The Russia Connection

🇷🇺We need to consider the geopolitical significance of Brexit. Although this hardly featured in public debate ahead of the referendum, the Brexit campaign was used as a vehicle to do lasting damage to the EU by a range of nationalist interests, foremost among them Putin’s Russia.

Men with financial or political connections to Russia cropped up in every part of the Brexit campaign. The original Bad Boys – Farage, Banks and Bannon – seemed to embrace these connections, while more mainstream politicians such as Johnson were much more coy.

In 2014 the EU established an Association Agreement with Ukraine. The Kremlin, long-aware that this agreement was coming, evidently interpreted this as a hostile and expansionist move that undermined its own efforts to bolster the Eurasian block, and responded by putting in place a plan that reportedly had been drafted years earlier and which ended in the annexation of Crimea and the fostering of a civil war in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s Kremlin also went on to step up a covert cyber war against the EU through propaganda launched by state-owned media outlets, such as the TV channel Russia Today, and on social media platforms.

British PM Theresa May, has confirmed that Russia as “meddled in elections” as well as hacking European ministries and governments. The BBC has separately documented some of the techniques that are used by Russia. Labour MP Ben Bradshaw has also called for a judge-led enquiry into Russian interference of the Brexit campaign. Taken together it seems that Putin’s aim is not just to fatally weaken the EU but to undermine citizens’ faith in their elected politicians and the democratic system itself.

Because of the nature of the Putin regime, it is difficult to get accurate information about what has become known as the “Kremlin bot factory”. Information about Kremlin involvement in the Brexit referendum is much sketchier than for the US election, despite the persistence of investigative journalists such as the Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr. Official investigations have so far been conducted mainly in secret, and Facebook and Twitter have not provided information requested by the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, much to the annoyance of its Chair.

But two academic studies have indicated that this was not a small-scale operation. Researchers from London’s City University discovered a network of 13,493 “bot” accounts on Twitter that disappeared shortly after the referendum. Swansea University researchers identified 156,252 accounts that mentioned #Brexit during May and June 2016 and that had apparent links to Russia, using the Cyrillic alphabet or Russian as their interface language. These accounts became particularly active before and during the referendum.

We know that several of the Bad Boys of Brexit have met with Russian officials or spies. The Russian Ambassador in London, Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko, has a warm relationship with Arron Banks and is frequently retweeted by Leave.EU.

Attacks on the EU as anti-democratic are a key component of the Brexit Big Lie. Of course, we all have criticisms of excessive lobbying and votes that didn’t go our own way. But the EU represents a beacon of civil and democratic law-making, and with the rise of increasingly powerful authoritarian regimes in China, Russia and now also the United States, it is even more worth defending.

Find out more about the overlapping Russian connections of those who promoted and bankrolled Brexit by clicking on their names below: