The July 2020 report by the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee is part of a wider and somewhat depressing phenomenon: Western countries’ analyses of what Russia is doing are often mediocre in the eyes of those in Moscow.
Anyone who was eagerly awaiting to see the Russian reaction to the report by the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) – which explores Russian meddling in the United Kingdom in general and its interference in the Brexit referendum in particular – must have been disappointed. Beyond a few sarcastic comments, there was hardly any reaction at all. And this was not because Russian censors blocked news critical of the Kremlin (though, of course, they often do so). Rather, it was because the Russians, loyalists and dissidents alike, found the report to be superficial and incompetent – and, as such, uninteresting. This is exactly what they have come to expect from much of Western analyses of Russia. “They did not surprise us” read the headline of Russia’s main state-owned TV channel.
In this way, the ISC report plays a part in a wider and somewhat depressing phenomenon: Western countries, sensing Russia’s malign influence, seek to understand and counter it. But their analyses of what Russia is doing (and why it is doing it) are often so mediocre in the eyes of those in Moscow – again, dissidents and loyalists alike – that its effect there is the opposite to what one would desire: it inspires ridicule, not respect or restraint.
Some Western Russia experts have noted this. “The report is worse than unhelpful,” tweeted Samuel Greene of the King’s College London. “Rather than provide a sober risk assessment and propose concrete action, it identifies a ‘whole of state’ threat and calls for a ‘whole of government’ response -- both of which are alarmist, jingoist and fundamentally meaningless.”
Indeed, the report claims that “the security threat posed by Russia … appears fundamentally nihilistic”; “Russians with very close links to [President Vladimir] Putin … are well integrated into the UK business and social scene”; “Putin considers the UK to be a key diplomatic adversary”. To a reader in Moscow, such sentences would look uselessly superficial at best, and divorced from reality at worst.
It is sad to see how many recent Western reports on ‘the Russian threat’ risk losing hearts and minds in Russia.
To be fair, the primary aim of such reports is not (and should not be) to impress the Russians, but to start a debate and draw some conclusions for the Western countries concerned. Also, the process of analysis is important in itself – because, if one is serious and persistent, the quality of assessment will probably improve over time. But, even with these caveats, it is sad to see how many recent Western reports on ‘the Russian threat’ risk losing hearts and minds in Russia – and liberal-leaning and fair hearts and minds at that. “When respectable Western experts and media produce hot takes like ‘Russia will occupy Belarus to solve the 2024 elections issue’, you feel like they are not even trying anymore,” says Andrey Baklitsky, an analyst with the MGIMO University in Moscow. “You then start to wonder – if the Western analysis on Russia is so lousy, what else are they getting wrong?”
And yet it is possible to do the opposite: to win hearts and minds – to convince the Russians, and not just the liberal-leaning ones. In early September 2018, the UK did exactly that by publishing a police report about the movements of the culprits in the Salisbury chemical weapons attack. This report was and remains one of the best actions anyone in the West has taken in the so-called “information war” against Russia – it was a classic case of a well-investigated and clearly stated truth beating lies and confusion.
Because, for pundits in Moscow, Salisbury was a confusing case. On 4 March 2018, when the two victims of the attack collapsed onto a bench in the city, Russia was two weeks away from the presidential election. It was also in the midst of a semi-public foreign policy discussion: there was considerable speculation that, after the election, the Kremlin might adopt on a more conciliatory attitude towards the West; and there were important constituencies that advocated that.
While it might have been something of a stretch to assume that Putin had a burning desire to mend fences, it still seemed reasonable – and completely in character – to expect him to keep his options open. That’s why the Salisbury attack – which immediately precluded any rapprochement with the West – was highly puzzling to much of the foreign policy establishment in Moscow. When I made a whirlwind visit to Moscow in early April 2018 to understand the background of the matter, many sources with inside access suggested, apparently sincerely, that this must have been a false flag action – either by a British establishment plagued by Brexit or other actors who had things to gain by maintaining tension between Russia and the West.
The British police report, launched on 5 September 2018, put an end to all speculation. It made a convincing case that bore scrutiny; it also avoided pompous and vacuous statements that might have diminished its power. Free Russian media outlets could see that the evidence added up. By October, the Kremlin’s guilt in the Salisbury operation had become common knowledge in Moscow. “Yes. You were right. It really was the GRU, and they really were in Salisbury,” admitted one of the former false-flag theorists with a slightly embarrassed expression.
The lessons here seem obvious. If the West wants to demonstrate Russia’s guilt or generally say something about Russia’s actions – to itself and to the Russians – it needs to present well-verified facts that speak for themselves. It should keep its statements short and serious. It should avoid pompous eloquence and, for God’s sake, steer clear of partisan politics.
Admittedly, it is somewhat unfair to compare the ISC report with the police investigation into the Salisbury attack. The ISC probably could not produce similarly clear evidence: not just because its nature is different – a parliamentary committee is not the same as the police – but also because there may not have been a smoking gun (at least as concerns Russia’s interference in the Brexit referendum, which remains very questionable). The report may also have done a valuable job by launching a debate about Britain’s vulnerabilities vis-a-vis foreign actors – of which there are many, due to the characteristics of the British politics, media, and business world. However, viewed from Moscow, it is one more example of a badly researched, vague, and alarmist take on Russia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.