With Donald Trump facing re-election in the US and the Labour leadership for up grabs in the UK, Stephen Komarnyckyj looks at how Vladimir Putin is trying to further disrupt politics in both countries.
John Mattes, an idealistic reporter from San Diego, supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 but soon realised that his candidate was receiving overseas help.
“I saw Russian plants posting on Bernie Sanders Facebook pages in 2016,” he said. “They didn’t want his supporters voting for Hillary.”
The tactic worked and Donald Trump triumphed on 8 November 2016.
Since his inauguration, the President has blocked US aid to Ukraine and undermined NATO and the EU. However, he faces another election this year. How will Russia ensure his victory a second time and what else will it do to keep Britain and America under its thumb?
During 2016, Mattes observed thousands of Russian propaganda posts attacking Clinton in swing states before the Presidential Election.
Kseniya Kirillova, a Russian reporter who fell foul of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, was involved in battling online disinformation in the US in 2016. According to her, “troll armies that had been on American social media for years, suddenly changed from being pro-Putin to pro-Trump. Vast amounts of material, including memes, pictures, slogans were developed in Russia before English-language versions appeared”.
The indictments from Robert Mueller clarified Russia’s strategy from February 2016 onwards, with Russian operatives supporting Sanders and Trump. Once the primaries were over, they only supported Trump.
Trump’s campaign followed Britain’s EU Referendum, which was also marred by Russian intervention. Oleksandr Talavera, an economics professor at Birmingham University, was one of a team that identified 150,000 Russian language accounts promoting a vote to Leave the EU. These ‘Russians’ would sometimes be disguised as British residents from different areas of the UK: Bob the angry leave voter from Surbiton typing in his Union Jack boxer shorts might well have been Vova, a bored Russian wearily re-posting memes in a troll farm.
Talavera told Byline Times that “if we count tweets based on user location and check with votes there is an approximately 89% correlation”. He later found evidence that the Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn was more likely to be supported by Russian language users in the UK’s 2017 General Election.
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However, Talavera noticed a worrying development in the UK’s 2019 General Election. Having tried to identify social media interference, he “got nowhere as it is harder to identify the characteristics of Twitter users now”.
Russia has learned to mask its Twitter trolls more carefully. However, it has again been detected developing networks on Facebook that openly promote Bernie Sanders. The digital channel In the Now, a sock-puppet of Russia Today, published a video plugging him on 3 January 2020.
Putin wants the democrats to be led by Sanders or split by him. Either way, his man will win and the election will likely echo Boris Johnson’s 2019 triumph in the UK. Sanders, like Corbyn, is a left-winger who rose to the top of his party after a marginal career. He, like Corbyn, would lose to a right-winger who the Kremlin supports. Putin has effectively exported managed democracy to the UK and US.
Boosting Sanders is, however, only part of Putin’s strategy. Trump’s claim that Ukraine intervened in 2016 to support Clinton is pure Kremlin propaganda. The checks and balances in the US system have failed, giving Russia freedom to intervene much more boldly in 2020.
In 2016, Kremlin mouthpieces such as Dana Rohrabacher were in the minority. In 2020, the red, white and blue of the Republican Party’s elephant logo have been painted with the hues of the Russian tricolour. Russia’s trolls will now be able to re-post Russian propaganda tweeted directly from the Oval Office and the Capitol.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Russia will want to ensure that Corbyn’s replacement as Labour Party Leader is as unlikely to win as the veteran left-winger. It shouldn’t be too difficult. Putin’s polarisation of western politics benefited from the 2008 financial crisis. ‘Centrist’ views were discredited and the extreme right and left flourished. Whoever wins the Labour leadership will have to reckon with a membership that may still support Corbyn, despite his electoral defeats.
In both the US and the UK, Russia will also exploit its penetration of journalism and the think tank industry in 2020.
The Kremlin parked its think tanks on the White House lawn in 2008 when the ex-Russian intelligence colonel Dmitri Trenin was appointed as the director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. He swiftly turned the think tank into an organisation promoting Russian foreign policy priorities.
As Andrei Piontkovsky, a prominent Putin critic noted: “Which other Russian spy has made it as high as the director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre while explaining to the Americans how to behave towards Russia?”
Dmitri Simes, who organised a meeting between Trump and the Russian Ambassador on 27 April 2016, is another prominent Russian voice. He heads the influential Washington-based Centre for the National Interest. He, like Trenin, promotes dialogue with Russia and supports what he describes as Putin’s “assertive” stance on Syria.
Both these men are at the heart of the US foreign policy establishment, influencing its focus in ways that benefit the Kremlin. Back in the UK, the Institute of Economic Affairs, sponsored by Alexander Temerko, has published papers supporting the repeal of sanctions against Russia.
Whether Trump wins or not, Russia will continue to manipulate British and American foreign policy to its advantage.
This article was updated on 25/02/20 to reflect the IEA’s position over Russian sanctions.