The war at home: how Russia is winning the battle for hearts and minds

Recent attention on the Kremlin has focussed on its revanchism abroad and its treatment of opposition at home. But its soft-power advance into Britain has gone almost unnoticed

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Last week, a report from a committee of the House of Lords offered a brutal judgement on British and European policy toward Russia. Europe went “sleep-walking” into the crisis in Ukraine, said the report, and Western countries had lost the “robust analytical capability” to understand Russia.

The truth about UK policy toward Russia, however, is much worse.

Over the past decade, Vladimir Putin outsourced much of his country’s diplomacy to an army of educational centres, PR firms, and other front groups based in London – and most of us in Britain barely noticed.

While the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, last year, by pro-Russian separatists may have undone most of Putin’s hard work, so successful were the Kremlin’s efforts that, for a long time, elements of the British elite openly expressed admiration for Putin – for his assertion of national power and promotion of so-called ‘traditional’ values – and have been willing to turn a blind eye to the Russian president’s worst excesses.

When Russia began promoting its image within the UK a decade ago, it concentrated on media. In 2005, the Kremlin established Russia Today (since rechristened, RT). Though now seen as a pro-Putin propaganda channel, it was not always the case. Two years later, Russia created ‘Russia Beyond The Headlines’ (RBTH), a monthly supplement inserted into the Telegraph. RBTH has always distanced itself from RT, but it still firmly toes the Kremlin line.

From at first investing in initiatives that were self-evidently pro-Russian, the Kremlin shifted its attention toward ventures where its fingerprint would be less obvious to the naked eye. In 2006, the year that Russia hosted the Group of 8 meeting in St. Petersburg, the Kremlin signed a deal with GPlus ­– the PR firm headquartered in Brussels, but with offices in London – to provide help with media handling and government advocacy. The following year, in 2007, the state-owned energy giant Gazprom contracted Gavin Anderson & Co (now Kreab), a financial PR firm with offices in London, to provide similar support.

As the money available in UK higher education dwindled, universities fell for the Kremlin’s enticements. In 2007, Russia established the Russkiy Mir (‘Russian World’) Foundation to promote values that challenge Western traditions. Through this initiative, the Kremlin established a network of research centres at DurhamEdinburgh, and Oxford, and elsewhere to organise events promoting Russia’s position on global issues.

Russkiy Mir is also responsible for an extensive pro-Kremlin cultural programme in London. It frequently partners with Pushkin House, arguably the country’s leading centre of Russian culture, and, since 2009, has helped organised Maslenitsa, the Russian pagan spring festival which is held annually in Trafalgar Square. Maslenitsa also counts the Russian Embassy, the pro-Putin oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, and the state-owned oil giant Rosneft as its benefactors.

With pro-Kremlin initiatives established in the culture, education and media sectors, Russia set about funding sympathetic political organisations. In 2012, Conservative Friends of Russia was founded, by PR consultant Richard Royal (who is now Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Hartlepool), with the support of several influential parliamentarians.Though that particular initiative ended in controversy, many of its members found their way, via the Westminster Russia Forum (also the brainchild of Royal) , to the Positive Russia Foundation – an organisation launched in 2013 by New Century Media, yet another London-based PR firm.

Why does this matter?

Putin believes that Russia and the west are locked in confrontation. Unlike the original cold war, however, the methods are more sophisticated. At the hard end is the military force used in Georgia in 2008. Moscow has mastered the more-moderate art of “hybrid warfare”, as is evident from its actions in Ukraine since early 2014. Further along the spectrum there is the none-too-subtle campaign to destabilise pro-Western governments in the former Soviet space – Bulgaria is a recent victim.

In its softest form, this means setting up Kremlin-friendly institutes, presenting propaganda as rolling news, and funding pro-Russian political groups – exactly the types of activities the Kremlin is engaged with in London. What all of these methods have in common is that they seek not only to advance Russia’s interests, but also to halt the spread of ideas that provide an alternative to Putin’s authoritarian model of governance.

Vladimir Putin has penetrated a great many of London’s institutions, and the Kremlin has taken advantage of British openness – and more than a few useful idiots – in doing so. Too many Britons in positions of influence accepted Russian state media and public relations as legitimate, and its cultural activities as innocuous. Others smoothed the process for pro-Kremlin oligarchs and state officials to educate their offspring at leading schools, and offered Putin’s friends introductions to people in power.

The House of Lords committee was right to condemn Putin for his reckless behaviour in Ukraine, but Britain must take a long, hard look at its own acquiescence in facilitating it – and not just through the City’s financial institutions.

Dr Andrew Foxall is Director of the Russia Studies Centre at the London-based think tank the Henry Jackson Society.