UK’s staggeringly lax response to Russian interference
Back in 1989, Francis Fukuyama, then a little-known official at the US State Department, published an article titled “The End of History?” It reflected the West’s euphoric and triumphalist view on the end of the Cold War. Triumphalism was accompanied by an abundance of optimism: This was supposed to mean the final and total victory of international liberal institutions and of representative governments, free-market economies, and consumerist culture throughout the world as one unified, universal and eternal way of life and governance. There was also an underlying assumption, in the mold of Kantian “perpetual peace,” that, since democracies don’t go to war with one another, the “end of history” would also mean the end of war and conflict.
International affairs since the heyday of the West’s conviction that it had won over the world in a bloodless battle have proved that view to be mere wishful thinking. Consumerism and elected governments became the norm in large parts of the world but, in many cases, elections have been no more than a fig leaf for authoritarianism and, in others, one-party systems survived even while consumerism flourished. Regrettably, war, conflict and extremism have also remained part of the international landscape.
One of the major flaws in the “end of history” argument was that it assumed that the end of the Cold War represented the defeat of one ideology over the other — of free-market democracy over communism — when in fact, by that point, as in China today, socialism in Russia had already been dead for many years. Russia failed not in its ideological transition toward capitalism and consumerism, but by not internalizing liberal-democratic values and engaging with other countries as potential partners instead of enemies. It sees them as security barriers to allay its fears of foreign invasion, as was demonstrated by its intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Consequently, Moscow’s security paranoia has led it to attempt to shape its international environment by various means, including active intervention in the democratic processes of other countries and eliminating opposition at home.
Last month’s publication of a long-awaited report by the British parliament’s intelligence and security committee chastised the British government and intelligence agencies for failing to conduct any proper assessment of the Kremlin’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 Brexit referendum and its attacks on Russian dissidents on British soil.
If, until the mid-2000s, the UK, like the US and much of Europe, were operating on the assumption that Russia, even if not fully integrated into the Western system, could at least become a partner, both the committee’s report and the government’s response to it acknowledge that this vision failed to materialize, and that Russia is now a threat to Western countries including the UK.
Putin runs the country with an iron fist and with complete disregard to democratic codes of fair play or human rights
Intervention in the Brexit referendum and in subsequent election campaigns is a major facet of the Kremlin’s interference in the domestic affairs of the UK, just as, according to the US intelligence community, it did in America’s 2016 presidential election and continues to do ahead of this year’s upcoming vote. Astonishingly, though governments and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic have constantly been warned about this meddling in their countries’ domestic democratic processes, they are reluctant to address it fully, either for fear of a full-blown confrontation with Moscow or because it has served the vested interests of those in power and/or who supported Brexit. Moreover, failing to foil such flagrant violations of sovereignty is a major embarrassment to the intelligence communities in these countries.
The British government’s response to the report leaves no room for doubt that the post-Cold War honeymoon is long gone and, though the report doesn’t define Russia as an enemy, it sees it as a significant and enduring threat to the UK and its allies, including in terms of conventional military capabilities, disinformation, illicit finance, and cyberattacks.
A further area of deep contention between the two countries is that of Russia turning the UK into a battlefield for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves against political dissidents or others who have fallen out of favor with the Kremlin. As the committee’s report states: “The murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 demonstrated that Russia under President Putin had moved from potential partner to established threat.” Moreover, this was not an isolated incident and attempts on the lives of Russians living in the UK have included the use of the chemical weapon Novichok.
Putin — who recently used a referendum to force a change in the constitution that will allow him to stay in power until 2036 — runs the country with an iron fist and with complete disregard to democratic codes of fair play or human rights. For Putin, the constitution is not an instrument to protect the rights of the Russian people and safeguard the country’s alleged democracy, but to guarantee his hold on power for as long as he desires. His longevity in office was expedited by building the image of a strongman not only at home, but also through pursuing a proactive foreign policy that, to a large extent, follows a Russian tradition of viewing the outside world with suspicion. Hence the need to maintain a physical buffer zone of neighboring countries obedient to its interests, and also to shape the international arena to suit those interests.
To weaken the EU or to ensure the election of the lesser candidate in US elections fits perfectly with this Russian way of dealing with the world. But not all Russia’s concerns are illogical or derive from its long-established fears of invasion — since the 1990s, it has had legitimate concerns over both NATO’s and the EU’s eastward expansion toward its borders, in a series of moves that in many cases have been made without considering Russian sensitivities.
Be that as it may, Putin’s method of creating a world more conducive to his country’s interests is bound to lead to confrontation. To interfere with the democratic processes of other countries, including through social media, and to allegedly assassinate those who oppose him are recipes for growing hostile relations. It is, therefore, staggering that the British government and intelligence community are taking such a laissez-faire attitude toward a threat that has such negative and far-reaching implications for the country’s democratic system.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg