On 14 January, the Swedish government said it would defend their 2018 election at any cost and announced they were launching a new public agency specifically created to stop Russia and its partners in their tracks.
Sweden has been the front line in Russia’s disinformation war for some time and became the reason I was able to set out the shocking links between Russia and the far-right – from Brexit, to Trump, and beyond – last year.
The truth is fast unravelling across Europe, with bombshell news Russia is backing paramilitary Serb separatists in Bosnia, having successfully engineered the Catalonia crisis last year. But still the agencies are behind, in particular in the UK.
In the annual assessment for the last twelve months Ireland barely got a look in, beyond a recap of old troubles and a mention of limited legacy monitoring. But Ireland, aside from Scotland, is one of the biggest risk fields the UK and Europe now face and it does not appear the issue is being managed, let alone duly considered.
Yet Ireland is the perfect target, and the signs of a live operation are already present.
A few months ago, I was passed information on an explosion of new social media accounts claiming to be based across Ireland. They featured a number of standard identifiers, including usernames which are identifiable with bulk activations of accounts at the beginning of a planned campaign.
My sources believed at the time the logical reason was the planned abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland, due in 2018. And yes, this is partially logical, but I didn’t interpret the purposes in the same way.
At the time, several worrying notions had been started to become visible on radar, incuding Irexit (a proposed Irish exit from the EU) and first signs of a growing idea for a unity referendum – arising from the Brexit issue and the implications of a hard border.
This crystallised when I revisited the bulk-created accounts and found a number of formerly generic “Cat Headers” had been edited and started using the photograph of a green pin badge with “Yes Unity” or simply “Yes” printed on it in white.
Catalonia was in full play by this point, and Sinn Fein had become involved with the independence side – a group we know was supported by Russian-led operations whether they liked it or not.
Both Sinn Fein and Catalan Independence figures attended the 2016 separatists conference in Moscow.
Whereas, however, Catalonia and Spain face a simple yes or no issue similar to Scotland’s, Ireland makes an enhanced and ideal target.
The Republic and the North are already divided, due to the British. There are also religious and political divisions on both sides of the border. In the middle of all of this are the issues of Brexit and EU membership, affecting economy.
In short, where you could hit a simple independence issue with a hammer and split a population down two sides of a debate, in Ireland you could easily create a million splintered arguments. Shattering an uneasy peace in the process.
This in turn would place pressure on the flimsy coalition government of the UK, propped only by the North’s DUP, while simultaneously creating havoc for the EU as they try to co-ordinate efforts to combat Russian destablisation.
So far, a growth in the online Yes Unity movement is being closely monitored, not least because the accounts are, in some cases, simultaneously working on Russian-linked Trump propaganda.
While it is highly likely these accounts will also be used to drive disinformation and social engineering campaigns around the forthcoming abortion referendum, it is neccessary to expand the view on their purpose.
A further sign of things being about to take a step forward comes in the
shape of Nigel Farage, a kremlin-tied overt supporter of Russian
destablisation across the West. He is making moves on the Irexit
movement, having previously been a proponent of Brexit, Trump, and the
far-right AfD in Germany, among others.
Farage has also now commenced calls for a second Brexit referendum, supported again by his Russian-linked compatriots of the Leave.EU cartel.
These campaigns are not primarily to bring about one result or another. They are to create uncontrollable division within electorates, polarise public opinion, destroy trust in institutions and mainstream media, render political and diplomatic responses useless, and create chaos for the sake of chaos.
The reason for this is to strip control and capability of defense. To distract and demoralise, while whatever true purpose is executed behind the scenes.
In the case of Ireland, there is a ready made tinderbox. One which could easily reduce the capabilities of military and intelligence resources on and off the island to defend anyone at all from true acts of aggression.
2018 will be a year of agressive expansion for Russian operations and Ireland would do well to take pre-emptive measures, especially as the EU 27 have a greater understanding of the threat than the increasingly despotic UK.