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The topical issue of the last few weeks has been the search for evidence of Russia's intervention in last year's referendum on the UK's withdrawal from the EU. During the banquet with Lord Mayor of London, British Prime Minister Theresa May said that Russia was undermining free societies, disseminating false information in an attempt to discredit the West and conducting a long-term espionage campaign in cyberspace. The British prime minister stressed that her entourage knows about this activity and the Russian leadership underestimates the viability of Western democracies. May added that her government would take the necessary measures to counteract Russia's activity. This statement was made in the context of the investigation by the UK election commission of possible Russian interference in the Brexit process through the Twitter and Facebook social networks on the eve of Foreign Minister Boris Johnson's visit to Moscow in December. Ben Bradshaw, a former member of the Labor Council of the Labor Party, who previously assumed a high likelihood of such a provocation by the Russian Federation, expressed bewilderment why Theresa May spoke of Russian intervention after so many months of silence. Until recently, apart from individual politicians, scientists and journalists, no one raised the issue of Russia's information influence on the campaign to promote the idea of Britain's withdrawal from the European Union.
Operation Brexit is in interests of Russia
The exit of Great Britain from the EU is in the interests of Russia. Since the beginning of Russian aggression in Ukraine, London has become one of the most active supporters of anti-Russian EU sanctions. The United Kingdom is the closest military-political ally of the United States in Europe, which is committed to strengthening Euro-Atlantic security, strengthening cooperation between the EU and NATO. Russian-British relations before the annexation of Crimea were not easy due to the poisoning in 2006 of former FSB lieutenant-colonel Alexander Litvinenko by radioactive element of polonium-210. This man accused Russian special services of apartment bombings in Moscow in 1999 and received political asylum in Britain. Litvinenko collaborated with British intelligence MI6. Russian fighters repeatedly violated the airspace of Great Britain. The political asylum in Britain until his death was used by the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky - the opponent of President Vladimir Putin. The British government has always criticized the Russian authorities for violating human rights. London has become a kind of an obstacle to the rapprochement between Moscow and Brussels. For Russia, Brexit is a tool to remove from the EU an unwanted player in the face of the UK, which government will lobby for the extension of EU anti-Russian sanctions until Russian troops leave Donbas and Crimea returns to Ukraine.
Despite the absence of any clear evidence of Russian intervention in Brexit, the Kremlin could conduct an informational campaign in social networks and the media in order to convince as many Britons as possible that there are more pluses than minuses in leaving the EU. Researchers at the London City University, Marko Bastos and Dan Mercéa, found about 13,500 accounts in Twitter social network, which promoted the idea of Britain's withdrawal from the EU before the referendum on Brexit and disappeared within a few weeks after the voting was over. From June 10 to July 10, 2016 British scientists analyzed 10 million tweets on the referendum on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU for suspicious activity. According to TheTimes, the number of bots could reach 156.25 thousand. According to the calculations of the University of California at Berkeley (USA) and the University of Swansea (United Kingdom), two days before the referendum from the accounts registered in Russia, 45 thousand posts against membership were published. The user under the nickname "David Jones" has collected 100 thousand subscribers and for four years published tweets in support of Brexit and the "Independence Party of the United Kingdom" (UKIP), which advocates an exit from the EU and has the reputation of the "fifth column" of Russia in England . The WIRED Internet portal unveiled a coordinated network of Twitter accounts, based on published posts since 2016, which contained calls for Brexit, racism, anti-migration, and Islam. Twitter confirmed that these accounts were created in Russia. Over 268 thousand other users watched the news of these accounts and copied them to their pages. According to The Daily Mail, a group of Internet trolls functioned in St. Petersburg, and published posts in support of Brexit. In addition, the British Parliament requested management of Facebook and Google to provide information on the impact of Russia on the outcome of the vote in a referendum in favor of withdrawing from the EU. Facebook reported a case where a Russian company (the name was not made public) spent $ 100,000 in one month to create 470 fictitious accounts that are suspected of interfering in the US presidential election in 2016. The benefits of Britain's withdrawal from the EU were actively covered in Russian-language media resources Sputnik and Russia Today.
The Kremlin could use its agents of influence to promote the idea of Britain's withdrawal from the EU in the information space. Russia Today has turned into a platform for the broadcast of one of the main supporters of Brexit MEP Nigel Farage, former leader of the UKIP party. In March 2014, Farage distinguished himself with praises to Russian President Vladimir Putin and called him the world leader, and his party in the European Parliament voted against resolutions condemning Russia's aggressive actions. Since December 2010, videos on which the British politician spoke, 17 times appeared on the website of RussiaToday. In May 2017, Farage announced that he would start radical measures if the British government obstructs the UK's withdrawal from the EU. Former FBI director Robert Mueller, who now holds the post of special prosecutor and investigates Russia's interference in US presidential elections, was interested in the persona of Nigel Farage. The British politician contacted Julian Assange, who was involved in publication of stolen e-mails of members of the National Committee of the US Democratic Party on his website WikiLeaks. Nigel Farage is in contact with Donald Trump and supported his victory in the presidential election. If it turns out that Farage somehow influenced the outcome of the presidential elections in the US, it is possible that he could play the role of a guide of Russia during the campaign in support of Brexit.
