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Is Russia hacking democracy?

As Putin’s relationship with the rest of the world grows ever more significant, what destabilising powers does his regime really have?

Whether the bombing of Aleppo, the hacking of Democratic Party’s email servers or the threat of incursion in the Baltic states, Vladimir Putin is readily framed as the West’s public enemy number one. But it is not useful to frame the Kremlin as the source of all our problems.

It is true that Donald Trump’s path to the White House was helped by the DNC hacks and WikiLeaks attack on the Hillary Clinton campaign. Not least because WikiLeaks suspiciously left Trump alone.

But it is also crying wolf to claim, as Ben Bradshaw MP did late last year, that Brexit was “probably” interfered with by Russia. It seems doubtful that Bradshaw could ever provide any conclusive evidence of this.

Rather, it plays into a latent Russophobia stemming from the Cold War as a strategy to divert from problems that are mostly domestic. We should focus on where Russia is misbehaving, not where it is not.

Since 2014, Russia’s state-sponsored media outlets, such as RT (formerly known as Russia Today) and Sputnik, have vastly expanded their global reach.

Explicitly, RT tries to put forward the “Russian perspective”, while implicitly seeking to erode trust in institutions, such as the BBC. Just like the Morning Star, RT reported that Aleppo had been “liberated”, with no criticism of Russia’s bombing campaign. During the US presidential race, RT also seemed to be uncovering emails from Clinton’s campaign. This comes at a time when western media outlets are increasingly finding it difficult to balance their budget, and thus resort to more click-worthy news or reduce their reach through consolidating bureaus into regional hubs.

It is also true that Russian state-sponsored hacking and trolling is taking on unprecedented momentum. From Aleppo to the internet, the Kremlin is causing chaos. But this is not universal or inevitable.

The Cold War provides a convenient way to understand the present: a Russia seeking to rebuild its evil empire and assert itself as a geopolitical player rivalling the US. But the present is more unpredictable than the past. Russia is guided by a different ideology from the Soviet Union. Russia is not seeking to promote an international form of communism but seeking to undermine democracy – a motive that is primarily about Putin’s survival. If democracy looks flawed in the West, how can it be a model for reform in Russia?

There are real reasons to be concerned about Putin’s desire to hack democracy. Since the coloured revolutions and Arab Spring, Putin has increasingly cracked down on domestic dissent as a way to maintain power. Even Putin’s incursion in Ukraine is, in part, a way to shore up Putin’s power in Russia by undermining the pro-European and anti-corruption Euromaidan protests that ended Viktor Yanukovych’s hold on power in Ukraine in February 2014.

A recent report by the Atlantic Council concluded that organisations and institutions in the UK are relatively resilient to Russian perversion. The UK does not have the same pro-Russian organisational network as France. Nor do we have electronic voting procedures, as several US states do, which might be exposed to hacking. In fact, the behaviour of several Conservative MPs and Ukippers has courted the most criticism. For example, former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has faced ongoing scrutiny concerning his links to Ukrainian oligarch, Dmitry Firtash.

However, we should not slide into blithely blaming Russia just to escape our own reality. Russia is responsible for sponsoring conflict, in Ukraine and Aleppo. The Kremlin is sponsoring hacking scandals that help undermine the legitimacy of candidates, such as Clinton, who are seen as less favourable to Russia.

But this is not inevitable. We have a choice about how and what we report, and about whether we equate using the wrong email server to sexual harassment. We have a choice about the funding of political parties and whether we accept foreign or clandestine funding or not. Finally, we have a choice about the value we give to democracy and political freedoms. In this regard, Russia is not something to emulate. Rather than blame Russia for Brexit, we need to get behind rule of law and freedom of speech. These values may not be perfect but compared to Russia they are incomparable and will be the best defence we have.

Dr Eleanor Knott is a Russia expert and LSE fellow at the Department of Methodology.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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