8 March 2019

Why Scotland matters in Russia’s cyber war games

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Following the UK’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s recent visit to Bardufoss base in northern Norway, hundreds of Royal Marines were deployed to the Arctic Circle for training purposes. The Defence Secretary announced an increased British presence in the Arctic to support NATO’s northern flank from Russia.

This is due in part to Russian submarines’ increased activity in waters near the Faslane naval base in Scotland. “Whether it’s sharpening our skills in sub-zero conditions, learning from longstanding allies like Norway or monitoring submarine threats with our Poseidon aircraft, we will stay vigilant to new challenges”, announced Williamson.

So what is the importance of Scotland to Russia and what is the Kremlin trying to achieve there?

British Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach warned a couple of years ago that Moscow was actively engaged in intelligence gathering in GIUK gap, including in Scottish waters. This is exactly where the subsea communication cables are laid. According to NATO officials, if Russia gains access to global communications infrastructure, it could hack or, in a worst case scenario, disrupt the flow of information and economic transactions around the globe.

To avoid the consequences of any major communication catastrophes, Russia has already created its own internet, the so-called Runet, as well as the system of payments, such as Mir, making themselves and its partners to a certain extent immune to potential communication disruptions. There are also plans to establish an alternative communications network which would be accessible to major economic power blocks, such as BRICS.

Secondly, Scotland is in itself important to Russia and so are Scottish voters. If Scotland were to leave the UK in any potential independence referendum after Brexit, the nuclear submarines are likely to become a major stumbling block in the negotiations between London and Edinburgh, distracting the UK from its foreign policy priorities, such as the ones in Ukraine or Syria.

Apart from political difficulties, it would be very costly for the UK to relocate Trident or even find an alternative safe location for it, which may take decades.

Interestingly enough, pro-Russian social media accounts, as reported by Ben Nimmo from the Atlantic Council, attempted to influence the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 by spreading allegations that the result was rigged. Clearly, the UK without the nuclear deterrent would be a gift to Moscow.

Another reason, which is often ignored, is that any potential referendum fits Moscow’s vision of creating its proxies within other states and portrays the political events in the West as being morally equivalent to its own. According to Russian political thinking, if the Scots or the Kosovars could hold their independence referendums, why should Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh or Abkhazia be criticised for having held theirs?

It was not a coincidence that the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine publicly supported the Scottish independence, with some members of the Donetsk public spreading messages and posters such as “We will render you armed strength!” and calling upon peaceful referendum as the one illegally held in Crimea. The referendum narrative is convenient for Moscow also because it often justifies its policy of supporting Russian speaking minorities in Eastern Europe.

Information and critical infrastructure security is important for the UK and given the complexity of the Trident issue Edinburgh should be wary of potential security and information threats coming from Moscow. Being located in proximity to critical underwater communication infrastructure, as well as hosting the UK’s major security and defence arsenal, makes Scotland an important target for Moscow’s intelligence gathering and cyber activity.

The UK’s military cooperation and intelligence sharing with other NATO states in the Arctic is crucial to preserve regional security. Scotland should not be left behind and must be an active participant of this cooperation.

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Jamila Mammadova is a Research Assistant at the Henry Jackson Society.