Allegations of Russian interference in the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum campaign are coming thick and fast. They need to be carefully assessed, but kept in proportion.
If British laws were broken in a way that unambiguously involved the Kremlin or its proxies, that would be a matter of concern. However, UK and EU politicians should keep in mind the distinction between illegal activities and the deployment, no matter how ruthless, of political influence.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, tweeted last week: “Putin’s agents tried to influence the US election. We need to know if they interfered in the #Brexit vote too.”
But seeking to exert influence over other countries is what governments do, via their embassies and other operations. In this respect the Russians are like the Americans, British, Chinese and everyone else. The question is whether the methods used are illegal or so flagrant as to be unacceptable to a host government.
Russia cultivated influential politicians, business figures and lobbyists in the UK’s anti-EU camp. Arron Banks, the chief financial donor to Leave.EU, a pro-Brexit campaign group, spoke last week of “a boozy six-hour lunch with the [Russian] ambassador where we drank the place dry (they have some cracking vodka and brandy)”.
Similarly, there is incontrovertible evidence of Russian interference in the US presidential election of 2016 and, to a lesser extent, in this year’s French presidential contest. Hacked emails were released by Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks organisation, and lies and misinformation were peddled on social media.
However, Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist, made a telling observation last week in The New York Times. “Russian leaders believe that Washington interferes in their domestic politics and that the United States intends to orchestrate a regime change in Moscow. So if they take that as a given, the Kremlin should be able to similarly meddle and to show the world that it has the capabilities and will to do so,” he wrote.
During the Brexit campaign, the audience ratings for Russia’s RT television channel were too low to justify complaints that pro-Brexit propaganda addled the brains of British voters. As for social media, consider a House of Commons committee report, “Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum”, published in April. It expressed concern about foreign cyber attacks aimed at influencing public opinion. It contended that “Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals”. But it did not furnish indisputable proof of such attacks during the Brexit campaign.
Some Twitter accounts, suspended by the company last week because of their ties to a Russian “troll farm”, were active both in the US election campaign and during the UK referendum contest. However, only a handful of Twitter accounts were involved — far too few to shape public opinion to any meaningful extent. Facebook says it has not unearthed any co-ordination of advertising expenditure or political misinformation in the Brexit campaign from “known clusters in Russia”.
Hard evidence of Russian financial support for the Brexit camp would be a serious matter. But so far none has come to light.
Even if it does, it makes little sense to attribute the Brexit victory to Russian dark arts. The result’s origins lie in the miscalculations of David Cameron’s 2010-2016 Conservative government and in longer term British political and social discontent, which culminated in a collective howl of protest on referendum day.
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