The Kremlin not only uses tanks and jets for its aggression in Ukraine: it weaponises energy, information, refugees, food — even history itself.
Since the war began, Russia has portrayed the UK as a nefarious colonial actor globally, seeking to heighten divisions within Britain and erode relationships among Commonwealth nations whose close ties threaten Russia’s colonial ambitions.
It is high time for the UK government to flip the script on Moscow, telling the truth about Russian imperialism and beating Moscow at its own information warfare game.
Despite Russia’s recent illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory in a blatant war of conquest, Putin has increasingly adopted anti-imperialist rhetoric. In his recent speech formally announcing the annexation of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions, the Russian leader mentioned colonialism no less than 11 times. He claimed his invasion marks “an essentially emancipatory, anti-colonial movement against unipolar hegemony.” In Putin’s delusional worldview, the “Anglo-Saxons” maintain a neo-colonial world empire, which it is Russia’s destiny to liberate.
The deliberate use of the term “Anglo-Saxon“ highlights the Kremlin’s singling out of not only the US, but also the UK in its information war against the West. This focus is no accident — Britain has been one of democracy’s staunchest supporters globally in recent decades, and has been at the forefront of arming Ukraine. Its support for democracy carries an inherent threat to the Kremlin’s autocratic model, as Russia’s whitewashing of its own imperialist history demonstrates.
In recent days, Putin urged Russian historians to consider the consequences of colonialism and instructed historian Alexander Chubaryan to prepare material on the development of colonialism for the next Russia-Africa summit in 2023. There is little doubt that Russia will again portray the UK as a heinous colonial power.
Russian propaganda outlets such as RT and Sputnik take every opportunity to amplify messages related to colonialism and calls for the dissolution of the British Commonwealth. Sputnik also offers a quick search using keywords such as “British colonialism.”
The Kremlin does not limit its information operations to Africa, Asia or Latin America. Russia has a long history of influence operations inside the UK in order to sow chaos and instability. When it comes to colonialism, Russia’s preferred audience is the Left.
Russia’s accusations come at a time when the British political Left has heightened criticism of its own country’s history. For example the protest movement at Oxford University against the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College prompted its governing body to add a plaque near to the statue explaining that Rhodes was a “committed British colonialist” who exploited the “peoples of southern Africa”.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, some British campaigners called for the return to India of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond, part of the Crown Jewels, labelling it a “symbol of plunder”. Russia’s Sputnik immediately amplified this message. Even the legacy of Winston Churchill has come under attack because of his Victorian attitudes toward race and empire.
However, Russia’s own history of imperialism is, of course, far darker than Putin would like to admit. There are some 120 distinct ethnic groups living in Russia, most of whom did not join the Russian empire by choice. And lest Kremlin supporters claim that these peoples have benefitted from their subjugation, the list of ethnic violence in Russia is as long as it is gruesome.
The Holodomor alone, in which the Ukrainian people were intentionally starved by Stalin in the 1930s, claimed nearly 4 million lives. Nearly 100,000 Chechen civilians fell victim to Moscow’s “policing operation” in 1999, in which it forcibly prevented Chechnya from becoming an independent state. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is just a continuation of the Kremlin’s brutal imperialist politics.
The revanchist Kremlin has worked hard to exploit polarisation in Britain along political and racial lines. The UK needs to aggressively counter Russian narratives in order to put Moscow on the defensive in the information space.
For instance, in Africa, the UK should use information operations to tell the truth about Russia’s role in the food crisis and Putin’s goal of creating famine and an artificial refugee crisis while waging imperialistic war in Ukraine.
London’s information campaign should also emphasise the grievances of ethnic minorities within Russia itself, showing how their cultures have been suppressed by the Kremlin and their men drafted and killed in Putin’s imperialistic war on Ukraine at a disproportionate rate.
The UK and Russia share a proclivity for dark humor, which serves as a powerful weapon against authoritarian leaders from Stalin to Putin. As proof, one need only look to the Russian state’s recent efforts to crack down on satire and criticism. The British black comedy The Death of Stalin was banned in Russia in 2018 on grounds that the film was “offensive”, “extremist” and “aimed at humiliating the Russian people”. Putin himself is a ripe target for satire, as he has compared himself to the 18th-century Russian tsar Peter the Great even as his reckless appetite for imperialism has reduced his country to a global pariah and revealed his military as woefully inept.
Why stop there? Another demographic the UK could target in the information space is Russian women, whose sons, fathers and brothers are being used as cannon fodder by Putin for his imperialism.
It is high time for London to take the information fight to Russia’s backyard and make Putin understand that if his regime continues to peddle instability in the UK, two can play at that game. Britain has one of the most developed information infrastructures in the world and it has the capability to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda machinery globally.
Ivana Stradner is a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies