The Russia report was supposed to prove once and for all that the Kremlin rigged the EU referendum, Boris Johnson is an FSB asset and Dominic Cummings a bot operated from Saint Petersburg. Anything but the glum reality that the Leave campaign was more effective than its rival. That is not to say Vladimir Putin’s regime did not attempt to influence the 2016 vote. It is almost inconceivable that it didn’t, but the government’s complacent attitude towards democratic security means there was insufficient monitoring to know for certain.
Ministers and intelligence agencies should have been alive to the threat of Russian interference because, as the report confirms, the Kremlin intervened in the Scottish referendum six years ago. The long-awaited review cites ‘credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014’. This will have come as no surprise to long-time observers of Putin’s international strategy.
The report echoes the frustration of many Western analysts of Moscow’s global realpolitik:
“The security threat posed by Russia is difficult for the West to manage as, in our view and that of many others, it appears fundamentally nihilistic. Russia seems to see foreign policy as a zero-sum game: any actions it can take which damage the West are fundamentally good for Russia.
Putin’s foreign policy jealously guards Russia’s geopolitical independence while aggressively pursuing destabilisation in Western nations, especially the United States and its allies. It is classical realism meets post-Soviet angst about national weakness and decline. Putin measures his regime’s power at least as much by its ability to cause external disruption as its ability to suppress internal dissent.
It will also not have come as a surprise to casual viewers of Russia Today’s coverage of the referendum campaign. There was no pretence at even-handedness: the United Kingdom was on the verge of imploding and Putin’s propagandists were keen to toss in a few grenades to help out. If it seems improbable that the annexers of Crimea would care a jot for Scottish efforts to cast off the yoke of English colonial oppression, understand that the break-up of the United Kingdom would be a coup for Putin’s Western destabilisation campaign.
Perversely, the Russian government appreciates better than our own that Scottish independence is a national security issue. If anything, the dissolution of the Union would be messier, more protracted and more distracting for the UK than the sluggish crawl out of the European Union. Brexit was cancelling a Netflix subscription compared to the winding up of 313 years of shared politics, economics and history. Scexit would see the UK retreat from the international sphere to focus on interior matters for years.
The diminution in Britain’s global standing would be in more than political coherence and confidence. The mere possibility of impending Scottish secession would severely set back Liz Truss’s efforts to secure trade deals with new partners. Investing in a country that could lose one-third of its landmass and almost one in ten of its citizens in the near future is a very different prospect to the International Trade Secretary’s current offering.
Economic damage is one thing, but what about disrupting the UK’s military capability? Despite the SNP’s decades-long campaign against Trident, Westminster seems not to apprehend that Scottish independence could unilaterally disarm the UK of its nuclear deterrent. Those defences are currently located at Faslane and Coulport but an independent SNP government would require their removal from Scotland. The Scottish government has described a report suggesting the warheads can be disarmed within weeks and the whole system transported out of Scotland in two-to-four years as ‘a welcome indication of how quickly Trident could be removed’.
However, it is not a matter of simply sailing the submarines to another UK naval base. If the SNP insisted on expeditious removal, a 2013 Scottish Affairs Committee report concluded:
“It would mean the armed submarine on patrol would be recalled, and in effect, continuous-at-sea deterrent would stop. The UK at that point would no longer be able to operate its nuclear deterrent and it is not clear how quickly the UK could restore continuous-at-sea deterrence.
Other UK locations are either non-starters or would require significant time, investment, environmental changes or even population displacements. The tides are too low at Barrow-in-Furness, Plymouth too densely populated to store warheads nearby and Milford Haven home to liquefied natural gas plants and oil refineries. The other alternative would be relocating the submarines and warheads to the United States or France.
Britain would either be disarmed or humiliated and Nato would face losing one of its nuclear powers. For Putin, this would represent not only the humbling of a prominent Western nation but the weakening of the international body he deems the greatest obstruction to Russia’s expansionist designs. There is a reason Russia Today pumps out so much independence-related and SNP-sympathetic content. There is a reason it airs a weekly show fronted by a former first minister of Scotland and icon of Scottish nationalism. There is a reason Sputnik chose Edinburgh for its UK headquarters.
It is the same reason that Iran also interfered in the 2014 referendum: destabilising a rival power, one that plays an important role in promoting democracy, the rules-based international order and American global leadership. Our enemies see in the dismantling of the Union a chance to cut Britain down to size. Continued government negligence of this threat imperils not just our democracy but our national security.