Report

How Russia Is Prodding Scotland Toward Independence

To justify its breakup of Ukraine, the Kremlin seeks to embarrass the U.K. and other major NATO allies. But the Scottish National Party wants nothing to do with Putin.

Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon acknowledges applause following a speech at the party's annual conference in Perth, Scotland, on Nov. 15, 2014.
Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon acknowledges applause following a speech at the party's annual conference in Perth, Scotland, on Nov. 15, 2014. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

A little over two years ago, Alex Salmond, the former first minister of Scotland, announced he was being hired to host a show on RT, the Kremlin-funded network once known as Russia Today.

The response from his colleagues in the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) was unmistakable: “What the fuck is he thinking?” Alyn Smith, then a member of the European Parliament and now foreign affairs spokesman for the SNP, told the Herald newspaper. The F-word, Smith added, was for quoting. This was not just cursing; it was cursing for the record.

Smith’s barb aimed to puncture any potential opposition narrative that the SNP somehow approved of Salmond’s actions or, worse, of Vladimir Putin’s government.

But it also set the tone for what has become a small but intriguing front in Europe’s information wars: mainstream Scottish nationalists versus the Kremlin and its propaganda machine, which has taken a keen interest in the future prospects for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom.

Russia has made overtures to the SNP and independence movements elsewhere, including Catalonia in Spain, as it seeks to equate them with the breakaway statelets of eastern Ukraine. In Moscow, a Kremlin-friendly group convened what were dubbed separatist summits—including inviting representatives of the statelets in Donetsk and Luhansk. (No Scot attended.) And Putinist politicians sought to compare the 2014 referendum designed to legitimize Russia’s military annexation of Crimea to Scotland’s vote of the same year, when 55 percent of Scottish voters came out in favor of remaining in the U.K.

RT’s signing of Salmond came after its sister outlet Sputnik opened its U.K. headquarters in Edinburgh, not London. Some staffers and many contributors at both outlets have been vocal supporters of Scottish independence—but not the SNP. Quite the opposite. One Sputnik editor recently called Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor as SNP leader and first minister, a “traitor knave.” The insult comes from Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. It refers to those too cowardly to defend their country from medieval English invasion.

Scottish analysts are not sure what this skirmish says about any long-term Russian objectives for this strategic corner of the North Atlantic. But they are increasingly certain about what it signals about where members of the SNP see an independent Scotland go—and that is nowhere near Putin’s Russia. The SNP, after all, has a story to tell of an independent state that is internationalist, committed to both Atlantic defense and the European project.

As the U.K. leaves the European Union, the SNP pitch is getting easier to make, easier to contrast with what Scottish nationalists portray as a Brexit retreat to “Little England” isolationism. Domestically, their message has helped nudge support for independence to 50 percent—and just beyond, at least according to the most recent opinion polls.

But for some opponents of independence, Kremlin media interest in Scotland conjures up another view of the SNP: that it fractures a key Western ally, the U.K.; that it weakens the Western alliance; and that the party wants the kind of thing Putin would like.

Most agree that The Alex Salmond Show, despite its usually innocuous diet of domestic and international magazine features, is a weekly dose of bad publicity for the SNP. RT is still running the program, even as its eponymous host prepares to face in court a series of sexual assault charges he denies.

It is, however, also a spur for the party to define itself against the Kremlin, against what it regards as toxic propaganda, while making clear its beef is with Russia’s government, not its people. “Would I go so far to say The Alex Salmond Show was a blessing in disguise?” said Stewart McDonald, an SNP member of the U.K. Parliament. “No.”

But McDonald, who speaks for his party on defense, conceded that attempts from Russian state media to woo Scottish independence supporters has focused minds. “At first I was nervous that the RT show would hurt us,” he said. “But I now think its effect can be overstated.”

RT’s Salmond coup sparked a damage limitation exercise by the SNP. McDonald, for example, was photographed with the Ukrainian ambassador to London as soon as Salmond’s RT move was announced. Scotland’s quasi-diplomats, ministers in Edinburgh, and SNP politicians in London and Brussels were quickly mobilized to set out their message on defense and foreign affairs.

“Much of it chimes with what every other European and NATO nation thinks,” McDonald said. “Not on everything, but certainly when it comes to Russia, which we know would be no friend of the Scottish independence movement. We want an independent Scotland to be in the EU and NATO and all the other bodies you would expect a country like Scotland to be in.”

