Scotland is in the Kremlin’s sights. Since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, he has set Russia on a collision course with the West. He wants to weaken the Atlantic alliance, to divide Nato, and to undermine the European Union. He is particularly interested in small European states, whether established or aspirant, and sees them as weak links in the Euro-Atlantic community, vulnerable to Russia’s malign influence.
Putin believes the post-Cold War international order is unfair. This idea is not new or his alone, but it has assumed heightened importance as Russia’s oil-fuelled economic growth rates of the early 2000s have been replaced by recession and stagnation. No longer able to generate domestic legitimacy through what he does at home, Putin has sought to generate it through what he does abroad. This is why Scotland matters to Russia.
Russia’s interest in Scotland is derived, in part, from its geostrategic location. As the location of the British nuclear base in Faslane, Scotland houses the submarines that still provide much of Nato Europe’s nuclear umbrella. In addition, the waters off Scotland’s north-west coast form part of the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap, the principal choke point between Russia’s Northern Fleet in the Arctic and its strategic interests in the North Atlantic.
During the Cold War, the GIUK Gap was probably the most carefully observed stretch of ocean on the planet, but its international importance fell dramatically after the Soviet Union collapsed. Now, as Russia has become more assertive, its prominence has returned and the UK is scrabbling to recover its capabilities there. At the same time, the Kremlin’s interest in Trident never went away.
Only this month a Russian naval vessel entered the Moray Firth, forcing the Royal Navy to deploy a warship to monitor its movements. Again and again, Russian aircraft have come close to Scottish air space, forcing RAF Typhoons to scramble from Lossiemouth to mark their presence and escort them away.
But the Kremlin’s interest in Scotland is not simply military, rather it is more insidious. In the Scottish nationalist movement, Russia sees a proxy to weaken and divide the UK, which has long been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. Britain has been a leading advocate for standing firm against Russia’s aggressions from Syria to Ukraine. Provoking tensions within the UK would weaken the country politically, strategically, and militarily, reducing London’s ability to frustrate Russia’s international ambitions.
The Kremlin has already developed a sophisticated and well-coordinated arsenal of techniques to divide and dominate small European countries, including: the targeted use of corruption; electoral interference; use of social media to affect public opinion; cyber-attacks; and, covert information operations. There are signs that some of these have been rolled out in Scotland.
In 2010, Edinburgh University established a Russian study centre, funded by the Russkiy Mir Foundation. The Foundation was created by Putin in 2007, is funded from Russia’s federal budget, and aims to both challenge Western views and promote Russia’s position on global issues. Four years later, Russia sent a delegation of pro-Kremlin electoral observers to monitor Scotland’s independence referendum. The lead observer, Igor Borisov, concluded that the vote “[did] not conform to generally accepted international principles of referendums”. This was quickly repeated in a Facebook group called “Rally for a Revote”, which was linked to a petition that collected over 100,000 signatures and was heavily promoted by pro-Russian Twitter accounts.
In 2016, Sputnik, a mouthpiece of the Kremlin, established its UK headquarters in Edinburgh. The following year, Alex Salmond, the former First Minister of Scotland, was given his own show on RT, the Russian government’s propaganda channel. Last year, meanwhile, Scottish Limited Partnerships were implicated in the so-called Russian Laundromat scandal, a vast money laundering scheme in which up to £56 billion of illicit funds were funnelled out of Russia in the early 2010s.
No surprises then, that London has started to take Russia’s interests in Scotland seriously. The UK now views Russia as a “tier one” national security threat, just as it viewed the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It has adopted a ‘Fusion Doctrine’ to counter Russia’s hybrid warfare, and is investing in nine P-8 Poseidon aircraft, in order to monitor activity across the North Atlantic, which will be housed at RAF Lossiemouth.
So too has Edinburgh. Members of the Scottish National Party are engaging with their counterparts in allied countries elsewhere in Europe, not least in the Baltic, to learn how small states can respond to Russia’s meddling – particularly under Nato’s umbrella.
But there is a strange irony, here. The SNP foresees an independent Scotland’s admission to Nato at the same time that it opposes the hosting of British nuclear submarines in Scottish waters. Yet, it is precisely these submarines that provide Nato’s nuclear deterrence in Europe. This would lay down a curious marker: the dominant party in an independent Scotland would jeopardise Nato at the same time that it sought its protection.
Worse, it would jeopardise the security of other small states – from Estonia to Iceland – that also depend on Nato.
Dr Andrew Foxall is director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre and James Rogers is director of the Global Britain Programme, both at the Henry Jackson Society, an international affairs think tank