BobSeely is the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight and sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
We should be grateful for the skill of police and MI5 in identifying the suspects in the Sergei Skripal poisoning. There is probably no other nation in the world which could have drawn together the extraordinary talents needed to reach into the dark heart of the Kremlin’s conspiracy.
MPs were left aghast at the extraordinary level of detail showing how two GRU operatives attempted to poison former spy Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March. In the Chamber, the Prime Minister was impressive. Jeremy Corbyn cut a pathetic figure.
But we shouldn’t be under any illusion that naming the suspects will result in justice. If anything, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, or whatever their true names are, will become Russian celebrities. Killing – or trying to eradicate – ‘enemies of the state’ can win one fame or a place in Parliament in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
This use of the GRU, and the other agencies of the Russian state, in the Kremlin’s self-proclaimed political conflict against the West has, after a decade of worsening relations, forced a change of mood in UK and other Western states. Visas are being refused for Russian oligarchs. Unexplained Wealth Orders – to be used against politicians with assets way beyond their legal income – will soon be applied. Watch this space. Overt and covert action is being taken.
The GRU – Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate, revamped and strengthened since the mid-2000s – has been Putin’s agency of choice for hybrid warfare and dirty tricks. It was the lead agency in the Crimean Annexation, one of three agencies involved in the eastern Ukraine war, and the alleged organiser of the Montenegro coup. A GRU general codenamed ‘Orion’ was believed to be the senior Russian general in Ukraine when the MH17 jet liner was shot down.
However, it’s important that we take a long-term view of the subversive activities of Russia – and indeed other states. One of the key battles that free societies face is how to deal with authoritarian states that use the freedom of open societies to undermine them. This applies to Russia, to China, and to Iran.
Earlier this year, I presented the first Western definition of contemporary Russian conflict; how the Kremlin mixes the tools of state power in a seamless and relatively coherent way to fight its so-called ‘hybrid conflict’. Since March, the UK Government has been robust and sensible in the measures it has taken. However, there are additional ideas I believe it should consider in response to Russia’s self-proclaimed political conflict. The costs are small, but the deterrence effect could be much greater.
First, we need to systematically expose what Putin’s Kremlin is doing. We need a small, permanent multi-agency group whose role is to understand and expose foreign subversive activities, both here and abroad, that threaten UK and Western interests. The US did it in the 1970s and ’80s. Then it was called Active Measures Working Group – ‘Active Measures’ was the KGB name for subversion that included disinformation, propaganda, assassination, support to terror groups, smears and espionage, running agents of influence, etc. We need to pursue the same response now, both for the historical record, to explain to our own population what is happening, and to deter the Kremlin.
Second, we need to introduce a list of PR agencies, reputation management firms and others who work as agents for Russian influence in the UK. If you want to work for Putin or his cronies, directly or via their proxies, you need to be open about it. We should model this on the US system and improve on it. We could in time extend this list to other authoritarian states. We also need to make sure that Members of the House of Lords have the same code of conduct and standards as MPs.
Third, introduce laws to ensure a health warning on broadcasters and other media that are paid-for propagandists, especially those funded by authoritarian states and which do not have an independent editorial line. A Counter Propaganda Bill is going through Congress to do just that. We need to consider the same.
Fourth, properly fund the BBC World Service TV and Radio and boost the BBC Russian Service. We are in a battle against authoritarian states globally to promote free speech and free societies. We can’t lose it. The Department for International Development (DfID) should be paying for this as part of a fundamental rethink of what Global Britain means, what our national aims are and what counts as aid spending.
Fifth, change our visa regime so we make it easier for ordinary Russians to come here and more difficult for oligarchs, rather than the other way around. At the moment, our visa regimes to too many countries reward kleptocrats and punish ordinary people. Let’s flip this around.
Six, the FCO needs to be more active in seeing Russian influence in the round. We need to be more engaged working with others, for instance, to take a stand on the strategically important Nord Stream II pipeline that Russia wants to build. We also need to make sure the Kremlin’s appalling war crimes in Syria are recorded for history.
Seventh, give OFCOM greater powers. The Latvian Government regularly highlights the negative content of Russian broadcasters based in London who spew out propaganda to the Baltics. Investigations take up to a year. Against the West, RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik churn out a regular diet of anti-Western nonsense. I don’t believe we should ban RT or Sputnik, but we need to strengthen fines, rights of reply and ensure that OFCOM investigates broadcasters of knowingly fake or propagandistic news more quickly.
Eighth, use the financial and legal powers we have to hurt those folks around Putin. Transparency International has identified £4.4 billion worth of properties bought with suspicious wealth in the UK, over a fifth of which is properties bought by Russians. Thankfully, this is starting to happen, although it is starting from a low base.
Ninth, we need to look at conventional deterrence, too. Russia’s political and financial dealings in the West are part of a multi-faceted strategy and holistic strategy that runs from information warfare through to military dominance of its neighbours, including tactical nuclear weapons and conventional missiles. We need to relearn the art of deterrence for both conventional and non-conventional conflict. Better to be robust now than encourage Russian adventurism.
Ten, we need to understand the threat to our electoral system by cyber infiltration and fake news. We have seen how divisive disputed elections are. I would suggest either a Royal Commission or a cross-party investigation into strengthening our electoral system. This could be done by the Home Affairs Committee, but it is a substantial task.
Protecting open societies from authoritarian but cyber-savvy regimes is important. The UK, as part of our Global Britain agenda, can and should lead the way.
In this new kind of political conflict we are facing from Russia and other states, assassins, hackers and trolls as well as market manipulators and criminals are as useful and more usable than conventional tools of conflict. We need to be more prepared for both.