So the Russkie smoking gun on indyref is…”credible open source commentary”. What that means to you and I is: articles that anyone can find online. This is the extent of the evidence provided to us of Kremlin involvement in 2014; an “influence campaign” after the vote had taken place, which we are told in a footnote was “aimed at discrediting the UK in the eyes of a domestic Russian audience”. That’s what justified headlines on Tuesday morning stating “Russia ‘tried to meddle in Scottish vote'” (The Telegraph, surprise surprise).
Across wide sections of the press yesterday, before the report had been released, insider sources were reported stating that it showed the Russians were involved in the 2014 referendum but not in Brexit. The non-redacted parts of the report in fact offer no evidence of meddling in either referendum, but don’t let that get in the way of a good story. As Ciaran Jenkins of Channel 4 said: “Given the report is at least in part about disinformation there is a certain irony that anonymous briefings about its contents turned out to be so far off the mark.” Who needs the Russians when you’ve got the Great British press?
The Russia report is actually a fairly interesting read (have a look for yourself here), but not because it proves anything about indyref or Brexit. What it reveals is the deep divisions in Britain’s establishment between its MoD/spook wing, who are clearly worried about the influence of rich, Kremlin-connected individuals in London elite circles, and the City of London wing, which has been happy to take Russian and any other money it can get its hands on, since complete openness to foreign capital (criminal or otherwise) is the business model which has made London the pre-eminent centre of global finance. That contradiction – between the UK’s geo-political and geo-economic interests – is a major dividing line within the Tory party, and one that has been accentuated by the tensions over the past four years of Brexit turbulence.
The report couldn’t be clearer: “The UK welcomed Russian money, and few questions – if any – were asked about the provenance of this considerable wealth…it offered ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat’. The money was also invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment – PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process. In brief, Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth. This level of integration – in ‘Londongrad’ in particular – means that any measures now being taken by the Government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation.”
It goes on: “The links of the Russian elite to the UK – especially where this involves business and investment – provide access to UK companies and political figures, and thereby a means for broad Russian influence in the UK. To a certain extent, this cannot be untangled and the priority now must be to mitigate the risk and ensure that, where hostile activity is uncovered, the tools exist to tackle it at source.”
It’s completely unsurprising that the Tories would seek to play this down, since the “political figures” in question are largely (though not exclusively) senior Conservatives. When George Osborne finished up as Chancellor, he left parliament to work as editor of the Evening Standard, part owned by Evgeny Lebedev, son of a former KGB spy turned oligarch. Boris Johnson knows the Lebedev’s well too, staying in his Perugian villa on at least four separate occasions. You can see why this report was hushed up prior to the election.
Of course, the Tories want us to look the other way. Murdo Fraser ludicrously called for an inquiry into “ongoing Russian interference in Scottish politics”. Questions are being asked about whether Alex Salmond should be considered a “defacto agent” of the Kremlin. I’m sure soon enough another baseless story will emerge from the chosen ones in the press when a Very Powerful Person comes along with another anonymous briefing aimed at de-legitimising Scottish democracy and distracting from the Tories problems. Papers can and will continue to print whatever they want, but it’s up to us whether we choose to take it seriously.
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