Theresa May has accused Moscow of interfering with democratic elections across the world and carrying out cyber espionage.
In a speech to business leaders at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet at London’s Guildhall, the prime minister said Vladimir Putin’s government pushed “fake stories” online to “sow discord in the West” and “undermine free societies”. However, she stopped short of accusing Russia of interfering in last year’s Brexit referendum despite mounting evidence to support the claim.
May’s comments also contrast with those of US President Donald Trump, who last week said he believed Putin’s denial of election meddling, despite a unanimous report from the US intelligence organisations that Putin interfered in last years US presidential election.
“In a recent speech President Putin said that while the interests of states do not always coincide, strategic gains cannot be made at the expense of others. When a state fails to observe universal rules of conduct and pursues its interests at any cost, it will provoke resistance and disputes will become unpredictable and dangerous.
“I say to President Putin, I agree. But it is Russia’s actions which threaten the international order on which we all depend.
“I want to be clear about the scale and nature of these actions.
“Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation has forcibly taken territory from another in Europe. Since then, Russia has fomented conflict in the Donbas, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence and the Bundestag, among many others.
“It is seeking to weaponise information. Deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.
“So I have a very simple message for Russia.
“We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of Western nations to the alliances that bind us.
“The UK will do what is necessary to protect ourselves, and work with our allies to do likewise.
“That is why we are driving reform of NATO so this vital alliance is better able to deter and counter hostile Russian activity. It is why we have stepped up our military and economic support to Ukraine.
“It is why we are strengthening our cyber security and looking at how we tighten our financial regimes to ensure the profits of corruption cannot flow from Russia into the UK.
“So we will take the necessary actions to counter Russian activity. But this is not where we want to be – and not the relationship with Russia we want.
“We do not want to return to the Cold War, or to be in a state of perpetual confrontation.”
Moscow denies election meddling, but known Russian troll accounts and bots on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit have been recorded first claiming to be British and pro-Brexit, then claiming to be US residents and pro-Trump, and then French citizens and supportive of Marine Le Pen in France.
These political positions reflect the geopolitical aims of the Russian government, following the doctrine enshrined by Russian political strategist Aleksandr Dugin in his 1997 book Foundations of Geopolitics. The book, which is used as a textbook in the Academy of the General Staff of the Russian military, argues for Moscow to use tactics of subversion, destabilisation, and disinformation rather than military might to achieve its goals of reducing the influence of Atlanticism and dividing the European Union.
Throughout 2016, paid Russian trolls pushed false narratives on social media about the EU and Hillary Clinton, with their influence amplified by an army of automated bots. The unexpected votes in both the UK’s Brexit referendum and the US presidential election were affected by this Russian subversion, but it remains unclear to what extent.
In the US, a number of investigations have been launched into Russian hacking during the election and to discover the depth of links between the Trump campaign and Russian agents. However, despite increasing evidence that Russia also interfered with the Brexit referendum and allegations of meetings between prominent Leave campaigners and Russian operatives, the UK government still has not opened an official investigation.