In light of Russia’s abhorrent invasion of Ukraine, certain corners of the internet have become obsessed – yet again – with Russia’s supposed involvement in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The connections are always left necessarily tenuous: there is very little in the way of logical reasoning that could really connect the two. Plenty of pro-Brexit figures have been hawkish on Russia since long before the 2016 referendum. Plenty of liberal remainers have, intentionally or not, acted as apologists to Russian wrongdoing.
There is nothing to suggest Brexit enhanced Russia’s ability to invade Ukraine, either. The EU is not Europe’s primary security alliance, Nato is. And while the UK can be accused of falling woefully short when it comes to refugees and sanctions, it has always been one of the leading countries in supplying weaponry and training to Ukraine – as Ukraine’s president Zelensky has said on multiple occasions.
Russia has meddled in the internal affairs of pretty much every country in the West, though to dramatically different extents. With its neighbours, it engages its serious efforts: intelligence hacks, cyberattacks, and extensive propaganda efforts. With those more distant, its efforts are usually far less sophisticated. It will fund far-right nationalist parties – often fairly blatantly – and push messages through bots and propaganda.
The UK, contrary to our inflated sense of our own import, has never seemed particularly high up the Russian target list. Despite multiple inquiries by MPs and public bodies, there has never been any evidence of substantive Russian interference in Brexit, certainly before the vote. There was definitely some Twitter activity pushing out messages to a small audience, especially in the days before the referendum – but the deep and coordinated campaign some suggest was notable primarily by its absence.
Instead, Russian messaging focused on whatever was most divisive at the time: many of its most successful posts in 2016 had nothing to do with the referendum, but instead pushed Islamophobic messages at a time public fears over terror were high. After the referendum, as it became the deep political divide we now know and love, it became a good topic for the bots.
Russia’s main propaganda efforts in the summer of 2016 were directed a continent away from the UK’s squabbles over Brexit. State-linked hackers managed to target the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and of a key Hillary Clinton aide, which they then distributed via WikiLeaks.
The subsequent email row dragged on for months in a key campaign season, and provided Trump and Fox News with endless attack lines, as well as birthing the PizzaGate conspiracy theory, which in turn led to the genesis of QAnon. Compared with this propaganda effort – which may have swayed an astonishingly narrow presidential race – Brexit was small fry.
What’s baffling is we don’t need to cobble together ‘evidence’ that Russia was involved in Brexit to explain the capture of the British establishment by Russian oligarchs and their money. We have a long history of stories of wealthy and often Kremlin-connected donors to the Conservative party. We have the mega-mansions and the numerous public school places. We have the legal industry, making hundreds of millions of pounds helping oligarchs use the English courts to their advantage.
The UK’s reticence to take a stand against an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian Russia was hidden in plain sight, with books from Tom Burgis, Catherine Belton and Oliver Bullough setting it all out in painstaking detail.
What Putin’s Russia has become is a surprise to virtually no one. There has been no lone Cassandra acting as a doomed but ignored prophet – what’s been happening has been shouted from the rooftops time and again, only for an elite to plug their ears with cash to drown it out.
Putin is a vicious, petty tyrant who sees the world in zero-sum terms. But he’s not the Brexit bogeyman.
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