5 December 2017

Britain needs to wake up to the Russian threat

By Robert Seely

It’s hard to avoid mention of Donald Trump and Russia in British political circles these days. And the combined threat they pose.

Liberal democracies have come late to an understanding of the threat Russia’s hybrid warfare pose. The threat has been super-charged by an investigation into Trump’s collusion with Russia, which could well destroy his presidency. This could, in turn, destabilise the whole world.

We Conservatives need to develop ideas and policies to respond to these threats – yet we are fumbling for answers.

So let’s start by coming to an understanding of the precise threat that Russia poses. Russian information and political warfare isn’t just about spinning a line or paying high-end PR companies to do a bit of schmoozing. It is more complex and dangerous. It is part of a full spectrum of effects encompassing all the tools of state power. It is about the subversion of states, political classes and individuals.  It ranges from media messaging, secret funding and support to political groups, to co-option and corruption through compromising information and blackmail – what Russians call kompromat.

This form of conflict management dates back to the Soviet Union, back when those tactics were known as Active Measures, and were practised by the KGB and the Communist Party. A combination of disinformation, smears, kompromat, leaked fake documents, diplomacy, espionage and so-called “wet jobs” – assassinations – and the backing of terror groups, the kind of which Putin worked with the late 1980s, were employed. The latter were just some of the violent, revolutionary European and Middle East groups sympathised with by the Corbynite, hard left in UK politics.

Then, and now, the approach is designed to divide, demoralise and, if possible, to destabilise free and liberal societies.

But it’s not all old strategy. These Cold War tactics have been combined with other forms of power: energy diplomacy, culture, religion and hard military power in a seamless and highly flexible spectrum of means and methods, often used aggressively and held, as only an authoritarian state can, in very few hands.  It is a new form of strategic art.

Western nations are slowly waking up to this. Theresa May called out Russia’s behaviour last month. Russian bots tried to stoke religious hostility during the London terror attacks. Russia’s Sputnik news agency is in Edinburgh not to report on the UK, but to feed festering vulnerabilities between England and Scotland. Alex Salmon’s pitiful talk show on RT (formerly Russia Today, the lavishly funded Russian state propaganda arm) is to drive a new independence vote. In the United States, the Russians’ have repeatedly hacked into the US cyber agency, the NSA, and other major Western institutions.

The CIA have concluded that Russian intervention helped Trump win the presidency. Indeed, attempts to use social media to interfere in the US elections were overwhelming, according to evidence presented this month to the US house Intelligence Committee. Facebook has disclosed that 470 accounts controlled by a Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, published 3,000 adverts and 80, 000 Russian posts reaching 126 million uses. Twitter found 2,752 Internet Research Agency pages, 1.4 million election-related tweets and 36,000 Russian bots. Google found more than 1,000 election-related videos on Russian-backed You Tube channels.

Some Russian ads were aimed to incite violence. One Russian-backed group, Heart of Texas, organised a rally on 2 May 2016 in Houston under the banner of preventing the Islamisation of Texas. Another group, also Russian controlled, organised a competing rally called Save Islamic Knowledge at the same place and at the same time – to create confrontation and violence, which would then make national headlines. Russian information warfare is designed to cause destructive harm. It is no more an extension of public relations than an incitement to riot is.

The Kremlin likes this new form of warfare because it makes western military superiority redundant. If you can co-opt a president, or subvert a political class, or demoralise a nation, Russia’s conventional military weakness becomes less important.

Meanwhile, the Trump/Russia scandal is badly damaging President Trump. The Russians will have collected kompromat on Trump when he was in Moscow.  There are many rumours of what they – or others – have. Robert Mueller’s investigation is digging and finding evidence. People around Trump are feeling the heat.

In fact, Trump’s first National Security Advisory, Michael Flynn, is now cooperating with Mueller’s team which is seriously bad news for Trump. Mueller would only be interested in Flynn’s cooperation if he had damaging information on someone more powerful – and that is a very short list.

What is likely to emerge is Trump’s reliance on Russian cash – much of it criminal – and more evidence of Trump’s willingness to collude with a foreign power – Russia – to influence the US presidential elections. Trump’s reiteration of President Putin’s denials of manipulation of the US elections are as pitiful as they are guilt-ridden.

Perhaps we will continue to drift on harmlessly. Perhaps not. But an imploding presidency, given Trump’s personal flaws, could well turn a succession of  crises into abject disaster. The Korean crisis could turn to war, with casualty rates in tens of thousands, and the potential for a superpower confrontation. Iran and its proxy forces in Iraq could be planning to fix US forces in another bloody insurgency. Syria, backed by Russia, is demanding the withdrawal of US forces in Syria.

Over the Baltic, a mid-air collision – and there have been near misses – with a Nato jet or civilian liner, could turn up the heat on the Cold War. In the Balkans, Russia may ferment violence. It has been allegedly handing out Russian passports to Serbians in Kosovo for a reason – to interfere and potentially drag the EU into another Balkan conflict.

As long as the international system remains weak but stable, most of the above may not pass. But the more unstable, and vulnerable the US appears, the more the likelihood that all these events come to pass increases.

The UK can’t just sit and stare at the burgeoning Russian threat. We need to rethink both war and strategy. We need to be highly flexible on the first, and we need actually need to develop a national strategy for the second. Waiting to see what the US does, and then putting just enough chips on the table, will only bring intellectual and practical decline. With the US focused on the Far East, we need to be more self-reliant and capable of understanding and reacting to the full spectrum of Russian threats.

Our Armed Forces must develop an understanding of new forms of asymmetric warfare. It’s no longer simply something done to us in Iraq and Afghan. We need to consider pioneering legal and ethical forms of asymmetric defence by smaller allies not in Nato, while maintaining a credible conventional deterrent in eastern Europe.

DfID money could be spent in areas such as Ukraine, the Caucasus and the Baltics, delivering resilience to those societies, to enable civil society and liberal democracy, the strongest bulwarks against those in Russia – and Iran and China. The BBC World Service needs to be funded better and more consistently to enable it to counter those engaged in fake news. The BBC should be regarded a vital arm of both development and foreign affairs, and a first line of inoculation in this global era of disinformation.

To prompt some thinking in Parliament, I will be writing to the chairman of the Foreign, MoD, DfID and Culture Select Committees to see if they would consider combining their work to understand and provide comprehensive recommendations on the new form of warfare.  Russian strategy is holistic, and so our response must be too.


Robert Seely is Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight