Dispatch June 13, 2018

“Low-Level” Collusion Is Still Collusion

It’s been a busy week for American foreign policy, but Russian interference isn’t just an American problem. The Kremlin has been hard at work undermining democracy and international stability throughout the West; there may be no better example than recent discoveries about their involvement with the Brexit campaign.

If you haven’t seen, news out of the UK has shown that Russian diplomats cultivated partnerships with Arron Banks, one of the chief promoters of Leave.EU, well before the UK voted to leave the European Union, as well as his aide Andy Wigmore.

  • Banks spent £12 million bankrolling Brexit on his way to becoming the biggest political donor in U.K. history, with much of his support going to U.K. Independence Party chairman (and Trump campaign surrogate) Nigel Farage.
  • Though Banks initially denied any Russian involvement, emails obtained by the Guardian and the Times suggest extensive contacts with Russian diplomats before and during the Brexit campaign, including meetings with Russian officials, multibillion dollar business opportunities, a trip to Moscow, and continued post-Brexit contact through the US elections.

On Tuesday, on Nigel Farage’s radio show, Banks changed his tune, acknowledging that there may have been collusion between Russia and the Brexit or Trump campaigns “at a low level.”

  • Now, Banks is backing out of answering questions about Brexit, walking out of testimony before the British Parliament yesterday morning and withdrawing from a scheduled appearance next week while claiming the government is “conducting a coordinated witch hunt.”

This fits a larger pattern of Russian interest in Brexit.

  • Last year, researchers found that the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency ran hundreds of troll accounts during and after the campaign.
  • Facebook has since launched an inquiry into “whether Russian agents used the platform to spread fake news in hope of influencing the Brexit vote.”
  • Farage visited the Ecuadorian embassy in London in March 2017 to meet with Julian Assange. He allegedly passed information to Assange through a USB drive, but this has not been confirmed. (Farage has dismissed speculation that he was an intermediary between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks as “conspiratorial nonsense.”)

Leave.EU worked with Russia-linked Cambridge Analytica—just like the Trump campaign.

  • Leave.EU’s work with Cambridge Analytica sparked an investigation into potential breaches of political spending laws by the U.K. election watchdog agency.
    • The investigation ultimately “found no evidence that Leave.EU received donations or paid-for services from Cambridge Analytica for its referendum campaigning and found that the relationship did not develop beyond initial scoping work.”
    • But Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive Alexander Nix has claimed that the company had “helped supercharge Leave.EU’s social media campaign.”
  • Although the founder of parent company SCL Group claimed there was no contract between his company and Leave.EU, Wigmore says the campaign group “copied Cambridge Analytica’s methods.”
  • Cambridge Analytica is linked to Russia—a fact they have denied—in a few ways:
    • The firm met at least three times in 2014 and 2015 with Kremlin-connected executives from the Russian oil giant Lukoil, who “showed interest” in using data to target messaging to American voters.
    • In June 2014, Cambridge Analytica enlisted Russian-American academic Aleksandr Kogan to mine private Facebook user data. Kogan received grants from the Russian government to research “stress, health and psychological wellbeing in social networks” and hid the fact that he was a professor at St. Petersburg State University.
    • An executive with Cambridge Analytica reportedly visited the Ecuadorian embassy to meet with Assange in February 2017 (a month before Farage’s visit), discussing the 2016 elections and paying him in cryptocurrency.

The Kremlin’s meddling in the Brexit referendum has all the same hallmarks as their 2016 US election interference.

  • Backing results that would destabilize Western alliances
  • Cultivating key players by offering lucrative business deals (Banks in the UK, Trump and his associates in the US), a strategy the Kremlin has successfully deployed in Eastern and Central Europe
  • Using troll farms to spread fake news and boost divisive posts
  • The presence of Cambridge Analytica

Investigations on both sides of the Atlantic continue to show how the Russian government has worked to undermine and destabilize the increasingly fragile relationships among Western countries. With the 2018 midterms less than five months away, it’s past time for America to recognize the threat and work to secure the elections from further meddling.