THE UK government is desperately trying to breathe new life into old and unproven claims that Russian president Vladimir Putin wants to influence the debate over Scottish independence .
UK defence secretary Ben Wallace has said that Russia’s interest was part of a desire to ‘’magnify division” across Europe and to contribute to the break-up of the UK.
Mr Wallace was speaking to a briefing of Scottish journalists in London. It’s worth looking in more detail at his main claims in order to judge if they have any real substance:
1: Russia “definitely” has an interest in the independence debate.
Wouldn’t it be more surprising if Russia was not interested in the possibility of Scotland becoming independent? After all, Scotland is the home of the UK nuclear deterrent.
The SNP and the Scottish Greens are both committed to ridding an independent Scotland of Trident. The time scale has still to be decided but there’s no doubt that there will be no place for nuclear weapons after Scotland votes to become independent.
It would be frankly inconceivable if Russian was taking no interest in the possibility that the UK would have to find a new home for its nuclear weapons.
America is certainly interested in the issue. The principal officer of the American consulate in Edinburgh hinted as recently as August that US president Joe Biden was not a fan of Scottish independence.
Just before leaving her role Ellen Wong suggested President Biden wanted “domestic political and economic stability” from his allies.
Ms Wong was also quoted as saying America is “monitoring closely” the Scottish government’s stance on the location of Trident. She said: “I’m not going to speak on behalf of President Biden, but what I would say is you know I listed all these many ties that exist across the Atlantic and I think our priority is ensuring that these ties continue to be strong and continue to prosper.”
The pro-Union side has not, of course, argued that America’s interest in Scottish independence had encouraged it to interfere in the democratic process
President Barack Obama said before the 2014 independence referendum that the US had a ‘’deep interest in making sure that one of our closes allies that we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner”.
So far so unsurprising. But if America is so open about its interest in the Scottish independence question you can be sure Russia is interested too. The pro-Union side has not, of course, argued that America’s interest had encouraged it to interfere in the democratic process.
2: Ben Wallace said Vladimir Putin’s regime was “definitely” interested in sowing discord, suggesting that its aim was contributing to the break-up of the United Kingdom. How does he know?
Mr Wallace said a report last year by a Westminster committee concluded Russia had tried to influence the outcome of 2014’s independence referendum.
The report in question was by Westminster’s Intelligence and Security Committee. An in-depth report by the Times into the committee’s findings last July stated: ‘’Despite claims in the lead up to publication, the report does not provide any new evidence of Russian meddling in either the Scottish independence referendum or the vote to leave the European Union.’’
It does refer to previously mentioned “credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014”. It suggests that the intelligence agencies were unaware of this at the time. No proof to support the claim was offered.
The UK government was so unconcerned about the ”attempts” that just days after the publication of the committee report British security minister James Brokenshire rejected demands for an investigation into Russian interference in the Scottish independence referendum from the Tory and SNP benches.
It is known, however, that then UK Prime Minister David Cameron wanted Vladimir Putin’s support in his fight against Scottish independence in 2014.
The Sunday Herald reported in January that year that the former USSR’s leading news agency Itar-Tass had reported a source in Mr Cameron’s office saying Britain was “extremely interested” in referendum support from Russia, which that year held the presidency of the influential G8 group of rich industrial nations.
The main thrust of the Westminster’s Intelligence and Security Committee report in 2020 was in fact nothing to do with the independence referendum but bemoaned the fact that the UK had ‘’left it too late to untangle the web of Russian influence that permeates the upper ranks of the political and business establishment.”
The British intelligence service did not know if Russia had interfered In the 2016 EU referendum and had made no efforts to find out
3: If Putin wanted to sow division in Europe he surely must have interfered with the EU referendum which led to Brexit?
According to the Westminster’s Intelligence and Security Committee report there has been no UK government investigation into that possibility. The report stated that the British intelligence service did not know if Russia had interfered In the 2016 EU referendum and had made no efforts to find out.
4: Where is the evidence for Russian interference on the independence issue?
When Ben Wallace was asked during a briefing with Scottish journalists in London if there was any evidence of Russian interference on the issue he replied: “I think what we’ve seen is Russia and other nations take an interest to magnify division in nationalist debates around Europe, including Scotland.
“I can’t talk about the here and now [for security reasons] but I could say there is definitely an interest – and more than that.”