“And those are bodies Russia does not like. We would be another, albeit small, independent country championing human rights, rules, laws, and aligning with other small states who agree with us, some of which have fallen victim to Russia.” And RT? “We have also tried to make it as toxic as possible,” he added. “Bar a handful, nobody in the SNP goes near it.

“What kind of ally could you sell yourself as if you elect to make your case for independence on a platform which has been used to stifle independence elsewhere?”

There are two reasons why the SNP would be hostile to Putinism. The first is an instinctive solidarity with small nations or nationalities bullied by bigger ones. The second is more practical. Support for independence is rising as European voices, once hostile to the SNP project, make welcoming noises.

This month, former EU Council President Donald Tusk told the BBC that he felt “very Scottish,” suggesting a trouble-free reentry into the bloc if Scotland becomes independent. This contrasts with remarks made before the 2014 plebiscite by the then-president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, who said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for Scotland to get back in the EU.

The SNP needs to promote this new mood on the continent, and looking cozy with Putin is a surefire way to spoil the vibe. However, the party’s anti-Putin stance has also provoked pushback. After McDonald criticized Russian actions in eastern Ukraine, Sputnik mocked the SNP politician, quoting the Moscow-based editor of RT as suggesting McDonald was “haunted” by the ghost of the Loch Ness Monster. The SNP has also accused Kremlin internet trolls of attacking Sturgeon after she supported her U.K. counterparts over the attempted murder of double agent Sergei Skripal in 2018.

Is there a grand Kremlin campaign against Scotland or the SNP, with social media actions backing talking points on news outlets? Joanna Szostek, who teaches political communication at the University of Glasgow, is not so sure. “Their media in the U.K. has had a Scottish flavor,” she said. “But I have not seen convincing evidence that there is Russian state-sponsored social media activity happening in Scotland on a big scale.”

For Szostek, Kremlin messaging for or about Scotland—and elsewhere—tends to amount to whataboutism, to tit-for-tat retaliations for criticism of Putin. “It would be a mistake to think Russia is strategically clever in what it does in international media,” she said. “It’s not all joined up, and they don’t always get what they want from it.”

True, Russia can be highly hostile to so-called separatists abroad amid concerns of a domino effect of independence movements across the European continent. But the prospect of Scotland breaking off from Britain also offers plenty of “what about?” opportunities, usually about Ukraine. Ukrainian and Western protests over the Crimean plebiscite were followed by news stories—in an agency that was later folded into Sputnik—suggesting irregularities in the Scottish referendum. These claims took off on social media.

There are those who wonder if, in the end, Putin’s meddling will be healthy for Scotland. David Clark, an international affairs analyst who was an advisor to former U.K. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, thinks Putin has galvanized thinking in the SNP—which shifted to formally supporting NATO membership in 2012—on what kind of independent country Scotland should be.

“Putin, by bullying the countries around him, has brought home to the Scottish nationalists exactly what the interests of a small independent state would be: collective defense, international law, access to markets on rules-based terms,” Clark said.

Even in 2014, Clark suggested, Putin might have seen Scottish independence as an opportunity, a chance to chip away at NATO and the EU. Brexit changes that calculation. Scottish independence, he said, no longer weakens the West; it strengthens it. “Now it is not clear Scottish independence would be good for them at all,” Clark said. “The SNP regards Putin and Russian imperialism as a threat.”

He added: “Scotland would be leaving the U.K. to contribute to European integration and to become a member state of NATO. It is quite clear to me—given the statements they have made—that the Russians regard the current SNP leadership as a threat.”

So is the Kremlin amplifying internal critics of the SNP to stave off that threat? “I don’t know,” McDonald said. “I think Russia’s level of sophistication can be overstated.”

His main takeaway: Scotland’s debate—with what he calls a “bin fire” on social media—is vulnerable to malign actors, whoever they may be.

“We have what is needed for a disinformation battlefield, which is any kind of hot issue that can polarize opinions,” McDonald said. “Well, let’s be honest, we have that in bucketloads.

“The more interesting question is who is the battle between? Is Russia an actor in that? Yes. Do I think it is at the fringes? Kind of, yes.”

David Leask is a freelance journalist who has covered the international impact of Scotland's independence movement.

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