The Guardian view on Theresa May and Rus­sia: keep pour­ing the sun­shine

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion / The Guardian View - Ed­i­to­rial

Bri­tain’s prime min­is­ter makes a sharp and crit­i­cal speech about Rus­sian at­tempts to un­der­mine the UK’s in­sti­tu­tions. In one sense, not much new there. This is what Bri­tish prime min­is­ters do, and have done for decades, be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the cold war. This is the UK’s de­fault set­ting. So when Theresa May made the prime min­is­ter’s an­nual speech to the lord mayor’s ban­quet this week, a speech tra­di­tion­ally about UK for­eign pol­icy, it is not en­tirely sur­pris­ing that she used it to mount an at­tack on Vladimir Putin and his pro­pa­ganda war against the west. The real sur­prise might have been if she had done other­wise.

Mrs May pulled no punches. She said the al­liances that main­tain the global rules-based or­der must be de­fended. (It was less clear from her speech in what way, if at all, Brexit con­trib­utes to this wor­thy ef­fort.) But the chief threat to the rules­based or­der was Rus­sia. Mr Putin’s ac­tions threaten that or­der, she said, in Crimea, in the Don­bass, and through cy­ber-es­pi­onage and dis­rup­tion. Rus­sia has vi­o­lated the na­tional airspace of sev­eral coun­tries, med­dled in elec­tions, hacked the Dan­ish de­fence min­istry and the Ger­man Bun­destag. In the most strik­ing lines of the speech, Mrs May said: “I have a very sim­ple mes­sage for Rus­sia. We know what you are do­ing.”

Why now? The great is­sue of the mo­ment for Bri­tain is Brexit. Mrs May could have given a speech about Brexit and still ful­filled the brief of speak­ing about for­eign af­fairs. She could even have talked about the fu­ture of the transat­lantic al­liance af­ter 12 months of Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency. Re­mem­ber also that Mrs May is not by his­tory and tem­per­a­ment some­one who likes to pick a fight with Rus­sia. When she was home sec­re­tary she tried to block an in­quiry into the killing of Alexan­der Litvi­nenko. When she lost that fight she did lit­tle to fol­low up its con­clu­sion that the Rus­sian state, headed by Mr Putin, was re­spon­si­ble for his mur­der.

There are many things to note about the tim­ing. It al­lowed Mrs May to re­state what she used to de­scribe as her strong and sta­ble lead­er­ship. It dis­tracted to some de­gree from the an­nounce­ment, on the same day, that the gov­ern­ment was mak­ing a con­ces­sion (al­beit a ques­tion­able one) on the EU with­drawal bill that MPs be­gan de­bat­ing in de­tail on Tues­day. It sets a po­ten­tial di­vid­ing line with Jeremy Cor­byn who, if prime min­is­ter, might be less will­ing to mount a po­lit­i­cal at­tack on Rus­sia, and might come un­der pres­sure from pro-Rus­sian sup­port­ers not to do so. It is a re­minder of how Syria has largely dis­ap­peared from the charge sheet against Moscow. It also set some firm con­straints for Boris John­son’s ex­pected visit to Rus­sia in the com­ing weeks, a trip that has the po­ten­tial to be­come a cir­cus.

The speech also marks a sig­nif­i­cant con­trast with Mr Trump’s ab­surd re­marks af­ter a meet­ing with the Rus­sian leader in Viet­nam at the week­end. Mr Trump said Mr Putin had as­sured him that Rus­sia did not med­dle in the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, adding that he be­lieved the as­sur­ances and that Mr Putin felt very in­sulted by the charges. Mrs May, by re­fresh­ing con­trast, sim­ply said that this is what Rus­sia does. It is a re­minder that, in the real as op­posed to the Trump world, it is now just two months be­fore the US is re­quired by its own laws to in­tro­duce tougher sanc­tions against those who co­op­er­ate with the oli­garchs and com­pa­nies sur­round­ing Mr Putin. Those sanc­tions may af­fect in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies with busi­ness in Bri­tain.

In the end, though, these are all sec­ondary is­sues. The im­por­tant jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for Mrs May’s speech is sim­ply that it has be­come in­creas­ingly likely that the charges are not para­noid but true, and she is likely to have been briefed to that ef­fect. The ev­i­dence has grown of Rus­sia’s sus­tained ef­forts to use so­cial me­dia to sway opin­ion and spread dis­in­for­ma­tion, and to chan­nel funds to

groups and cam­paigns that co­op­er­ated with those aims in elec­tions in France and Ger­many as well as the US. Rus­sia is not alone among the world’s au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes in us­ing these tac­tics do­mes­ti­cally, as a new Free­dom House re­port points out, but it is a global leader in do­ing so in­ter­na­tion­ally. Mrs May’s claims that Rus­sia seeks to “weaponise in­for­ma­tion” and plant “fake sto­ries” makes her the lat­est west­ern leader to high­light the is­sue, not the first. It is in­con­ceiv­able that Bri­tain was not a tar­get. In­ves­ti­ga­tions rang­ing from the Mueller probe in the US to the mod­est be­gin­nings of an in­quiry into the EU ref­er­en­dum cam­paign in the UK are the first stages in a process of pour­ing sun­shine into a dark world.

Theresa May ad­dress­ing the an­nual lord mayor’s ban­quet this week. ‘In the most strik­ing lines of the speech, Mrs May said: “I have a very sim­ple mes­sage for Rus­sia. We know what you are do­ing.”’ Pho­to­graph: Vic­to­ria Jones/PA

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