On Putin's bluff, Russian sabotage and the UK general election: an interview with expert Keir Giles

Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at the Chatham House Новина оновлена 13 червня 2024, 15:41
Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at the Chatham House. Фото Колаж "Телеграфу"

Russia sees an advantage in reaching out to damage European powers.

How does Russia intimidate Europe to make it stop supporting Ukraine? Does Putin's strategy work? And what can Ukraine expect from the upcoming general election in the UK?

"Telegraf" spoke about this and other topics with Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, better known as Chatham House.

A change in the nature of Russia’s actions

— In recent months, the number of reports on incidents or sabotage in Europe involving possible Russian interference has increased. For example, even in the UK, two men were charged with helping Russian intelligence. What does the increase of such cases indicate and what to expect next from the Russians?

— First of all, the increase in cases that are known about is not the same as the increase in media reporting of them. Because there's been a sudden spike in reporting, but it tends to be the same very few incidents that are repeated over and over again in different reports. Instead, this is a function of the fact that Western media has suddenly realized that these campaigns have been ongoing for a long time.

Plus, some of the incidents now being reported occurred some time ago, but are only now being made public, for instance, because they're coming to court, like the one in the UK that you're referring to. And that's created the impression of a sudden spike in what's going on.

There does seem to be a change in the nature of what Russia is doing, particularly the way in which they're recruiting local proxies and local sympathizers to do things instead of Russian GRU officers (Russian intelligence. — ed.). But it's also created an environment across Europe where anything unexplained and suspicious tends to be blamed on Russia first, which gives the Russians a lot of credit for being able to do things that ordinarily they should not be considered capable of doing.

* According to the Guardian, security services around Europe are on alert to a potential new weapon of Russia’s war – arson and sabotage – after a spate of mystery fires and attacks on infrastructure in the Baltic countries, Germany and the UK.

The same situation is working to the benefit of Ukraine, because now when people understand that Kyiv can strike deep into Russia and cause damage, with every every fire, explosion, accident, etc., people are wondering, "Is this Ukraine at work?" It's a syndrome that works both ways.

But it doesn't mean that the threat to which European powers should be alert is any less, because, of course, Russia sees an advantage in reaching out to damage their infrastructure, their society, their confidence, and their social cohesion—all of those traditional targets for Russian operations.

A 20-year-old British man has been charged with planning an arson attack on a Ukraine-linked business. Photo by London Fire Brigade
A 20-year-old British man has been charged with planning an arson attack on a Ukraine-linked business. Photo by London Fire Brigade

— What should be the European countries' counteraction to such behavior?

— There has been a big gap in the whole conversation because the fact that there is no response means that Russia doesn't see any costs, countermeasures, or downsides for doing this. So the boldness with which they have been attacking Europe has just been expanding. There's nothing that has actually put any boundary to those actions.

Now, finally, belatedly, it seems that those conversations are being held. What kind of response should there be? Prevention, as always, would have been far better than trying to respond after the fact. And the best response to so-called hybrid threats is actually having competent government bodies, because Russia exploits the areas in which they are not competent, or not fully supported, or not vigilant, or have ineffective policies.

So simply having good governance, in some ways, closes up a lot of the opportunities for Russia to do what it seeks to do. What the eventual measures will be remains to be seen. But there is also recently this very marked tendency among European countries to finally give way on some of the things that they were holding back from in terms of supporting Ukraine.

The most obvious and immediate way of doing something that Russia would not like in return is setting conditions, as has been done by the UK in the past, when continued Russian behavior in a certain way will lead to greater facilities being provided to Ukraine to damage Russia itself directly.

But if we are talking about societies, are concerns rising among people about the Russian threats and the fact that the Russians can target businesses, infrastructure, and so on?

— There's certainly more awareness now than there was. But for the majority of the population, it is still a fairly remote problem and something that happens to other people.

The British government has engaged major businesses and big employers, and the ones most likely to be targeted, to try to alert them to the problem and have conversations about how to safeguard themselves against it. But the extent to which that trickles down to ordinary people is a very different thing. The more this happens, of course, the more it works against Russia's interests because the more alert, vigilant, and prepared people will be.

But each time this happens, particularly in the UK, comes as a surprise. It’s a very different situation from Poland, Estonia, or Lithuania, where it is very clearly understood that there is a campaign under way.

Russia's long-term campaigns were successful

At the same time, continuing his attempts to occupy Ukraine and threatening the West like this, Russian President Putin occasionally declares his readiness for negotiations. What are the motives for such statements? Are they mostly aimed at the Western governments to lower their vigilance?

— It's the same as it always has been. Russia keeps on saying the same things over and over again, and the only reason is that sometimes it actually works. There are still people in the West who latch onto these suggestions of peace talks as they have done many times before, without actually paying any attention to the conditions that go with that and what exactly Putin is demanding.

And we see the same process with the nuclear threats. By this stage, the only people who pay any attention to what Putin and Russian propagandists are saying are the ones who are willingly prepared to ignore all of the times beforehand when these promises have been proven to be empty. Sadly, those people still exist across Western media space, but also among Western politicians.

— Can we say that this Russian strategy to deter the Western governments from taking more steps forward to help Ukraine work?

— Yes, of course, it works. It has been spectacularly and tragically successful, because Russia's campaign of deterrence, which is based on not just actions since February 2022 but going back a decade or more to prepare the ground for the misinformation that they feed in now, has had an absolutely devastating effect on the will and ability of, for example, the United States to understand what is at stake and to recognize that this is a program of bluff and reflexive control that does not have a basis in reality.

