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19th Aug 2022

Western allies back UK amid Russian media blitz

  • Kremlin channels began anti-UK campaign on same day as Skripal attack (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Russia has derided UK accusations over the Salisbury incident using familiar tactics, but France, Germany, and the US have also blamed it for the nerve gas attack.

The Kremlin's propaganda tactics on the Sergei Skripal case were the same as those it used to discredit the MH17 disaster enquiry in the Netherlands in 2016 as well as UK accusations that it murdered another former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko.

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  • Events could see Ofcom kick RT out of Britain (Photo: Leo Hidalgo)

Kremlin channels, ranging from diplomats to state media, such as RT and Sputnik, dismissed the Skripal accusation without any comments on the substance of the British case and distorted the position of the British authorities.

Within minutes of British prime minister Theresa May having levelled the allegation in a speech to MPs on Monday (12 March), Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, spoke of a "a circus show in the British parliament" and fairy tales".

RT had already set the scene on 8 March, the day of the Skripal attack, by quoting Russian senators on Britain's imputed "anti-Russian hostility". A state TV star, Dmitry Kiselev, who is on the EU's sanctions list, spoke of Britain's "Russophobia" the night before May's speech.

Kremlin channels also tried to distract and dismay the British public with conspiracy theories and threats, according to Ben Nimmo, a British expert at the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, which studies Russian propaganda.

They said the UK might have attacked Skripal itself using a Russian nerve agent in a 'false flag' operation.

The Russian foreign ministry warned the UK not to play a "dangerous game" or to "risk … serious long-term consequences for our relations". "The British must realise that they will face a very stiff response from Russia," a Russian senator told RT.

Nimmo said, in a report out this week, that Russia used the same tactics in 2016 when Dutch investigators blamed it for shooting down MH17, a passenger flight, over Ukraine two years earlier, and when a British High Court judge blamed it, in a 328-page report, of having murdered Litvinenko in London 10 years earlier.

It used the same "cui bono?" argument in false flag theories on Skripal, MH17, and Litvinenko, Nimmo said.

Zakharova said the MH17 investigation was "a bad joke". Dmitriy Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, called the Litvinenko report "a joke … it can be attributed to fine British humour".

"This is the same pattern observed in other critical moments," Nimmo said on Russia's Skripal tactics.

"It appears highly unlikely that the Russian government will provide their British counterparts with the explanation May demanded … The response so far embodies a contrary narrative in which Russia is seen as the victim, the West is the aggressor, and the foundation of evidence is left unaddressed," he said.

Allies back UK

The disinformation campaign did not stop British allies from publicly backing its Russia allegations on Thursday.

"The United Kingdom briefed thoroughly its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the [Skripal] attack. We share the UK assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation," the leaders of France, Germany, the UK, and the US said in a joint statement.

The attack, using a "military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia" was the first such attack in Europe since the end of World War II and had "threatened" the lives of "many innocent British citizens", as well as a British policeman, who remained ill.

May expelled Russian diplomats and said she would consider further sanctions, such as asset freezes on Russians.

It remains unclear whether the UK will call for extra EU-level sanctions on Russia at a foreign ministers' meeting or at the EU summit next week.

But the US bared its teeth on Thursday by imposing new sanctions on 13 Russians and two of its spy agencies, the FSB and the GRU, for US election interference using social media and cyberattacks.

Meanwhile, the RT campaign on Skripal could end in the Russian broadcaster being kicked out of the UK.

MPs from the ruling Conservative and the opposition Labour Party have lined up to call for a regulatory crackdown on the outlet over its coverage.

"When it comes to Russia Today (RT), I think we have to ask some serious questions … If they're a mouthpiece for an authoritarian state that seeks to do us harm then it raises the question of whether we should kick them out," Tory MP Bob Seely said.

Some MPs were worried that Russia might react by banning the BBC.

RT on defensive

Alex Salmond, the former Scottish leader, who works for RT, defended its reputation. "I hold no brief for the Kremlin, nor am I required to have. No one has tried to influence the content of [my] show in any way, shape or form. By definition, RT has not been a propaganda station because it's regulated under a UK licence by Ofcom. Yes, it's had breaches of the Ofcom code, but so have Sky, ITV and the BBC", he said.

But Ofcom, the British media regulator, has indicated it might take a tough line.

"We have heard Theresa May's speech in parliament," it said in a letter notifying RT of a licence review on Tuesday.

"Should the UK investigating authorities determine that there was an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the UK, we would consider this relevant to our ongoing duty to be satisfied that RT is fit and proper", it said, two days before France, Germany, and the US backed the British prime minister's line.

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