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?

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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.