Scottish independence: Scottish nationalists are playing into Russia's hands as Vladimir Putin plots to break up Europe – Professor Azeem Ibrahim

Very briefly, Russia’s war on Ukraine seemed poised to unite Europe. This unity of purpose could never have lasted. It was always fragile.

National economies need different things, as do political systems, and national leaders feel duty-bound to advocate for divergent priorities.

European countries differ on arming Ukraine, how to react to fossil-fuel blackmail, and refugee policy. But in this crisis, even narrower interests also clamour to be heard, including myriad secessionist movements within Europe.

Chief among them is the Scottish National Party, which has decided it’s time to try again for independence. Nicola Sturgeon has again said the times require another referendum.

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The SNP lost in 2014, but there is always another crisis which seems to justify another attempt. But this time, things might be different. During the Conservative leadership contest, both candidates said they would refuse a referendum request, a position reiterated by the new Prime Minister. This calls Sturgeon’s bluff, but only partly.

For a dedicated nationalist, whose whole political career has revolved around independence, not government per se, a new option then arises. It is one that could do real damage to the social fabric: the idea of holding an illegal vote.

If the vote were suppressed, the nationalists could claim tyranny and repression – the difficulties experienced by Spanish politics after the unofficial 2017 referendum in Catalonia prove the ease of seeming to derail an entire nation’s politics this way.

An illegal vote in Scotland is hardly a certainty. In fact, it is currently unlikely. The First Minister herself says she has ruled out an illegal vote in the style of the Catalan referendum.

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Vladimir Putin has an interest in bogging down European countries in years of wrangling about independence for places like Scotland, Catalonia and northern Italy (Picture: Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images)

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The Scottish Government also referred a proposed bill on an October 2023 referendum to the UK Supreme Court, with the Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain KC, asking the Supreme Court to adjudicate her own “lack of confidence” in the legality of an indicative vote.

Short of this, Sturgeon plans to use the next general election as a ‘proxy referendum’ – although this will have no legal force, and any attempt to make it have legal force would stray once again into organised illegality. Not to mention a possible political carnival of Catalan proportions.

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We can try to take the First Minister at her word, but secession is a powerful thing and anyone demanding it is at the head of powerful forces. Sturgeon could change her mind or – if she resigned following failed gambits – could be replaced by a secessionist more militant and willing to try illegal votes.

Catalan secession was long something supported by Russia. Secessionist leaders reportedly sought help from Moscow during the fallout from their 2017 referendum, during which their leaders fled Spain. More recently, the coalition in Catalonia has struggled over more recent revelations of closeness to Russia which came out during the war in Ukraine.

All of this disruption might dissuade less committed secessionists. But it has not done so in Scotland. Meanwhile, if an illegal vote in Scotland is not prevented, and does not go the way of the independence campaign, they can deal with that, too. It did not have the force of law. It was never official. They could simply move on.

This is more of a challenge to Britain and to the Western alliance than it might at first seem. There are numerous secessionist movements across Europe, in some of the continent’s most strategic and wealthy regions, with ties to Moscow.

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In the former separatists of the Italian Lega – formerly called the Lega Nord – and a constellation of separatist parties in Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain, Russian tactics are similar throughout. Research from the Centre for European Policy Analysis notes that in Spain, this has included large-scale use of bots to sway online debate. Reporting going back years has traced Russian attempts to fund the Italian Lega Nord with oil money.

In theory, Russia does not have a dog in any of these fights. But these things are undoubtedly disruptive. They threaten to bog down the governing of Scotland, northern Italy, Catalonia and other would-be breakaway regions in months if not years more wrangling.

And secession challenges the integrity not only of the Union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and every other state where these groups are active – but also the unity of Europe.

The level of disruption was demonstrated by Brexit, which took up over six years of parliamentary time. Renegotiating one nation’s relationship with its neighbours is complicated, doubly so if these entities, as in Scotland’s case, are joined by the Union of the Crowns and a treaty ratified in 1707, and have not been distinct on the international stage for over 400 years, or, as in the case of northern Italy, were put together by the statesmanship of Garibaldi and Cavour.

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Russia also wants to affect the tone of politics. It wishes to derail and derange the discourse in Europe. It has historically supported secessionist movements from California to Croatia, with Scottish independence a clear and longstanding entry on the Russian list. One of its most visible state-funded English-language propaganda networks, Sputnik, is based in Edinburgh.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said publicly this year that Russia is notably interested in influencing the tenor of Scottish politics, and the shape of its debate on secession.

Division weakens the Western alliance, and secession affords new friends in Europe for Russia to influence. Some put this indelicately: a new state, perhaps, open to doing business with someone the former country considered a pariah.

As Europe wrestles with how to ensure Ukrainian sovereignty and self-determination, it must not fall for siren calls of secession, and the perpetual bids of politicians who live for nothing else than to reverse the time when they failed to convince the voters to split.

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Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy and research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.

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