- - Sunday, April 14, 2019

Is Russia’s Vladimir Putin chuckling in triumph as the British Parliament struggles with its messiest domestic crisis in decades in trying to leave the European Union?

To be sure, British political leadership bears much of the blame for failure to carry out the decision voters made in 2016 to leave the EU. In an unprecedented move, Prime Minister Theresa May even offered to resign if necessary to break the impasse.

Always renowned for rough-and-tumble debate, even Parliamentarians were stunned in early April when nearly-nude demonstrators took over spectator galleries and chanted anti-EU slogans. The staid magazine The Economist expressed its disgust by devoting its cover to a thinly veiled obscenity.

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But what has gone virtually unnoticed in the debate is the active campaign Russia waged on behalf of the “Brexit” faction in the election.

The quiet — but effective — Russian strategy on the EU issue is outlined in a 2018 report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee titled “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy.” The 200-page document dissected Russian meddling in a number of European elections in recent years.

The goal: “The Kremlin has long aimed to undermine European integration and the EU, in addition to its aims to sow confusion and undermine confidence in democratic processes themselves, making Brexit a potentially appealing target.”

Another major target is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which succeeded in recruiting break-away segments of the defunct USSR, to the Kremlin’s chagrin.

A major Russian player in Brexit campaign was identified as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian-based “troll farm.” In a 2018 indictment against Russian meddlers in the 2016 presidential election, the U.S. Department of Justice identified the IRA as “a Russian organization engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes.”

The Russian government took no official position on the EU vote. But, as Senate investigators found, English-language media outlets such as RT and Sputnik “offered systematically one-sided coverage supporting a British departure.” Russian outlets also gave frequent attention to Nigel Farage, leader of the far-right U.K. Independence Party (UKIP).

According to the Senate report, a joint team of experts from Swansea University in Wales and the University of California at Berkeley “identified 150,000 Twitter accounts with various Russian ties that disseminated messages about Brexit before the referendum.”’

The head of the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) cited 188 “major cyberattacks over a three-month period against the UK government.”

Per the Senate report, Russia’s “malign influence” in the British election — and in other countries — was termed part of a broad campaign to “sow distrust and confusion, promote radical voices on divisive political issues, and gain economic advantage.” These “dangerous tactics” are aimed at “eroding support for the democratic process and rules-based institutions created in the aftermath of the Second World War.”

As one media summary of the election results stated, British voters “defied the will of their leaders, foreign allies and much of the political establishment by opting to rupture this country’s primary connection to Europe in a stunning result that will radiate economic and political uncertainty across the globe.”

As does the United States, the United Kingdom forbids political contributions by non-citizens. But illicit Russian money gushes into Britain from many sources, chiefly oligarchs who are laundering illicitly-gained cash. In 2015, the U.K. Metropolitan Police estimated that 180 million British pounds invested in properties in the U.K. were under scrutiny for being processed through what an officer called a “global laundromat.”

British law grants a wide degree of anonymity to property owners; hence the suspicion that a good deal of the “black money” that comes into the country can be used for political purposes.

Money aside, a major Kremlin weapon in election-meddling is false propaganda. According to a 2016 Rand Corp. study by Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, the Kremlin uses lies as a weapon, spewing falsehoods through an array of outlets, many of which conceal any connection with the government. The result is a “firehose of falsehood.”

As the researchers point out, a false story is the first one seen by audiences (and possibly repeated over multiple platforms). While fact-checkers are busy disproving one story, “the Kremlin’s propagandists can put out ten more.”

According to the Senate report, American leaders should learn from the European experience: “The United States must now assume that the Kremlin will deploy in America the more dangerous tactics used successfully in Russia’s periphery and the rest of Europe The motivations and methods behind Putin’s rise help explain how he views the role of the security services and his willingness to use them to do the regime’s dirty work.”

In other words, Russia’s spy agencies now have a function other than traditional espionage: Corrupting elections in the United States and elsewhere to the detriment of democracy.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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