An interview with Dr Rory Cormac, UoN’s Russia expert

In the last month, the balance of global power has shifted again – minutely but perceptibly, making it the job of the curious observer to reassess the lie of the land.

The political reverberations caused by the poisoning of one Russian ex-double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter on British soil are still being felt across the globe. British relations with Putin’s Russia have stalled and regressed into stalemate, following tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions. This has been followed by a collective pushback from much of the Western world, with multiple states responding in solidarity with Britain, serving to further isolate Russia.

The global powers of the world are now busy drawing up their official statements and condemnations, creating a narrative that is all too often obscured by a political smoke-screen which demands guardedness and media palatability.  With the help of Nottingham’s own international relations and covert warfare expert, Dr Rory Cormac, let’s explore how we should all feel about the future in this seething international climate.

“we’ve got to differentiate between an action done by Russia versus an action done by Russians”

Dr Cormac, starting with the most fundamental question: in your view, how likely is it that Russia was responsible for the nerve attack in Salisbury?

Obviously for an outsider it’s very difficult to say, but the phrase that keeps coming up when the government talks about the nerve agent is of a type developed by Russia. The crux is whether or not the Kremlin gave the order. So, we’ve got to differentiate between an action done by Russia versus an action done by Russians. Although Boris Johnson has been quite unequivocal in his blaming of Russia, as far as we know the intelligence doesn’t quite back that up, but, intelligence doesn’t deal in certainties – which is problematic in itself.

How would the style of attack on Skripal fit into a history of Russian covert action on British soil? Does it display the same hallmarks?

Yes, well Litvinenko is the obvious comparison that people have been pointing to but there’s a longer tradition going back to Markov in the cold war, and the famous umbrella poisoning on Tower Bridge, so another example of a chemical agent being used to kill a traitor on British soil. Also there are numerous other suspicious deaths that media outlets like Buzzfeed have brought to wider attention over the last few years.

“people have become worried about what Russia’s end goal is”

Why has the Skripal poisoning galvanised the international community in such a way, despite the UK government’s history of leniency with Russian-linked deaths, for example, Litvinenko?

Because it comes against the backdrop of a much more assertive Russia over the last ten years, in which Russia has been accused of influencing the American presidential election, cyber attacks against the Baltic states, subversion in Ukraine, the whole spread of fake news – so it comes against a whole pattern of Russia covert operations. This has created concern as people have become worried about what Russia’s end goal is.

You’ve mentioned some areas of covert operation that would be characterised as ‘grey’ or ‘hybrid warfare’, such as cyber attack and trolls. This is in line with the emerging fear in Western intelligence agencies of Russian cyber-attack on key power companies that could ‘put the lights out. How does this fear fit into a new era of Cold War anxieties around technology?

One of the advantages of ‘grey’ operations such as fake news and cyber warfare is that you have this element of deniability; it makes it much more difficult to escalate to open warfare as you can’t conclusively prove it. What we are seeing is the rise of implausible deniability, so the action is denied but nobody really believes their denial. Now, this is not just self-delusion, so, we have to ask ourselves what the point of implausible denial is. I think there are a couple of reasons why they would be compelled to do this: one is to show resolve, without escalating the conflict to open warfare. I also think that this tactic is used to exploit ambiguities in NATO and the EU. It’s about asserting dominance over their backyard and the post-Soviet space without the military consequences.

“a Russian hand lurks menacingly somewhere in cyberspace, awaiting direction”

Do you see any closure or even positives being drawn from this attack in the future? Boris Johnson has argued that the attack increases the international awareness of Russian dirty tactics, therefore reducing their legitimacy. Does Putin need legitimacy?

Boris Johnson might say that it would raise awareness of Putin’s dirty tactics but this is only if you believe the Western media, a fact which many of us take for granted. In this era of fake news, competing narratives and counter narratives, the line between truth and fiction is increasingly blurry and there is no guarantee whatsoever that people will take the Western line and thus delegitimize Putin.

Russia’s proactive approach to utilising the sway that technology and media hold over our world today has been monitored with horror by Western intelligence agencies. Whether it’s through devastating cyber disruption like the NotPetya ransomware attack in 2016 that targeted Ukraine’s financial, energy and government sectors, or the swathes of propagandist social media trolls that sought to inflame divisions in Western states and see Russian backed leaders win popular opinion, it is clear that a Russian hand lurks menacingly somewhere in cyberspace, awaiting direction.

One thing that for sure is that Putin’s acrimonious re-election this month reaffirms that liberal democracies will have to play a long game in the contest with authoritarian regimes. This is a game in which strategic alliances between the Western nations are vital if the long process of defending liberal democracy against Russia and other threats is to be successful.  Indeed, as Brexit draws closer, the final question one has to consider is whether the UK is adequately positioned to play given its coming dislocation from the EU and many of its allies.

Joe Farnham

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Featured image courtesy of Sammy Six on Flickr. Image license here. No changes made to this image.


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