Why Rumors of Russian Interference in the West Are Greatly Exaggerated

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a joint news conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, April 11. There have been repeated accusations of Russia attempting to exert covert influence in the West. Sergei Chirikov/Reuters

Russian hackers might have interfered in the Brexit vote, according to a committee of British MPs, in a somewhat bizarre but predictable claim. According to this new hypothesis, the U.K.’s “Register to Vote” website, which was temporarily down on June 7, 2016, the final day of registration before the Brexit vote, “might have” suffered a DDOS attack. While declining to categorically assert clear evidence of a foreign (Russian) hack, Bernard Jenkin, Chair of the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Select Committee, alluded to dark forces and botnets.

This is not new. In December, a Labour Party MP, Ben Bradshaw, stated that it is “highly probable” that Vladimir Putin interfered in the Brexit referendum. In the same speech, he also, rather bafflingly claimed Russia encouraged a huge flow of migrants from Syria to destabilize the EU.

On the continent, French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron’s aides have alleged his campaign was compromised by Russian interference. In Germany and Scandinavia, governments are planning to fine and prosecute social media networks that fail to remove “ fake news.”

None of these claims are backed by any hard, verifiable evidence whatsoever. To their credit, the Cabinet Office, who commissioned the report on the website crash, stated to the BBC that, "We have been very clear about the cause of the website outage in June 2016. It was due to a spike in users just before the registration deadline. There is no evidence to suggest malign intervention.”

Neither did German or French security agencies find any evidence of Russian direct interference. To date, the only “evidence” of Russian interference in the U.S. elections is a combined report by the FBI, NSA, and CIA, on Russian activities and intentions in recent elections, which starts with the qualifier that all the information, as well as detailed methodology, is classified and cannot be revealed to the public. In short, unknown intelligence officers produce unsubstantiated claims, based on evidence which is unavailable to the public and uncorroborated by independent experts.

The claims that Russian interference changed Hillary Clinton’s vote count or the Brexit results are questionable. Hillary Clinton lost because the American public, as evident from numerous PEW surveys, are tired of endless interventions in geopolitically cancerous zones with rapidly declining geostrategic importance for the West, and only Trump, among all the candidates in both the major parties was providing a combination of policies, however crudely articulated, which broke this cycle of internationalist “intervene and invite” strategy.

Many Europeans are fearful of uncontrolled migration from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa—it was possibly the single major cause behind Brexit, and is the predominant cause behind the rise of far-right parties across Europe, even in nominally liberal Germany and Scandinavia. Bradshaw’s suggestion that Russia has purposely orchestrated events in Syria to cause this surge in migration is laughable. The Libya intervention, by an ideologically dogmatic EU backed by the U.S., ravaged the entire North African coastline, which is now a hub of people-smuggling and slavery, and a place where violent jihadism can take root. The EU is evidently quite capable of destabilizing itself, even without any Russian help.

Those fearful of Russian “meddling” in Western politics should consider Russia’s grand strategy and patterns in its foreign policy. Russia, like any great power, acts according to what it perceives to be in its national interest, and every great power (even the U.S.) can be considered to interfere in or seek to influence the domestic policy of other great powers, including allies.

Russian foreign policy post-Soviet collapse followed a pattern of pro-Westernization and Atlanticism, followed by a disillusioned pragmatism and outright hostility. The period of disillusionment usually follows what Russians consider Western overreach. People often forget that Vladimir Putin was one of the first leaders to tactically align with George W. Bush after 9/11, and Russian intelligence warned the West of an “arc of instability” throughout the Middle East even before that, a warning that the West ignored at its own peril.

Russia is without doubt an adversarial power, and Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian leader, but he is not irrational. That, by definition, implies that he will be willing to come to an understanding and arrangement with the West, as long as Russia’s national interest is satiated, and Russian spheres of influence are respected.

Russia is also suffering from declining demographics, a stagnated mono-industrial economy, severe lack of soft power, and a technological capability gap alongside the combined might of NATO. The only people who consider Russia to be an existential threat are therefore hardcore ideologues, dejected liberals who were overconfident about Hillary Clinton’s chances of success, neo-conservative Putin dissidents, a handful of think tankers and policy-makers and pro-EU politicians, aligned in their shared liberal, internationalist, open border ideology.

It is purely an ideological opposition, not backed by empirical evidence. It is easier to deflect blame from the two decades of failed foreign and economic policy that has got Europe to its current state, with increased inequality and a low level of trust among its populace bringing it to the brink of societal implosion. The manufactured and unsubstantiated hysteria, therefore, refuses to die.

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher and columnist, based at the University of Nottingham, U.K. His research is in great power politics and neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.