Russia goes online to destabilise global rivals
Russia has been emboldened by the success of its interference in the US Presidential election of 2016. The methods they employed were primarily ‘cyber-activities’ as they influenced media content seen by American voters on social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
The Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian company, made hundreds of ‘troll’ accounts that posted fake news stories meant to undermine the Democratic party and bolster Trump’s standing (Masters: 2018).
Trump’s victory allowed his “America First” platform to come into full effect. This policy has seen the US estranging its NATO allies while engaging with autocratic leaders such as Kim Jong-Un and Putin himself. Without the US positioning itself as a moral global authority, Russia and Putin have benefitted massively (Luce: 2019).
It was in the same year – 2016 – that Russia interfered with the UK’s referendum on their membership in the EU. They collaborated with political consulting firm ‘Cambridge Analytica’ which used data mining, misappropriation of digital assets and data analysis to influence the election. Its main tool was “fake news” stories shared via Facebook (Cadwalladr, 2018).
Russia plans to continue its cyber-interference in UK politics and affect Brexit, which it is in favour of. In 2018, the UK Parliament website issued an Interim Report (IR) that highlighted evidence of Russia “destabilising democratic institutions” via cyber-activities. The report received a total of 1, 290 unique page views by 30th November 2019; the graph below shows the cities from which these page views originated.
Figure 1. Source of data: www.parliament.co.uk
The most obvious thing to note from this graph is Moscow’s interest in the Interim report; they lead London with close to a fifth of all page views. In fact, over half of all visitors to the page were from Russia.
This map below demonstrates the extent to which interest in the IR comes from Russia.
Figure 2. Source of data: Web and Publication Unit. House of Commons.
The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) conducted extensive research into Russian meddling in UK politics. The ISC’s report is based on analysis from Britain’s intelligence agencies, as well as third party experts such as MI6 officer Christopher Steele.
The report is believed to contain information proving that Kremlin members had successfully influenced the Conservative group “The Conservative Friends of Russia” as early as 2012. The report is also believed to detail how Russian contacts helped Matthew Elliott, former chief executive of pro-Brexit group Vote Leave, and Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief strategist, win the 2016 referendum.
The dossier was approved for release in late March of 2019. At the time of writing this, the report still has not been released publicly by the Conservative government who effectively blocked its release prior to the December 2019 election.
Russian donations to Pro-Brexit parties
Cyber-attacks are not the only method by which Russia has influenced the democratic functions of other nations in recent years. Since 2010, they have massively stepped up financial donations to the Conservative party, during a period when the pro-Brexit party UKIP was soaring in popularity.
Figure 3: data source – openDemocracy.net
By 2011, membership in the UKIP party had reached a five-year high of 17, 184 members. Some pollsters estimated they were supported by 15% of the electorate in 2012 (Goodwin, 2015).
Pressure from the UKIP party, along with hard-line Tory Euro-sceptics, led to David Cameron’s 2013 pledge to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU.
This was great news to Russian factions who responded by financing British pro-Leave political parties and campaigns. The total income for the three main UK political parties in Q4 of 2018 can be seen in the chart below.
Figure 4: source – electoralcommision.org.uk
The 2019 ISC report all but confirmed that substantial donations were made by Russian sources, using third-party organisations to transfer the money (Cusick, 2019).
Boris Johnson refused to publish the ISC report, a move which Labour labelled as “politically motivated”. The report allegedly names nine major Conservative donors as Russian millionaires ‘allied’ to Putin. The Tories redacted the names of some of these donors from the report, in a move the ISC Chair, Dominic Grieve, called “jaw-dropping” (Cusick 2019).
The Conservatives have received more than £3.5 million from Russian funders since 2010. While donations slowed down after the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in March 2018, they have picked up again in recent months, according to the Electoral Commission (Thevoz and Geoghegan: 2019).
Alexander Temerko, who formerly worked at the Kremlin defence ministry, donated over £1.2 million to the party. Mrs Chernukhin, wife of Putin ally Vladmir Chernukhin gave the party £450,000 across the course of a year.
New Century Media is an international corporation founded by Ulster Unionist MP David Burnside to promote a “positive image of Russia abroad” (Thevoz, Geoghegan: 2019). They have donated over £177,000 to the Conservative party across the last decade.
Lev Mikheev, described as a “billionaire financier with offices in London and next door to the Kremlin in the Russian capital” has donated £212,000 to the Tories since 2010. The graph below demonstrates how much these Russian millionaires have donated in the last decade.
Figure 5: Source: opendemocracy.net (graph already made)
It is noteworthy that the largest donation was given by Lubov Cherkhin, in the lead up to the December 12th general election.