Ben Bradshaw did not exclude the possibility of Russia's shadow financing of a campaign in support of Brexit. According to The Daily Mail, the former sponsor of the UKIP party, the owner of Better for the Country Limited, Arron Banks, could receive large sums of money from the Russian Federation, which were used to finance advertising in support of Britain's withdrawal from the EU. Now, the UK election commission is conducting an investigation on this issue and is looking for evidence. According to British electoral legislation, contributions from foreign legal entities and individuals are prohibited. The propaganda activities of Kremlin's agents could influence the outcome of the vote of Brexit in 2016 in favor of Britain's withdrawal from the EU.
Conservatives have fallen into the trap of Kremlin
In addition to brainwashing British Internet users, loyal to Vladimir Putin Eurosceptics were able to use the 2015 parliamentary elections in the UK in order change issue of Brexit from empty talk to the political program of the ruling Conservative Party. Initially, the leaders of the British Conservatives were not ardent supporters of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU. After coming to power in 2010, former British Prime Minister David Cameron did not build his program on the idea of Brexit. He was not much worried about inner-party discussions about the expediency of maintaining EU membership and he concentrated on solving his country's social and economic problems. The current Prime Minister Theresa May, as the Minister of the Interior, did not support the UK's withdrawal from the EU. She feared that Brexit would entail a loss of access to the common market and large investors. One of the most convinced supporters of Brexit among the conservatives was then the former Mayor of London and acting Foreign Minister Boris Johnson.
The British Conservatives changed their attitude to Brexit through the efforts of the UKIP party, which made the key provision of its 2015 electoral program a referendum on withdrawal from the EU. In October 2014 UKIP support in British society reached a record 25%. As of 2015, British Eurosceptics controlled 494 seats in the English local councils. Making PR on Brexit, the UKIP party could collect a big number of votes in the parliamentary elections and take a number of seats in the House of Commons. In this regard, David Cameron borrowed slogans of UKIP, promised voters to hold a referendum on the withdrawal of the UK from the EU and to resign if the majority vote "for" (which he eventually did). Conservatives crawled into the trap of Kremlin agents of influence and became hostages of their own promises after winning the parliamentary elections in 2015. 36.8% of voters (330 seats in parliament) voted for the Conservative Party, while UKIP gained just 12.6% having won 1 place in the parliament.
No wonder why conservatives and Prime Minister Theresa May have long waited with an investigation into Russia's intervention in Brexit. It’s because the topic of getting out of the EU became an instrument of their political PR and victory over Eurosceptics. In the case of evidence of Russian interference, the results of the referendum in 2016 could be questioned. This will have a negative impact on the reputation of conservatives, as well as British intelligence services, who could not cope with Russian Internet trolls and local agents of the Kremlin. When it became impossible to conceal from the public the suspicion of Russia's information interference, Theresa May was forced in a streamlined manner to criticize Russia's subversive actions in Europe at a banquet of the Lord Mayor of London, in order to at least protect the image of her party from suspicions of relations with Russia. Teresa May does not want to repeat the fate of US President Donald Trump, whom some media have labeled as the man of the Kremlin.
Labour party's finest hour
If Russian interference in the Brexit referendum is proved, it will be a "finest hour" for the Labour Party, which has been in opposition since 2010. Even before the investigation of British election commission began, the Labour Party most actively demanded from the authorities to pay attention to the possibility of Russia's interference in the internal affairs of Great Britain. Unlike the conservatives, this party members support the preservation of the UK membership in the EU and a closer partnership with the bloc. Former Prime Minister, Tony Blair at one time raised the issue of transition to euro currency, but this idea was not supported in British society. Now the Labour party can not only count on the support of British Euro-optimists, but also position itself as a political force that has come to defend Britain's sovereignty from Russian influence. They will make PR on the topic of investigating Russia's intervention in Brexit. Following the results of the recent early parliamentary elections in June 2017, the Labour Party increased the number of seats in the House of Commons from 232 to 262, while the Conservatives lost 13 seats.
However, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has ambigious position in relation to Russian aggression in Ukraine. He is convinced that Russia has invaded Ukraine in response to NATO enlargement. Corbyn believes that the US provoked Russia's aggression in Ukraine, despite the fact that at the time of Crimean annexation the question of Ukraine's accession to NATO was not raised. Jeremy Corbyn supports the UK withdrawal from NATO and the refusal of the Trident nuclear missiles. He is profitable for Russia, because if he were in the prime minister's post, he could bring trouble to NATO.
The possible participation of Russia in Brexit's propaganda is another lesson for the European Union. European countries should limit or prohibit the broadcasting of Russian media in their information space, conduct constant monitoring of social networks for suspicious accounts that add subscribers, publicize loyal to Russia political forces and present information through the prism of the Kremlin's interests. The United Kingdom and the United States are not the only examples of attempts of Russian media and Internet trolls to influence political processes abroad. Russian sources supported the holding of a referendum against the Ukraine-EU association in Holland, the leader of the Eurosceptic party "National Front" Marin Le Pen on the eve of the presidential elections in France, the party "Alternative for Germany" in preparation for the parliamentary elections in Germany, which support the abolition of anti-Russian sanctions. Russia is trying to manipulate the opinion of Europeans and influence their electoral preferences in its own interests.