Chapter 5: Russia’s role

Russia was a founding member of the Chemical Weapons Convention but when conflict broke out in Syria its relations with the Assad regime took priority. The two countries had pre-existing ties, some of which were economic. In 2010, the last year before the conflict, Russia’s exports to Syria totalled $1.1 billion and its investments in the country were said to be worth $19.4 billion – a modest amount by global standards but still significant. Russia was also Syria’s main arms supplier and had been operating a naval facility in the port of Tartus since the 1970s. Though small and used mainly for supply and maintenance it was the Russian navy’s only toehold in the Mediterranean.

On their own, these connections didn’t explain why Russia became so heavily invested in protecting the Assad regime. More significant factors were Russia’s perception of its geopolitical role and, to some extent, its own internal politics. One of Russia’s concerns when war broke out in Syria was the possible effect on its own security: there were fears that spillover from the conflict, in the form of jihadists and weaponry, could lead to unrest among Muslims in the Caucasus.

Another important consideration was the effects of the Arab Spring, which Russia viewed in a generally negative light. The uprisings that began at the end of 2010 triggered the fall of long-established leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, though in Bahrain the protests were crushed and in Syria, where they had turned into an armed struggle, Assad was beleaguered but still clinging on.

Russia wasn’t much interested in the protesters’ civil and political rights and saw western support for them as an infringement of national sovereignty. In the early stages, however, it did acknowledge that real grievances lay behind the protests. Interviewed in March 2011, a few days before the first large-scale demonstrations erupted in Damascus (by which stage the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt had already been driven out of office) foreign minister Sergei Lavrov described the uprisings as an “expected surprise”. The surprising part, he said, was how quickly they had developed and spread from Tunisia to other countries but the problems that caused them – poverty, low standards of living and youth unemployment, especially among the educated youth – were far from unforeseen: they had been “accumulating for very many years”. The United States had also been warning about them, Lavrov said, adding that the G8 group of countries had sought to improve the “quality of governance” in the region but regimes which had been in power for a long time seemed to have lost touch with how the public felt. In that context, he praised Egypt’s toppled president, Hosni Mubarak, for having the “wisdom” to step aside, even if he had done so “a little late”. In a similar vein Lavrov’s deputy, Mikhail Bogdanov, complained about “the irremovability of leaders”, reforms that came too late or not at all, the lack of opportunity for young people, plus “corruption and other social diseases”.

The problem with these initial Russian assessments was that they were a bit too accurate for the Kremlin’s comfort. Recognition of genuine public discontent in the Middle East raised the possibility that public discontent in Russia might have genuine causes too, especially since Russia itself was no stranger to irremovable leaders, corruption and failure to address grievances.

In December 2011 tens of thousands gathered in Moscow to demonstrate against what were seen as rigged elections to the Russian parliament, and this started a wave of protests that continued until 2013. The authorities sought to characterise them as groundless – merely the natural reaction of people who were disappointed by the election result. According to Russian analyst Leonid Issaev, this effort to delegitimise internal dissent prompted a shift in Russia’s attitude to the Arab uprisings. Politicians and media increasingly labelled them as “colour revolutions” – a disparaging term as far as Russia was concerned. In this context “colour revolutions” referred to the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia, the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, and the “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan – three former Soviet countries where peaceful protests during the early 2000s had led to a change of president. Russia characterised them as western-inspired attacks on legitimate governments in sovereign states – and began to view the Arab Spring in a similar light.

In the meantime, the Arab uprisings were rapidly losing their shine. Tunisia was the only country to achieve a relatively smooth transition. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood ruled for a year before Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the defence minister and former head of military intelligence, seized power. In Libya turmoil continued after Gadafi was gone and Yemen descended into war when a political transition plan collapsed.

Russia increasingly cited these as examples of the “chaos” that protests could cause and concluded that promoting stability – aligning itself with authoritarian regimes rather than revolutionaries – was the key to avoiding chaos. Thus by the time Russia committed its forces to defending the Syrian regime in 2015 its political stance had shifted considerably and it now found itself on the side of regimes that it had previously blamed for losing touch with the Arab public and allowing problems to fester. In principle this position was not very different from that of western governments which had often used to stability argument to justify support for authoritarian regimes that happened to be friendly towards the west.