Between November 2018 and October 2019, the Tories received at least £489,850 from Russian donors, compared to less than £350,000 in the previous year. Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said Johnson was covering up a “Kremlin penetration of our democracy… because of the substantial and growing links between Russian money and the Tory Party”. (Coburg, 2019).
Arron Banks, a British millionaire, was reported to the NCA by the Electoral Commission for his contact with Russian diplomats and suspected spies in the lead up to the 2016 referendum. The Electoral Commission wanted to scrutinise his £8.4 million donation to the Leave campaign.
Banks’ donation is the largest in UK political history and its origin is “obscured through a network of insurance firms and gold mines… hidden by layers of offshore companies” (Rudolph, 2019). It is practically impossible to know where the money truly came from. Banks has dodged questions about which of his companies generated the income and investigative journalists have not been able to verify the source of his wealth.
Banks met with Cambridge Analytica multiple times to discuss how the pro-Leave campaign would target British voters. This allegedly included securing donations from overseas sources in the US, which is not legally permitted by UK law.
It is not just the Conservative party and Leave campaign who have been lavished with money from murky sources. In 2015, the Conservatives and the DUP drafted an agreement to rule together in case of a Conservative minority government. In 2016, the DUP received the largest single political donation in its history – £425,000.
Figure 6: source – electoralcommision.org.uk
This amount was far above the norm for a single donation to the DUP. An opposition Alliance party politician immediately “challenged the DUP as to why they do not publish their donations”.
After immense political pressure, the DUP stated the donation had come from a group called the “Constitutional Research Council” (CRC). One member of the CRC was named as a Scottish Conservative called Richard Cook, but the other three members remained conspicously anonymous.
Critics called this behaviour suspicious, suggesting CRC had contacts with Russians beneficiaries. The Northern Irish system (which allows donors to remain anonymous) meant that “the routing of the money via the DUP effectively maintained the anonymity of the donor” – so we will never truly know (Johnston: 2017).
Boris Johnson’s blocking of the intelligence report into Russian interference and this well-timed historic donation to the DUP seem to suggest that something untoward is afoot in UK politics. Putin’s Russia has repeatedly shown it has no respect for international laws or the sovereignty of other nation’s democracies.
We need to safeguard our elections from foreign interference at all costs. The statistics (and money trail) show that the Conservative party may be indebted to the Kremlin. It is the job of investigative journalists to expose any politician or party compromised by foreign powers and let the public know how political parties are funded.
Following my investigation into their financing, I am very concerned with the Conservative landslide victory in the December 2019 election.
The ICR report remains out of the public domain, despite outspoken criticism from intelligence officials and opposition parties. The fact that our government is at loggerheads with their own security branches is a terrible sign for our democracy: an obvious parallel with what is happening in the US.
My data portfolio only looks at four of the Russian-born donors, but reports indicate there are a total of nine named in the ISC report. This was a major limitation of my data investigation as I could not find the data for their contributions.
I utilised data scraping to obtain datasets from openDemocracy and The Electoral Commission. This allowed me to visualise this data-driven story with a variety of graphs. Figure 5 perfectly demonstrates how Russian donors have been subtly funding the Conservative party for the last decade, in a visual format.
Upon reflection, I think there needs to be great public discussion about political financing and tougher penalties must be inflicted on UK politicians for breaking the rules or attempting to deceive the public.
In any case, it is a sign of the times when Russia is targeting Western powers with dark money and troll accounts, rather than nuclear weapons, in a new type of Cold War.
Cadwalladr, C. Graham-Harrison, E. (2018) “The Cambridge Analytica files”. The Guardian online – accessed 7th December 2019.
Cusick, J (2019). “Number 10 abused its power by demanding cover-up of donors and friends of Boris in report on Russian influence”. openDemocracy.net – accessed 2nd January 2020.
Coburg, T. (2019) “More evidence of oligarchs funding Tories follows claim of a Brexit-inspired ‘coup’”. thecanary.co.uk – accessed 2nd January 2020.
Luce, E (2019). “Russia reaps windfalls of Trump’s chaos”. Financial Times – accessed 7th December 2019.
Geoghegan, P. Thevoz, S. (2019). “Russian donors have given 3.5 million to the Conservative party”. TheFerret.scot – accessed 2nd January 2020.
Goodwin, MJ (2015). “Ukip, the 2015 General Election and Britain’s Referendum”. Sage Journals – accessed 2nd January 2020.
Johnston, I. (2017) “The strange tale of the DUP, Brexit, a mysterious £425,000 donation and a Saudi prince”. The Independent online – accessed 2nd January 2020.
Masters, J (2018). “Russia, Trump and the 2016 election”. Council on Foreign Relations – Backgrounder.
Rudolph, J (2019). “Use Brexit delay to investigate Russian money”. The Atlantic Council.