Russia is running an interference operation against the westby Jonathan Evans / July 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
The Russian “special services” probably believe that the re-emergence of the Novichok affair in July is an attempt by the British to undermine the good publicity their country has received as a result of hosting the World Cup. The Russians are not unique in their ability to commit truly awful deeds and then feel unfairly victimised when they are found out.
The death of Dawn Sturgess adds a -further element of human tragedy to the use of a nerve agent in the west country, but it does not fundamentally alter the political and security position. The extraordinarily united international response to the initial attack on Sergei and Julia -Skripal has been vindicated now that the reckless use of the nerve agent has claimed further victims.
It is not surprising that there may be residue from the original Russian operation. Imagine being an intelligence officer tasked to undertake an assassination in a foreign country. Your mission is to smear lethal material on a door handle in a quiet residential area and then get away safely. You will not want to linger in the street where your victim lives. So you mix the materials somewhere nearby—not far away as you don’t want to spend too long carrying the stuff around.
Once you have done the deed you want to get rid of all the paraphernalia, because it is both dangerous and incriminating. You dump it and leave the area as quickly as you can. If that leads to a continuing hazard that is not your problem—you just want to get away safely. We do not know yet but it looks as though this is what led to the death of Sturgess and—at time of writing—the risk to Charlie Rowley’s life.
The combination of the UK’s global intelligence capabilities and the detective expertise of the Anti-Terrorist Branch at Scotland Yard mean that it is likely that in due course the authorities will know not just that the Russians did it, but who did it, and how. These things take time and it may be necessary to keep details of the investigation secret from the public. By way of comparison, it took some time before the authorities were really confident about the backstory to Alexander Litvinenko’s murder in 2008.
This sort of lethal operation is only the tip of an iceberg of Russian intelligence interference in the west. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of the so-called Internet Research Agency documents publicly and in some detail how Russian agents set about seeking to influence public opinion in the United States. Separately, a group of four Russian-connected botnets were pushing out massive quantities of social media posts during the German election, supporting the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, smearing Angela Merkel and promoting (or inventing) anti-immigrant stories. There is increasing evidence of similar online activity targeting other western elections, and last year Ciaran Martin, the head of the UK National Cyber Security Centre, publicly highlighted Russian interference in the UK’s media sector.
However, influence operations via the internet are only part of the story. Human sources have always been a favoured tool of Russian intelligence operations and they still are. The Russian intelligence agencies seek to recruit vulnerable or venal individuals who can be used to promote the Russian message, whether they are journalists, academics, politicians, diplomats or businessmen. International organisations remain a key focus of Russian interest. The rewards for co-operating with the Russians, offered either explicitly or implicitly, may include political support, media coverage, access to lucrative business deals or straightforward cash in the bank. Some co-operate consciously and some are willing dupes who turn a blind eye so that they can continue to benefit from the inducements on offer.
The difficulty in highlighting this sort of activity if you live in a normally functioning society is that it sounds like paranoid conspiracy theory. But the events in Salisbury are not a fantasy but a physical reality. And the ambivalent tone of the Russian response tends to confirm their complicity-—they are not sure whether to respond with outright denial or a knowing wink.
The first and most important step in limiting the effectiveness of this Russian campaign is for us to recognise that it exists and that it is an act of state policy. It was therefore encouraging to see that the recently introduced Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill includes some additional provisions against hostile intelligence activity—the first such measures that I can recall being introduced in legislation for many years.
If we recognise that we are on the receiving end of information operations that seek to undermine confidence in our institutions and political life, we are much more likely to see through them. So far as possible western governments need to call the Russian state out on these issues, give publicity to individual cases, educate both the public and those in public life about the reality of the threat and thereby help the normal processes of public life in a liberal democracy to function. If we keep quiet about this then we are playing into the Russians’ hands.