Russia had been especially irked by the turn of events in Libya where, having stood aside as Nato-led forces joined in the overthrow of Colonel Gadafi, it ended up feeling out-manoeuvred. By abstaining rather than using its veto, it had allowed the UN Security Council to approve a resolution imposing a flight ban over Libya and authorising “all necessary measures” to protect civilians under the threat of attack. Consenting to this was an unusual step for Russia to take and there were internal differences of opinion as to whether it was a wise move. The Russian National Security Council had qualms about it and the ambassador to Libya, Vladimir Chamov, was hastily retired after making apparently critical comments in diplomatic cables.

Russia’s president at the time was Dmitri Medvedev since Putin, though still the most powerful figure, was officially only prime minister. He had formally stepped down from the presidency after serving two consecutive terms – the maximum allowed by the constitution. Shortly after the Security Council vote on Libya, Putin began expressing concern, though he had not objected initially to the decision to abstain. Russian concerns increased as Nato took on the task of organising the no-fly zone, and later when Gadafi was toppled with covert western support.

Russia had no particular attachment to the eccentric Libyan leader but had a general objection to the removal of what it saw as “legitimate” governments. But while they might be legitimate in terms of having international recognition the underlying problem was that they were not necessarily legitimate in the eyes of the people they governed and if the people wanted to be rid of them there was rarely any prospect of doing so through the ballot box.

Although Russia’s opposition to regime change was usually couched in terms of principle – non-interference in sovereign states – its main worry was about the after-effects, and on that point its fears were well-founded. The most obvious example from before the Arab Spring was the invasion of Iraq where the US-led alliance had plunged in with little thought as to what would follow. But opposing revolutions on those grounds also meant denying people the right to choose their country’s destiny. When revolutions turned messy it was often the result of rivalries among foreign powers and it was no coincidence that the most successful of the Arab revolutions at the time – in Tunisia – was the one with the least foreign involvement.

After four years as prime minister, Putin became president again in 2012 and set Russia on a more assertive course, seeking to enlarge its role on the world stage. His general aim was to make Russia a country that could not be ignored by others and, although much diminished internationally since the Soviet days, it did have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – along with a veto.

In its effort to become more engaged in the Middle East, Russia cautiously developed “cordial working relations with the main regional actors and adversaries, including Israel, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, based on shared interests in counter-terrorism, arms sales, and oil and gas production”.

Another feature of Russia’s new assertiveness was what Guardian writer Simon Tisdall described as “disruptive opposition” to the west – “slavishly befriending China, courting Eurosceptic east Europeans, meddling in the Balkans, backing outlier regimes such as Iran, selling arms to anybody who asks, manipulating other people’s elections (and his own), and generally subverting democratic states”. In this context, the Syrian conflict, and especially the issue of chemical weapons, provided an opportunity for information warfare against the west.

Russia's information war

Russia’s techniques in this area were not only well-honed but in some ways cleverly seductive. For international audiences its main propaganda vehicle was the government-funded broadcaster, RT, launched in 2005. Specialising in news and commentary on current affairs, it claimed to provide “news with an edge”, covering stories “overlooked” by mainstream media and providing “alternative perspectives”. RT’s output was in English, Arabic, Spanish, French, and German besides Russian. It was available in more than 100 countries and much of its content could be viewed online as well as on TV. Videos of its programmes were also posted on YouTube where social media users could link to them.

In the beginning, Russia Today (as it was originally known) had a fairly simple goal: to promote a more favourable image of Russia. The problem, though, was that few people bothered to watch it. Following a rethink, it changed its name to RT – making its Russian connection less apparent – and instead of trying to show Russia in a good light switched to showing western countries in a bad light. Very few of the guests on its programmes were actually Russian; for propaganda purposes it was more effective to seek out people and organisations in other countries whose views furthered Russia’s objectives without it being too obvious. Few people watched RT in the west, but it had a particular appeal to westerners who were already distrustful of media and governments in their home countries, and it worked to reinforce that distrust.

