Russia’s Media Machine and the Scottish Referendum

Pro-independence Scots may have noticed a strange bedfellow cheering on their failed drive for independence from the United Kingdom—Russia. While official Kremlin policy on Scotland remained mute, pro-Kremlin Russian politicians were outspoken in their support for Scottish independence, while Russian media reserved a disproportionate amount of coverage to last week’s referendum. Scottish-inspired Russian memes (one included images of pro-Russian leaders in Scottish garb) found creative ways to support Scottish independence, and Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk staged a pro-Scotland public gathering.

In the wake of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and support for separatism in Ukraine, Scotland’s referendum proved a great opportunity for the Russian government. By both implicitly and explicitly drawing parallels between Scotland’s referendum to those in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the Russian political elite attempted to legitimize its aggressive actions. If Scotland can vote for its independence, why not Crimea, Donetsk, or Luhansk?

In doing so, the Russian media and political elites had to play down the obvious differences between the referendums. Never mind that the Scottish referendum was conducted legally and transparently, while the referendum in Crimea was anything but. Russian media did all it could to support Scottish independence while crying foul at any perceived accusations of misconduct by the British government. RT English, an English language Russian news agency, ran a segment on British media bias towards the referendum, with one interviewee drawing parallels between the BBC and Goebbels’ propaganda machine in Nazi Germany. “The BBC does things with propaganda now that Dr. Goebbels would marvel at,” said MEP Gerard Batten on the segment.

Russian support for the Scottish referendum also served more narrow political purposes. The United Kingdom has been a principle supporter of tougher sanctions against the Russian Federation for its role in Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine. A Scotland split from the U.K. would significantly weaken a key Western country, splitting up a political union that created one of history’s most pre-eminent powers. Russia hoped that a Scotland split would leave the U.K. in a position of relative weakness, constraining the EU’s ability to react to future Russian aggression.

As an added benefit, Scotland’s pro-independence leaders are more dovish than their counterparts in the rest of the UK, and Scotland is considerably more left-wing than the United Kingdom as a whole, inspiring hope that an independent Scotland would focus inward on social reforms rather than be concerned with issues of regional or international security. Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, even praised Vladimir Putin in the wake of the Crimea referendum, saying that he “admired” certain aspects of the Russian president’s leadership and ability to restore national pride. When pressed to retract his statements, Salmond refused, expressing only regret at how the comments were characterized.

Perhaps most importantly, Scotland’s independence would have challenged Britain’s status as a nuclear power. The UK’s nuclear deterrent depends on Britain’s Trident program, four nuclear submarines based on Scotland’s western coast. Scottish independence leaders promised to make Scotland nuclear-free, causing British leaders to scramble in search of ways to mitigate the security effects of an independent Scotland. Observers noted that Britain lacks an alternative naval base to house the nuclear submarines and their missiles, raising the possibility that the UK’s nuclear arsenal would need to be temporarily re-located to the United States. The costs of re-location and constructing a new base would have been substantial, risking the possibility that Britain would need to abandon its nuclear program.

Even following the pro-unionist referendum victory in Scotland, the Russian propaganda campaign has not ceased its obsession with Scotland. Russian media and election observations cried foul after the unionist victory. One Russian election observer, quoted by Russian media outlet RIA, claimed that the vote “did not meet international standards,” implicitly accusing the British government of ballot-stuffing. The same election observer was later quoted lambasting Western hypocrisy over elections.

Russia’s cynical manipulation of Scotland’s independence vote is aimed inward, at the Russian people, as a ploy to justify their leadership’s recent aggression. Scotland and the U.K. became a convenient target, once the facts were sufficiently obscured, to accuse the West of hypocrisy, which is a favorite narrative of the Russian authorities.  Russia’s fixation with the vote was just another tactic out of the Kremlin playbook. None of this is to say that Scots shouldn’t have gained independence if they had so chosen. The Scottish referendum was held legally under British law, and was conducted fairly and openly. These facts, and the difference between Scottish elections and those of Crimea, which were conducted by masked soldiers, are completely ignored by Russia’s media machine.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center