Theresa May is only the latest of many politicians and pundits to blame the Russians for “meddling in elections” and “weaponising information”.
In her speech to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet on 13 November the UK Prime Minister told the Russians: “we know what you are doing... attempting to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions”.
Russia is the new bogeymen, blamed for everything from the election of US President Donald Trump and the Brexit vote, to the ascendancy of European populism and the Catalan independence movement.
But the growing obsession with Moscow’s malign intentions and actions increasingly appears like an exercise in displacement activity, evasion, and excuse-making.
Just because something transpires that suits Russia’s interests, it is not proof that Russia caused it. Even if we accept that Russia would like to undermine western democracy – and there is good reason to think that this is so – this does not mean that it has the capacity to do so.
Despite numerous investigations being conducted in the US, the UK and the EU into the role played by Russia in recent election and referendum campaigns, little hard evidence has emerged to suggest that the Russians have been successful in influencing any western political process.
It would not be surprising, of course, for the Russians to have favoured Republican outsider Donald Trump over Washington insider and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the US presidential race.
The Russians had little time for Clinton given her hawkishness towards Russia, her anti-Putin moves, her bellicosity over Syria, and general pro-interventionist stance. Trump, on the other hand, had made favourable noises about wanting to improve relations with Russia.
But it is one thing to wish for the election of one candidate, and another thing altogether to bring that about.
The Russians spent $100,000 on Facebook adverts, flooding social media with anti-Clinton propaganda. This is peanuts compared with more than $1bn spent by the Clinton campaign.
Any pro-Trump Russian interference via social media similarly pales into insignificance compared to the blanket pro-Hillary and anti-Trump coverage in the mainstream media (the pro-Trump Fox News being an exception).
Other accusations of Russian meddling in the election campaign, such as the allegation that the Kremlin interfered in the state electoral process in places such as Wisconsin, were subsequently refuted.
Russian interference was not a significant factor in Trump’s victory. Far more significant were the errors committed by Clinton herself. These included her failure to visit key battleground states, her denigration of a quarter of the electorate as “deplorables”, her perceived record of lying, and concerns about the financial dealings of the Clinton Foundation.
Many economic, social, and political factors had a much more powerful influence on the outcome of the election – in particular the high levels of popular disaffection with the two mainstream parties. Trump’s ability to play the outsider and appeal to that anti-establishment sentiment won him the election.
Insofar as the Russians did interfere, their involvement was not decisive in influencing the result.
There have, belatedly, been attempts to suggest that the Russians also tried to interfere in the Brexit referendum.
A Times investigation on 15 November revealed that Russian Twitter accounts posted almost 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours during the referendum.
However, the article goes on to say that 39,000 of those were posted on 24 June – after the ballot had closed. The objective was clearly not to sway people to vote one way or another. Of the other 6,000 Tweets, the Times says that most were pro-Brexit, but some were pro-Remain.
The notion that 17.4m Brexit voters were swayed by crude messaging from Russia is patronising.
The Russians would no doubt like to possess the means and ability to influence elections in the West. They would like to emulate the techniques used by US intelligence agencies, which have a long track record of interfering in elections – and worse. The difference is that the Americans have been far more successful than the Russians.
And while we are talking about outsiders interfering in democratic political processes, what about the EU? EU politicians and officials took sides and engaged in scaremongering during the Brexit referendum, warning the Brits what bad things would befall us if we voted Leave.
The EU has form when it comes to meddling in elections – remember that the Dutch, the French, and the Irish were all told to vote again until they got it “right”. As for the Greeks, they are constantly being told when they can and can’t hold elections.
The obsession with Russian meddling is an evasion from analysing and understanding the economic, social, and political causes of recent seismic political events. And it is an excuse for the political failures and culpability of the losers.