Why has the Russian government let loose its secret service on the West?
There is little doubt, based on the evidence available, that the Russian state security services have been behind a number of recent attempts to hack into Western institutes and organisations as well as interference in elections. According to US intelligence officials, Russian hackers made repeated attempts before the most recent US presidential election to penetrate major US institutions, including the White House and the state department. They also made used of Wikileaks to hack into Hilary Clinton’s emails.
German officials say a Russian hacking group was behind a major attack last year on the parliament in Berlin. The attack – like those in the US – involved phishing emails. They were sent from an account, un.org, which appeared to come from the United Nations. The hack may have gone on for several months.
There is also evidence that the hackers have attempted to target Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party too.
The most recent attempt has been a Russian cyber-attack on the headquarters of the international chemical weapons watchdog, which was foiled by Dutch military intelligence only weeks after the Salisbury novichok attack. All this has led to an escalation of the diplomatic war between the West and Putin.
The targeting of individuals, like the ‘traitors’ Litvinenko and Skripal is part of the pattern.
Outrage at such subterfuge and callousness by or with the collusion of the Russian state is understandable. But all this evidence is being used to demonise Russia even further and increase its isolation, instead of using diplomacy to persuade the Russian government to stop using such tactics. So why does Russia feel the need to risk worldwide opprobrium by adopting such tactics in clear contravention of international law?
What is deliberately ignored in the coverage of all these events, is the political and economic background.
While abhorring illegal and inhuman acts, and not wanting in any way to excuse Putin’s government of culpability, I am interested in discovering the motivation for recent Russian misbehaviour on the international stage, and looking back into history can help explain these issues.
There are clear precedents as seen in Stalin’s behaviour after the death of Lenin vis a vis the West. At the time, Stalin’s policies were explained as due to his serious psychotic state, his paranoia and callousness. However, if we step outside the box and for once view things from a Russian point of view, Stalin’s paranoia and more recent events take on a very different shape.
Immediately after the revolution, Russia was invaded by a whole number of Western powers, Britain, the USA, France, Poland and Romania as well as Japan. Deeply alarmed by the ‘Bolshevik threat’, Churchill poured troops into Russia to assist the counter-revolutionaries during the so-called wars of intervention. ‘The foul baboonery of Bolshevism’, as he called it, must be ‘strangled in its cradle’. Churchill was concerned that Bolshevism could spread to Germany and so urged his colleagues at the Paris Peace Conference to treat Germany as a friend in the post-war world: ‘Kill the Bolshie, Kiss the Hun,’ as he wrote to Violet Asquith at the time.
With the rise of fascism, Stalin was once again confronted with Western duplicity, when these governments made every attempt to appease Hitler and send him East rather than invading Western Europe. A strategy that fatally misfired. If Stalin tended towards paranoia right from the start, Western policies certainly compounded it, as they are doing today with Putin.
British and US attempts to bully the post war Soviet Union with their new ‘super weapon’, the atomic bomb, also misfired when the Russians managed (with the help of sympathetic Western scientists) to build their own.
When the Soviet Union went into Afghanistan in 1979, largely in a move to protect its vulnerable south-eastern flank, the West mobilised the Taliban with the help of Bin Laden to confront their forces, and look what that mushroomed into.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1990, we all thought the Cold War as well as the continued threat of a hot war was over and we could all breath a sigh of relief. Many of us expected NATO to be disbanded as the Warsaw Pact no longer existed. How naïve.
Despite the break up of the Soviet Union and its adoption of a capitalist system, Western powers still fear its geo-political strength. Despite promises made to Gorbachev by Reagan and George Bush sr. that NATO would not attempt to move its forces up to the Russian border, that has happened. Former Soviet Republics have been encouraged to join NATO, Ukraine has been actively encouraged to confront Russia. Putin has been demonised and ostracised. Is it any wonder that Russia fears Western motives and is determined to take every measure possible to protect itself?
From the Western perspective, Russia remains the only large stumbling black to western capital’s total hegemony over Europe and that part of Asia. Admittedly, the action Putin and his government have taken has not made it particularly easy to look sympathetically at the Russian case, but that should not be the focus.
Putin, while ideologically undoubtedly on the side of capitalism, is also a strong nationalist and, like Stalin before him, is determined to protect Russia in the face of determined aggression. His fears, just like Stalin’s, are not based on a wild imagination. The media do not mention the continual spying, subterfuge and hacking that the Western powers have continuously undertaken against, first the Soviet Union and then Russia, as if interference is a one-way street.
We need honest diplomacy from both sides, as well as enforceable agreements to prevent electronic interference in each other’s internal affairs and a moratorium on espionage activity. And we also have to recognise Russia’s genuine concerns and demand that NATO pull back its forces from the border. Co-operation rather than confrontation is essential if we are to avoid a new and dangerous escalation.