RT had obtained a licence to broadcast in Britain where broadcasting – unlike printed or online media – is regulated and broadcasters have a legal obligation to show “due impartiality” in their programmes. That doesn’t mean they have to give equal time to all opinions but it does mean that on controversial issues they must “include and give due weight to an appropriately wide range of significant viewpoints”. As a result of that, RT frequently ran into trouble with the British regulator, Ofcom. In 2018 it was fined £200,000 ($275,000) in connection with seven programmes that breached the “due impartiality” rule. Four of those broadcasts related to Syria, two to the Skripal poisoning and one to Ukraine. RT later sought a judicial review in the High Court but its claim was dismissed.

RT’s role was encapsulated in its brilliantly mischievous slogan, “Question More”. Encouraging people to ask questions, to view the world with a critical eye and look out for attempts to manipulate them sounded like a virtuous activity, though it was not what it seemed. RT’s purpose in encouraging people to ask questions was not to find answers but to create uncertainty. Questioning more – Moscow style – was about making people unsure what to believe, about obscuring the truth rather than revealing it.

Whether the issue was chemical attacks in Syria, the poisoning of the Skripals or the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine, RT was always ready to offer speculative theories about what might have happened while ignoring or ridiculing the one theory that was supported by clear evidence and accepted by almost everyone else.

A typical example came in March 2018 when RT’s Sputnik programme discussed the Skripal poisoning in Britain. This was one of the programmes that Ofcom found had failed to show “due impartiality”. Ofcom’s transcript recorded British former MP George Galloway sarcastically mocking the idea that Russia was to blame:

“So President Putin is such a genius that just days before his presidential election and just 100 days before Russia hosts the World Cup, he tries to kill two Russians, one of whom lives in Moscow and could have been strangled there for nothing with her own scarf; the other of whom could have been killed in a Russian prison or at any time since or later, using a weapon known to have been invented by Russia, in England, in public, in broad daylight, for no purpose yet even speculated upon. Pure genius.”

His co-presenter, Gayatri Pertiwi, chipped in:

“They say it was a nerve agent called Novichok ... which was developed by the former Soviet Union in the 1980s. Its formula long ago ceased to be a secret. Its inventor now lives in the United States and a version of it no doubt resides in Britain’s own nerve agent weapons base at Porton Down – which as coincidence has it, is just seven miles from the scene of the crime in Salisbury.”

Galloway then introduced his guest, “former Kremlin and Russian government adviser, best-selling novelist, redoubtable media commentator” Alexander Nekrassov. Galloway prompted him with the idea that the story was “all a script ... pre-prepared for some ulterior political motives”. Nekrassov replied: “It looks like a badly prepared provocation. It’s like the people behind it didn’t really think it through properly.”

On possible motives for this “provocation”, Nekrassov suggested it was to cause a distraction from problems in Britain – corruption in government contracts and “of course the paedophile scandals. They are getting out of control ... This is not good for Westminster”.

With further prompting from Galloway, Nekrassov went on to hint at a possible connection between the Skripal poisoning and opponents of Brexit:

“Brexit was presented by the remainers as something that Russia helped to achieve. So, tarnishing Russia tarnishes Brexit automatically – maybe not directly but indirectly. This whole attack on Russia is an attack on Brexit because Russia supposedly was the main instigator.”

Perversely, RT’s willingness to broadcast a diverse range of nonsense helped to create an illusion of openness. It gave a platform to “experts” with dubious credentials and “independent” (i.e. fringe) journalists who would not be taken seriously by mainstream media in the west. Western politicians – both left and right – often appeared on its programmes and some were paid handsomely. The rate for British Members of Parliament ranged from £500 to £1,000 for a single appearance, though according to Piers Robinson of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, they weren’t doing it for the money.

Interviewed about this on RT, and wearing his other hat as a professor in the journalism department at Sheffield University, Robinson said: “People are coming on RT in order to express legitimate political views and they are coming on to RT because they are probably having great difficulty getting on to existing ‘legitimate’ mainstream media in the west. In many ways RT is providing an important outlet for these people who are not getting their voices heard elsewhere.”

But Russia wasn’t spending £300 million-plus a year to promote free speech in the west. Asked by a reporter from Kommersant why RT was needed and why Russian taxpayers should foot the bill, RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan replied: “This is soft power.”

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