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Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury in March 2018, and subsequently the UK authorities announced that the nerve agent Novichok had been used, leading them to conclude that Russia was responsible for the attack.

These events put allegations of Russian interference in the UK and elsewhere on the front page all over the world.

Russia denied any knowledge about the poisoning, but Western capitals were sufficiently persuaded to retaliate by expelling a total of more than a hundred Russian diplomats.

Nothing new?

States have been taking covert action against each other for centuries. The Soviet Union had particular expertise in ‘active measures’: political manipulation both at home and abroad using disinformation, propaganda, censorship, front organisations and a host of other techniques. A former officer of the KGB said that active measures were at the heart of Soviet intelligence:

  • …not intelligence collection, but subversion: active measures to weaken the west, to drive wedges in the western community alliances of all sorts, particularly Nato, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and thus to prepare ground in case the war really occurs.[1]

Of course, Western intelligence agencies used subversion too. The UK sponsored a coup against a democratically-elected government in Iran in 1953, with US help. Scores of elections have been influenced by Western intervention. But for the Soviet Union, political subversion was relatively more important; apart from nuclear parity, the Soviets knew that militarily, economically and in soft power, the West was stronger.

So, what has changed?

The internet and social media have diversified Western publics’ sources of information, and this has led their ‘Establishments’ to lose some grip the political narrative.

Those same technological developments have provided a host of opportunities for hostile interventions.

The pace of technological and economic change, globalisation, increasing inequality, job insecurity, increasing migration, the financial crisis and consequent austerity measures have probably all helped shake some people’s trust in traditional parties and leaders.  

Active measures used to rely on ‘plausible deniability’. Another change is that, particularly as far as the Russian Federation is concerned, deniability is no longer plausible, as Rory Cormac and Richard J. Aldrich argue in an article in the latest issue of International Affairs. While denying such interventions as the poisoning of the Skripals, the Russian leadership may want everyone to assume that it was indeed the Russian state that carried out the attack. That would serve as a demonstration to potential future ‘traitors’ that they would not get away with it; to everyone else it would be a straightforward show of strength. 

This could presage a more general disregard for the rules in international relations in years to come.

Meanwhile, the present fears about Russian activities serve Moscow’s purpose: that Russia should be taken seriously, despite its deficiencies in comparison with its competitors in military, economic and soft power.

[1]     ‘Russian fake news is not new: Soviet Aids propaganda cost countless lives’, Guardian, 14 June 2017

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