David Leask: Why Putin’s war in the Ukraine could hit Scotland hard

WE are not, thank God, at war. But nor are we at peace. Not any more. For the first time in most of our lives, one European nation state has launched a full-scale onslaught against another.

Many of the closest Russia watchers did not believe Vladimir Putin would go this far. But he has.

This fight is in Ukraine. Its cause – let no-one tell you otherwise – is firmly in the Kremlin. But its impact will be felt across our continent and beyond.

We are in a conflict too, albeit a cold war, not a hot one.

Some Russia watchers and defence experts have long said this is the case. The time for doubting them is over.

This Cold War, however, will not be the same as the last. Its front lines may not lie where you might expect. You might be on one.

For a wee while now it has been fashionable among foreign policy and defence types to talk about “hybrid” conflicts. This ill-defined term frustrates some experts.

But it means waging war not just conventionally but with a whole range of not necessarily lethal covert and overt methods, such as interfering in elections, spreading disinformation and launching cyberattacks to destabilise your adversary. And even using crime or its proceeds, dirty money, to cover your tracks as you do so.

None of this is necessarily new. But there are those who think such tactics have reached a new level of scale and sophistication. Mark Galeotti, an expert in Russian crime who has emerged as one of the leading voices on the Putin regime, has called his most recent book The Weaponisation of Everything. That kind of sums the threat up.

That is where we are now. As Putin’s military slams Ukraine, he may well wage a less lethal war on those who stand up for his victims.

It would be naive to think would not include the UK, and Scotland with it. Do we think economic sanctions and weapons supplies will go without retribution?

In this new Cold War, civic society and civilian institutions and infrastructure are all potential targets.

We need to take precautions. We must build resilience to all these hybrid threats. At a local, national and UK level. This is not just something for Whitehall and the military. It might be for your council. Or internet bank.

The SNP, the Greens and their Scottish Government have been particularly hostile to Putin. Specific Scottish retribution is not impossible.

Some people think Trident shields us. But the realistic current threats need different defenders. They might not even be in uniform. They might be, well, IT guys and gals, lawyers who do proper due diligence, police forensic accountants, politicians and commentators who call out propaganda

Take cyberattacks. These might not mean planes fall out of the sky or the lights go out; we do have defences. But they could nevertheless bring disruption and costs.

A cyber battle, conducted under the cover of plausible deniability, could hit our economy. But so too will some of the ripples from the conflict. Most of us know that Russian hydrocarbons fuel Europe’s economy. Can we, should we, keep buying? Energy prices are already cripplingly high. One of the byproducts of this war is likely to be inflation. For food too. Ukraine is not called the “bread basket” for nothing.

But could Putin wage an economic war on top of that disruption?

Russia’s economy is sluggish and has been thrown in to crisis by this week’s events. Nevertheless its GDP, once adjusted for prices, was ranked sixth in the world by the IMF for 2020, above Britain and France. It is a big place, after all.

What if the Russians, as an example, chose punitive counter-sanctions on Scotch? Or against a niche export product, say, seed potatoes? Scottish and UK authorities will need to look at potential support packages for targeted industries.

There is a lot of talk about dirty money from the former USSR being washed in Britain. Scotland has a disproportionate role in this.

This laundering machinery, including shell firms, is used by criminals and officials – sometimes these two kinds of clients are indistinguishable. We have an industry in Scotland providing opaque corporate structures. The suspiciously rich have Scottish lawyers who arrange their Golden Visas, litigation and PR experts who defend their reputations, estate agents who buy them homes and private schools who educate their kids. None of this is OK.

In a hybrid war, money-laundering is a weapon. So is countering it. Scottish business and white-collar professional bodies have sometimes ignored or downplayed these threats. They need to wise up. Their own reputations are on the line.

Up till now much Scottish concern about Putin’s Russia has been around political interference and propaganda.

We have proved relatively resilient to disinformation, despite a hyper-partisan political culture of the kind Putin’s people have exploited elsewhere.

News outlet Sputnik, part of the Kremlin propaganda machinery, quit Edinburgh last year citing a hostile environment. Two political parties led by former politicians with shows on another disinformation outlet, RT, flopped at the 2021 Holyrood elections.

But tackling disinformation is going to be much harder than criticising some has-beens on Putin TV. It is going to take training. Do all our reporters and politicians know, for example, how to deal with a hack-and-leak operation of the kind carried out by Russian military intelligence?

On Ukraine, our sometimes inward-looking political and media culture is going to have to learn to recognise key disinformation narratives about the conflict. I have seen Scots publish core Putin messages, including false claims that all Ukrainians are Nazis. These people, even if they do not know it, are tiny little collaborators in a cruel, stupid and shameful war.

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