Russia-Ukraine crisis: Why Vladimir Putin is interested in Scotland and Scottish nationalists – Dr Alison Smith

From 2017 until a few days ago, Scotland’s former First Minister, Alex Salmond, hosted a weekly chat show on RT, formerly Russia Today.

Mr Salmond insisted that his production company had “total editorial control” over the show, so it must have been a coincidence that he and his Alba colleagues have been parroting Vladimir Putin’s talking points.

Even as almost 200,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border, the Alba MP Neil Hanvey accused the UK and US of “hyping” the possibility of a Russian invasion.

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When Putin recognised the independence of Ukrainian regions held by pro-Russian rebels, Donetsk and Luhansk, two days before the invasion, Alba condemned the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, but also blamed Nato. Russian interests should, they argued, be kept in mind, since “assurances were offered in the 1990s about Nato expansion eastward which have not been kept”.

Having a friendly political party to project their views in the Scottish media must be nice for Russia. However, it is time for Scots to consider that Russia’s interest in our wee nation may go beyond run-of-the-mill political meddling.

Scotland matters for the security of the United Kingdom and its allies. It faces the North Atlantic and the GIUK gap, a naval choke-point between Greenland, Iceland and the UK. Both are of geostrategic interest to Russia.

The UK’s nuclear deterrent – colloquially known as Trident – operates from two adjacent bases on Scotland’s west coast: HM Naval Base Clyde (Faslane), where the submarines are based; and RN Armaments Depot Coulport, where the missiles are loaded and unloaded.

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Independent Scotland should be a Nato member so it can play its part in maintain...
Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine prompted Alex Salmond to merely 'suspend' his chat show on Russia's state-run RT channel (Chris Radburn/PA)Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine prompted Alex Salmond to merely 'suspend' his chat show on Russia's state-run RT channel (Chris Radburn/PA)
Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine prompted Alex Salmond to merely 'suspend' his chat show on Russia's state-run RT channel (Chris Radburn/PA)

If Scotland becomes independent, the nationalists have promised to remove Trident “at pace”. There are no good options for relocating Trident to England or Wales.

In a 2021 report for the European Leadership Network, Rear Admiral John Gower noted that if Scotland became independent, the continuing UK might need to move its nuclear deterrent to a Nato ally’s base, perhaps Île Longue in France or King’s Bay in Georgia, USA.

Prior to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Mr Salmond told the BBC: “Better it were curtains for Trident.” Many Scots would agree.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to impose nuclear disarmament on the UK also appeals to outsiders. No country would be happier than Russia if Nato were reduced from three nuclear powers to two, and if the submarines responsible for patrolling the North Atlantic were taken out of service.

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Over the last decade, Russia has used ‘hybrid threats’, including interference in other countries’ political debates, to achieve its geostrategic goals. Scotland must be under no illusions. The combination of a prime geostrategic location and the passionate anti-nuclear stance of Scottish nationalists makes Scotland a target.

The SNP’s opposition to nuclear weapons is sincere, well-intentioned and legitimate. They have vigorously opposed nuclear weapons since Trident arrived on the Clyde in the 1960s.

Long before Russia started annexing parts of its neighbours, Nicola Sturgeon stated her belief that nuclear weapons are ineffective, immoral and a waste of money.

Why spend billions on weapons that are too powerful to use? How can such dangerous weapons possibly make Scotland and her allies safer? What if hosting these weapons turns Scotland into a target? What if a nuclear explosion costs the lives of innocent civilians and damages the stunning natural environment of Scotland’s west coast?

These are all reasonable questions. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine highlights the bigger geopolitical picture. Although Scottish nationalists have every right to argue that an independent Scotland should eventually be nuclear-free, they must be clear about which side they are on.

If Scotland becomes independent, three-quarters of the Scottish public want to join Nato. Recognising this, the SNP also say they want to join Nato, although they are reluctant to acknowledge that this would involve compromising on Trident.

A friendly divorce with the rest of the UK would, in any case, hinge on agreeing a negotiated settlement for Trident. Facing two ways on Trident and Nato is dishonest to Scottish voters, and it makes Scottish politics a target for outsiders who do not have our interests – or those of our allies – at heart. Scottish nationalists must be clear that, however much they want Trident gone, Scotland will not be a cuckoo in the Nato nest.

The invasion of Ukraine was, as Alba noted, a “violation of [its] sovereignty”. Yet it was so much more than that. This unprovoked invasion of a peaceful nation has already killed hundreds of civilians, including children.

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Because residential areas have been deliberately – and illegally – targeted, the death toll would be even higher if civilians were not sheltering in metro stations and underground car parks.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have already fled to neighbouring countries. Frustrated by the strength of Ukrainian resistance, Putin has threatened nuclear escalation. His wanton destruction shows no signs of abating.

There is no justification for such behaviour, which threatens us all.

Make no mistake, the arguments parroted by Alba – that Russia’s attack on Ukraine was provoked, and that Russia has a ‘sphere of influence’ that must be respected – are classic Kremlin talking points.

It is strange to see nationalists defending a big power attacking a plucky, newly independent nation. Alba would not have much truck with the argument that an independent Scotland should remain in England’s sphere of influence forever, so why should Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine be forced to remain in Russia’s orbit?

Given Mr Salmond’s employment by Russia Today, Alba’s comments on Ukraine should be taken as a warning sign that Russian influence in Scottish politics may already be a reality.

He has “suspended” his RT programme until “peace is restored in Europe”. So after Ukraine has been flattened, and Putin indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, does Mr Salmond really think he can resume his employment for Russia’s international propaganda channel as if nothing has happened?

Dr Alison Smith is an author and political analyst at Political Developments

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