LONDON - Scotland’s nationalists are coming under mounting political pressure to stop appearing on Russian state-backed broadcaster RT following an explosive report earlier this week by Britain’s parliamentary intelligence watchdog, which said Moscow has been actively seeking to boost the campaign for Scottish independence.
The intelligence and security committee of the House of Commons says the effort to encourage Scotland to break away from the United Kingdom is part of a much broader Kremlin bid to destabilize Western democracies.
The former leader of the Scottish National Party, SNP, Alex Salmond, who served as Scotland’s First Minister from 2007 to 2014, is also being urged to stop hosting a regular RT program. Opponents of the SNP, both in Scotland and south of the border in England, say he is serving as an apparatchik for the Kremlin.
Salmond “needs to accept that he has been promoting a TV channel that has a damaging agenda for western democracy,” said Alex Cole-Hamilton, a Liberal Democrat member of the Scottish parliament.
“After the report was published we should have heard the First Minister speak out, so I now call on her… to condemn Alex Salmond’s ongoing relationship with the Russian state in the strongest possible terms,” said David Mundell, a Conservative lawmaker in London and a former minister.
Scotland’s nationalists have been left fuming this week. Much of the initial media coverage in Britain on the explosive report released midweek by the House of Commons intelligence and security committee detailing Russian influence operations in Britain focused on the panel concluding that “Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.”
Russia, the new normal?
The panel said this was likely “the first post-Soviet Russian interference in a Western democratic process.” The Scots opted by a small but healthy margin in 2014 to remain tied to Britain, but the SNP is now pushing for a re-run vote.
One Scottish tabloid complained about “selective pre-briefings” directing attention on Scotland in a bid to divert attention from the committee’s broader claims about how “Russian influence in Britain is the new normal.”
And an SNP spokesperson said Conservative and Labour lawmakers south of the border were using Scotland as “a smokescreen to try and conceal” the most serious conclusions of the watchdog’s report that detailed a range of Russian efforts to meddle in the workings of British democracy generally.
He cited the committee’s criticism of British “enablers and fixers,” including members of Britain’s House of Lords, who have been facilitating the flow of Russian money into Britain over the past decade turning London into a “laundromat” for Russian cash, which is then leveraged into political influence.
On Thursday, it emerged that 14 ministers in the ruling Conservative government in London received tens of thousands of pounds from individuals or businesses with links to Russia. The donations were made either to them or their constituency parties.
Nonetheless, the SNP has been put on the back-foot by the committee’s finding that Moscow has been seeking to boost Scottish independence with online disinformation campaigns and by getting RT, formerly known as Russia Today, to broadcast fake news, along with fellow Russian state-owned broadcaster Sputnik, which has a newsroom in Edinburgh.
Longtime critics of Scottish independence are not surprised by the intelligence watchdog’s findings that Moscow has been happy to encourage a break-up of the United Kingdom. “There was no pretense at even-handedness” in RT’s coverage of the 2014 referendum, according to Stephen Daisley, a columnist for Britain’s Spectator magazine, a Conservative-leaning publication. “Putin’s propagandists were keen to toss in a few grenades to help out,” he added.
George Grant, a former associate fellow at The Henry Jackson Society, a London think tank, says, “Anything that weakens a G7, Western nuclear power can only be a good thing as far as Vladimir Putin is concerned.” Grant, who wrote a report on the defense implications of Scotland securing independence, says that one destabilizing spin-off of Scottish secession would be the disruption to Britain’s military capability, specifically its nuclear deterrent.
Scottish independence would mean the Royal Navy would lose its base at Faslane, the home port of Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines, and the base at Coulport, where the missiles and nuclear warheads are stored. And there is no obvious alternative ports or bases south of the border in England to relocate the fleet, says Grant.
“Regarding the deterrent it is a very tricky one and the short answer is there is nowhere ideal. The difficulty insofar as relocation is concerned is not so much where to re-house the nuclear submarines, but where to re-house the nuclear warheads and – most problematic – mate them with the missiles,” he says. Some Scottish nationalists are unconcerned about the defense repercussions “so far as I can see, on the basis that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, and in this case their common enemy is the British establishment,” he adds.
Russian officials dismiss the claims that the Kremlin has been encouraging Scotland to secede. “Our interest in Scotland is only one: we are open for business,” Andrey Kelin, Russia’s ambassador in London.
Asked this week in a BBC interview if the Russian had any interest in the break up of the United Kingdom, Kelin said: “Interesting idea, frankly. I do not believe that Scotland will withdraw from the United Kingdom, because as I understand it, for Scotland it would be very uneasy to leave, being separate from the United Kingdom.”
Western leaders and Russia experts allege the Kremlin backs fringe, ultra-nationalist and separatist parties in Europe to destabilize groupings such as NATO and the EU. In 2016, the Kremlin hosted a conference for Northern Irish, Scottish, Basque, Catalan and Italian secessionists. And in 2017, the Spanish government accused Russia of spreading disinformation and fake news on its RT channel and via other Russia-state media outlets about the crisis in Catalonia at the height of a separatist bid to break away from Spain.
A study by academics at George Washington University in the United States found “an entire army of zombie accounts” on social media sites that were perfectly coordinated to amplify the output by RT and Sputnik in what was described as a “deliberate disruption strategy” by Russian propagandists.