Two years on the from the surprise victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election and Britain’s shock referendum vote to leave the EU, the involvement of the Russian government in both is beyond dispute.
We still don’t know precisely whether, how or why campaigners for Trump and Brexit might have colluded with Kremlin’s unprecedented attack on our democratic process. Until there is more evidence (and that could arrive imminently from the opening of sealed indictments) it’s still in the realm of conjecture, easily dismissed as ‘conspiracy theory’.
But the plan of attack, the five-year-long campaign of information warfare by Putin’s agencies and proxies, is beyond speculation. The various complaints and indictments against the Internet Research Agency, Russian Military Intelligence, Maria Butina and Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova < can only be described as ‘conspiracy fact’.
To help understand the broad outlines of this conspiracy – at least from the Russian point of view – two broad phases are obvious. PART ONE covers the development of effective weapons in the ‘fifth battlespace’ – information/virtual war. PART TWO coming soon will follow the financing and deployment.
November 2013: Building the Platform for Virtual War
Putin’s worsening relations with both the US and the EU date back to tension over Georgia and the Orange revolution in Ukraine the previous decade. They became dire during his Presidential re-election in 2012, widely criticised for human rights violations, especially by the then US secretary of state Hilary Clinton.
But by November 2013 Putin reached a turning point…
In November 2013, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovitch reneged on his former policy of closer integration with the European Union and decided to join Putin’s ‘Eurasian Union’ equivalent instead. Protests began in Kiev that month and culminated in the Maidan revolution the following year, during which over 100 protestors were killed. Yanukovich fled Ukraine and his regime was toppled, but Putin invaded the Eastern Donbas region of the country and – to global disapproval and the imposition of sanctions on his key oligarchs and banks – annexed the Crimean peninsula.
PETERSBURG AND MOSCOW
In November 2013, Putin commissioned Concord Management, a private contractor and mercenary organisation run by his close ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, to set up the Internet Research Agency in the Olgino suburb of St Petersburg.
By early 2014 the Russian Troll factory would be hiring dozens of English speaking staff to create hundreds of thousands of social media accounts with a monthly budget of over $1.25m. Operatives would be sent to the US to set up false bank accounts and identities and the company would spend over $35m in the run to the Brexit and Trump votes, creating highly divisive but convincing covert propaganda which was seen by over 160 million people on Facebook alone in the US. (Facebook refuses to disclose the UK figures).
Rykov claimed that Trump himself was involved in the commissioning for this digital project ” a special scientific department of the “Cambridge University”.
Around the time the Internet Research Agency was being established, on the weekend of the 8-9th of November 2013, Donald Trump attended the Moscow version of his Miss Universe pageant, sponsored by another oligarch close to Putin, Aras Agalarov.
There they talked about building a Trump Tower in Moscow, and though he didn’t get to meet him face to face – the President was delayed by state functions – Trump claims to have talked to Putin and received gifts and messages from him.