The unsuccessful Democrat candidate in the 2016 US Presidential Election, Hillary Clinton, has described as ‘inexplicable and shameful’ the fact that the British government has not yet published the report by Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee into alleged interference by Russia in the UK’s democracy. It is clear – despite denials from the Kremlin – that Russia interfered in the election in the US when Mrs Clinton was narrowly defeated by Donald Trump, and there is evidence from elsewhere that Russia is meddling in the political systems of a number of countries.
Vladimir Putin tells lies. Lots of them. And we’re not talking about little white lies. We’re talking whopping great lies, sometimes involving the deaths of hundreds of people. But his KGB training means that he can look you in the eye and lie without a flicker of emotion.
Here’s a few examples: when ‘little green men’ appeared in Crimea in February 2014, Putin denied that he knew anything about these clearly well-trained troops in brand new combat uniforms, bearing no insignia, who proceeded to take over all governmental and military premises. A year later, in a Russian TV documentary marking a year since Crimea’s ‘incorporation’ into the Russian Federation, Putin boasted that he had given the order for these Russian troops to seize Crimea.
When war broke out in Eastern Ukraine, Putin claimed that the only Russian soldiers involved were those who had gone there voluntarily while they were on leave. Apart from the absurdity of this remark – which army allows its soldiers to go and fight as mercenaries in their spare time? – it simply wasn’t true. There’s a huge amount of evidence proving that Russian troops were officially sent into Ukraine, not least social media posts from the soldiers themselves; investigative journalists tracking where the military equipment was from; and the graves of hundreds of Russian soldiers whose bodies have been brought back from the fighting.
And despite a thorough international investigation of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine in July 2014 showing without a shadow of doubt that it was a Russian missile under the control of Russian forces which shot down the ‘plane, Putin continues to lie about that, too.
So when the Russian President denies interfering in the political systems of other countries, even the most hardened ‘useful idiots’ who regularly toe the Kremlin line should think twice before accepting Putin’s denials. The Mueller enquiry in the USA showed up clear evidence that Russia had used social media to discredit Mrs Clinton’s campaign. (When Trump’s victory was declared there was a spontaneous round of applause in the State Duma in Moscow, with one deputy declaring, ‘We have our man in the White House!’)
In a carefully-researched paper, Democracy in the Crosshairs (Atlantic Council Eurasia Center, 2018), Neil Barnett and Alastair Sloan question how it was that Arron Banks was able to make the largest donation in British political history to the Vote Leave campaign in the UK referendum on EU membership in 2016, when he did not appear to have sufficient funds to do this. Where had the money come from? Did it have any connection with the series of meetings Banks had with the Russian Ambassador to the UK?
It’s not just in established democracies that Russian influence is being seen. A detailed report in The New York Times of 11 November 2019, How Russia Meddles Abroad for Profit: Cash, Trolls and a Cult Leader, by Michael Schwirtz and Gaelle Borgia, gives great detail of an operation by Russia to affect the outcome of the presidential election in Madagascar in November 2018 (which was reported also by Luke Harding in The Guardian on 11 June 2019). Russia even switched allegiance when it became clear that the candidate they had initially backed was not going to win.
So the fact of Russia’s interference has been clearly shown. But given the different situations of the target countries and the different methods used, the question remains: why does Russia do it?
There is one simple answer to the question; and a host of more specific ones, dependent on the circumstances. The simple answer is that Putin believes that Russia should appear on the world stage as a great power. Great powers hold influence over smaller nations; and Putin yearns for that time when the Soviet Union was considered alongside the USA as a superpower.
A question too rarely asked, though, is why was the Soviet Union a superpower? Politically? It gave the world a political system which relied on fear and subjugation of the population, and in most places where that system was applied it has been discarded. Economically? While the standard of living for most Americans rose throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, with increasing amounts of consumer goods becoming available, the opposite was happening in the USSR. By the late ‘seventies defitsit – shortage – was a word on every Soviet citizen’s lips.
The only reason the Soviet Union was a superpower was that it had a nuclear arsenal big enough to rival that of the USA. And as a spin-off from the missile technology needed for nuclear arms it had a Space programme which for a decade was ahead of the American programme.
But the popular perception was that the USSR was a superpower, and Putin greatly resents that what has happened since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is that the former superpower has been shown to be a king with no clothes.
Russia’s interference in political systems around the world varies, though, depending on the target country. In the developed, Western, world, Putin wants to be able to show his people that these countries are in chaos; ‘aren’t you Russians lucky that you have someone strong like Putin to lead you, unlike the decadent West’. Whatever Putin may or may not have done in the build-up to the Brexit referendum, the mess which the UK parliament has got into over the result is manna from heaven for the Russian ruler.
In less developed countries, though, the situation is very different. Putin is not going to need to show his people that Madagascar is in chaos and therefore they are better off in Russia. Here, and in other countries in Africa or Latin America, it becomes an issue of Russia getting its hands on resources – and, therefore, ultimately money. Sadly for Russians, though, this is not money that is going to benefit them. It will simply help the already obscenely wealthy ruling elite become even richer. The difference is that this time it’s at the expense of the population of a third country, rather than at the Russians’ expense.
Putin realises that Russia is never going to have the financial or human resources of the USA or China to spread Russia’s influence around the world. But through social media or small targetted operations such as in Madagascar, Putin can assure for now that Russia punches above its weight on the world stage. What a pity that, apart from gaining a nice warm feeling that people think their country matters, ordinary Russian citizens see no benefit from this.