So the way in which Russia has succeeded in persuading some politicians, particularly in the United States and Germany, and previously in France as well, that it was best not to oppose Russia's aggression too strenuously, has given Moscow the freedom of movement to do everything it has over not just the last two years, but the preceding decade.

And that is an enormous success for Russia's long-term campaign of information warfare and malign influence.

Johnson had been through the process of disappointment with Russia

— It's really important for governments and Western leaders and some public actors to see through this bluff, right?

— And it is possible, as we see from the complete turnaround in Emmanuel Macron's position. Previously, he was one of the appeasers, saying "Let's continue the conversation with Russia." He now understood the game that was being played against him. So now he's one of the most fervent supporters of Ukraine among that Western coalition.

Boris Johnson, when he was Prime Minister of the UK, previously went through exactly that same process. He'd tried to have a relationship with Russia and traveled to Moscow looking for a reset. Fortunately, before February 2022, he realized that this was a terrible mistake.

So when the full-scale invasion happened, in fact, before it, that's one of the key reasons why the UK was one of the most energetic supporters for Ukraine, trying to pour in weapons systems and also trying to persuade the Western coalition to actually defend Ukraine as opposed to being hands-off. In a previous book, I looked at the comparison between Johnson and Macron and pointed out that Johnson had been through this process of disappointment with Russia. He understood what he was dealing with.

But Macron still had that to come. I'm very pleased to say that process has happened, but it's painful and it takes too long. Now in the U.S., it is widely understood what this campaign by Russia consists of. The tragedy is that where it is not understood is the actual decision-making nucleus that directs U.S. policy.

We've had conversations with parts of the U.S. government and the U.S. military who understand perfectly well what has been practiced against them and what needs to be done to support Ukraine, but are unable to do so because the policy has been set that you must not "upset Russia".

— Politicians should come full circle of understanding Russia and seeing its true face.

— Yes, we've seen when national leaders and even not just senior politicians, but people in various posts dealing with Russia, whether it's senior military officers or people in business positions come in with the expectation that they are going to be able to work with Moscow and then go through a trajectory of disappointment and disillusion until finally they arrive at a place where they understand how to work with Russia. The trick is making that final point not too late.

We've seen the same thing with Josep Borrell from the European Commission because he too went to Moscow, was ritually humiliated there, and he is now one of the firmest supporters of Ukraine among senior EU politicians too. So, in a way, Russia is its own worst enemy, but of course, far too often these realizations by politicians come too late.

What to expect from the Labour government?

— Speaking of the UK support to Ukraine. What would be the impact of the UK general election on the foreign policy regarding Ukraine and, in particular, the military assistance to Kyiv?

* According to the general election poll tracker, the Labour Party has a commanding position with 44% of support.

— It seems that there is going to be very little change, which is an enormous relief. If the previous leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, had been elected, it would have been catastrophic because he is a pacifist with no understanding of defense and no understanding of Russia. He is one of the last of the old generation of Marxists who would have preferred to disband Western defenses altogether.

He came out with ridiculous suggestions like repurposing the UK's fleet of nuclear weapon-carrying submarines for freight or passenger transport, which anybody who has ever looked at one will know is nonsensical. Fortunately, he's gone.

And the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence John Healey has for a long time been as clear and as committed to defense and to the support of Ukraine as the current government. Of course, where they'll be constrained is whether they will be allowed by the leadership to actually spend what is required on restoring British defense and supporting Ukraine.

Shadow Secretary of State for Defence John Healey and Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs David Lammy in Kyiv
Shadow Secretary of State for Defence John Healey and Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs David Lammy in Kyiv

That's where we've seen a problem, particularly in the current government, where just like in the United States, it's understood across the board among senior ministers what needs to be done, but it's the central decision makers, the prime minister, the chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), that have not approved the spending that is required to do it. Instead, they present a lot of very easily seen-through fictions about defense spending.

In that respect, it was a stroke of luck that in late 2021—early 2022 we had a very distinctive team in the UK. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, Liz Truss as Foreign Minister, and Ben Wallace as Defense Minister. They are not always the most popular individuals in the UK, but they were the dream team in terms of supporting Ukraine because they understood clearly what needed to be done. That is now gone.

Rishi Sunak has a reputation for not being serious about defense, and that's certainly been borne out by some of the things he's been saying. Particularly he got a lot of vilification in the UK for trying to skip the 80th anniversary of D-Day celebrations, and eventually just going briefly and then bailing out to go home for something which was not terribly important. And that reinforced the impression of him not being serious about defense, which also seems plausible because of the way in which he has ignored all of the rest of the British government saying what needs to be done.

So what would it look like with a Labour government? Would they be able to actually push through a sensible defense strategy that is funded while not being distracted by all their other nonsensical policies like taxing education at 20%, which is one of their election promises? If they don't get distracted by stuff like that, then they might be able to keep support for Ukraine and thus for the defense of Europe on track.

Are there any signs of Russian interference in the UK election, like disinformation campaigns?

— I am not aware of anybody who has pointed to any major new efforts that we are experiencing at the moment. Of course, it's still a month to go to the election and we still have the constant background noise of Russia trying to lean into British politics. That tends to be most visible through social media.

I would assume that as we get closer to the election, we'll start to see more direct interventions. For example, the way in which Russia can release hacked and forged e-mails from individual politicians through propaganda outlets like GrayZone, SouthFront etc. There's bound to be some of that coming. Whether or not that will be effective in delivering the impact it aims for depends to a large extent on UK media’s behavior. And the British media haven't shown themselves to be particularly responsible in terms of identifying and resisting Russian information operations.