There’s something uncomfortably reassuring about China and Russia being portrayed as evil ‘super states’ run by dictators reminiscent of Bond villains. Such images correspond to a traditional narrative that’s far easier to understand in these relentlessly confusing times, when so many threats to global stability are either anonymous (terrorism) or literally faceless (Covid-19). We know where we are when the bad guys are clearly defined and they represent an entire nation rather than being those stateless invaders failing to recognise borders such as an invisible virus or Jihadist organisations with secret cells dotted across the world. This week, the narrative has been upheld with accusations of cyber interference on the part of the Kremlin in the British democratic process and by the UK Government belatedly deciding Huawei poses a threat to national security if allowed to take control of the country’s 5G network. Both Moscow and Beijing have refuted the accusations against them, but – to paraphrase dear old Mandy Rice-Davies one more time – they would, wouldn’t they.
The fresh allegations re Russia concern what appears to be the official ‘hacking branch’ of the Kremlin called APT29, which almost sounds like a cuddly Soviet equivalent of R2-D2; I can visualise ATP29 resembling C-3PO’s little sidekick, only painted red and bearing the hammer & sickle on his tin chest. If only. Anyway, this professional outfit of dedicated cyber spies and agent provocateurs are the same unit accused of interfering in the 2016 US Presidential Election; this time round, they’ve allegedly tried to eavesdrop on the research into finding a vaccine for the coronavirus, not only here but in the States and Canada as well. If they’d wanted to know, surely it would’ve been more polite simply to ask? After all, we’re all supposed to be in this together, aren’t we?
To have the Russians and the Chinese as the bad guys again means we know where we are, even if the crimes they’re being accused of today are firmly rooted in the 21st century. Russia’s tech mischief also extends beyond the Kremlin’s in-house boffins to other Russian-based hackers who do this sort of thing for a living. These unnamed infiltrators were this week outed as having ‘sexed-up’ secret Whitehall documents that fell into Labour hands and gave Jeremy Corbyn the opportunity to make his claims about plans to sell off the NHS to the US during last December’s General Election campaign. Of course, nothing appears as-if-by-magic in politics; timing is everything, and to have the Foreign Secretary publicly naming and shaming the Russian state in this way comes on the eve of the publication of the so-called ‘Russia Report’.
The Novichok incident of 2018 – when the sealing-off of Salisbury probably acted as a useful training exercise for where we are now – seems to have triggered a more thorough response to growing concerns about a malignant Russian presence in British political life. This eventually prompted the compiling of information to form the core of a report into the case against Russia by the Intelligence and Security Committee, a cross-party group of MPs independent of Government. And the Government has been sitting on this report for over six months now. Yet the sudden rush of Dominic Raab to speak of Russian hacking when no public accusations have previously been made due to an absence of evidence implies the findings of the committee may indeed confirm the rumours and suspicions that have been flying about for a long time. But why the delay?
Earlier in the week, the Government’s attempts to interfere in the process were pretty blatant when they tried to hand the chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee to…er…Chris Grayling. Yes, you can stop laughing at the back; we all know Grayling is unquestionably the most incompetent individual ever to stumble into running a Government department, with a track record of disaster unprecedented in Westminster history; but he’s a Friend of Boris. So, perfect man for the job of heading a supposedly impartial, non-partisan committee to scrutinise the findings of the intelligence and security services when a long-awaited report into the extent of Russian influence in UK politics is finally poised to see the light of day, a report that might have a few embarrassing things to say about the relationship between the Conservative Party and millionaire Oligarch donors. Additionally, Raab connecting Russia with Labour could be viewed by a cynic – heaven forbid – as a pre-emptive strike by the Government to deflect any findings that suggest the Russian connection is greater on the blue side of the House.
Some backstage manoeuvring by Labour and SNP members of the committee resulted in a ‘coup’, with the installation of Conservative MP Julian Lewis as chairman instead; and Lewis’ reward for blocking the Government’s choice was the removal of the party whip. In other words, if you’re not gonna play ball then I’m taking my ball back. Whether or not the extent of Russian interference is dramatically exposed, simply hinted at or disappointingly redacted when the report surfaces remains to be seen; but the Government’s actions this week certainly suggest it might make for an interesting read.
I know everything pre-Covid feels like a hundred years ago now, but some of you may remember the sacking of Gavin Williamson as Defence Secretary in May last year. Williamson was pressurised into walking the plank by Theresa May after he was blamed for the leaking of information from the National Security Council regarding the dangers of allowing China’s Huawei to run Britain’s 5G mobile network. Although Williamson denied he was responsible for the leak, the matter shone the spotlight on the relationship between the Chinese Government and Huawei, not to mention the stupidity of handing over the running of the entire system to a company suspected of acting in the interests of Beijing and its habit of eavesdropping on those using its technology.
Tellingly, it has required far more hostile measures taken by the US against Huawei to force the UK Government to make its mind up. This week it was announced equipment produced by the Chinese company will no longer be available to UK mobile providers by the end of the year and all 5G kit will have to be removed from networks by 2027. At the time of Gavin Williamson’s dismissal, the National Cyber Security Centre denied any sign of Chinese state activity in Huawei software, whereas now he NCSC has altered its opinion and has ‘significantly changed’ its security assessment of Huawei. Not before time, one might conclude.
Just like the wicked Cold War villains of old, both Russia and China are in a position at the moment whereby they essentially believe they can do what the hell they like and there’ll be no comeback. Russia can dispatch a couple of cathedral tourists to liquidate one of their exiled countrymen to have fallen foul of Vlad; China can tear-up the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and suppress democracy in the same way they would on the mainland; and that’s not even mentioning the sinister Xinjiang re-education camps for Uyghur Muslims – sorry, I meant Radical Islamists – which are carrying on regardless of international condemnation. But, hell, if you want old-fashioned bad guys, I guess you have to take the rough with the smooth.
© The Editor
5 thoughts on “OUR FRIENDS IN THE EAST”
It’s always important to remember that we’re all, in whatever country we live, subject to some degree of state propaganda, it’s just different strokes for different folks. A developed audience takes its messages in a different way from a less developed one, but they’re all being messaged all day, every day, in many different ways.
It’s also important to acknowledge that, for every ‘outrage’ committed by our current nominated ‘threats’, there’s probably another parallel ‘outrage’, or more, committed against them by ourselves and our nominated ‘allies’, we just don’t get to know about those. That international game of cat & mouse dirty-work has gone on ever since countries were invented, only the methods are different now.
Similarly the internal workings of national governments, setting ‘placemen’ in optimum positions, gerrymandering elections etc., are as rife in apparently open and liberal countries as they are in the more closed and oppressed ones, it’s just that in the former they have to be smarter about it – trying to set up the inglorious Grayling in any position of power would seem not only spectacularly un-smart but also the triumph of hope over experience.
I might have offered George Brown from the Wilson government of 1964 as a competitor for Grayling’s crown but, in retrospect, Brown was well-pissed most of the time, whereas Grayling doesn’t have that excuse.
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As far as I know, Wilson was initially smart enough to create a ‘pretend’ department to dispatch Brown to in order to keep him out of the way and prevent him doing any damage – but then made him Foreign Secretary! Mind you, he apparently insulted the wife of an ambassador when pissed and that cost him his job soon enough. At least there are always a good few anecdotes where George Brown is concerned, I guess. Grayling is like a lump of dough somebody made into a human shape.
O/T. Looking for something to watch, I came across this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Endell_Esquire
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Yes, always been curious about that series. Interested to see how the character works outside of his Soho empire.
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