders shrug and apathy or moral equivalence takes over. Russia is just defending its interests. We interfere in plenty of countries too. And what is Britain supposed to do about it anyway?
Even rich and familiar countries’ worries arouse little interest. Sweden’s civil-defense booklet, urging every household in the country to be prepared for a crisis, and never to surrender in the event of invasion, got a few mentions in the media. But I could find no British news outlet that covered the startling mobilization this month – for the first time since 1975 – of Sweden’s entire 22,000-strong home guard.
The problems Britain is facing are new only to the inattentive. Russia’s belief that it has the right to meddle in other countries’ politics dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and failure to grasp that the era of empire was over. Economic weakness and political chaos initially constrained the Kremlin’s reach – but Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Moldovans, Ukrainians, and others all soon experienced the toxic mix of corruption, military pressure, propaganda, pipeline diplomacy, and clandestine financing of political activity. Western countries dismissed these difficulties as exaggerated or invented. Now we are suffering from them, too.
The delay in getting serious about the Russian challenge has made things much worse. Britain and other countries should acknowledge, with humility, that others were in the firing line earlier and that we have a lot to learn from them.
Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
12 June 2018