Another week, another major Western politician attacks Russia. This round saw British Prime Minister Theresa May use a major foreign policy speech at the London Guildhall to launch something of a tirade against the Kremlin.

But what was the reasoning behind such a forceful verbal assault? Was it merely bluster from a prime minister who is out of ideas and seeking to talk about anything but EU exit negotiations, or was there more tactical reasoning at work?

What was said?

An audience of leading figures from the business world was treated to the prime minister’s accusations that Russia had been “meddling in elections”, “violating the airspace of several European countries and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption”.

“This has included meddling in elections and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence and the Bundestag among many others.”

In a serious escalation of rhetoric, she also went on to call Russia a “threat to international order”, accusing them of “sowing discord, and seeking to undermine Western institutions.”

The Russian reaction

Whilst the Kremlin has thus far remained silent on the issue, Russian senators and state TV channels responded to the remarks with barely concealed relish.

“The world order that suits May, with the capture of Iraq, war in Libya, creation of [ISIS], and terrorism in Europe, has outlived itself. It can’t be saved with an attack on Russia,” tweeted Alexey Pushkov, a Duma member and Head of the Federation Council Committee on Information Policy.

In turn, Konstantin Kosachev, Head of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, expressed his “surprise at a speech saturated with ideological cliches. If there was a liberal [version of the] newspaper Pravda, modeled on the Soviet 70s, this is what it would say.”

Deputy Defence Chairman Frants Klintsevich also weighed in, crowing that, “May has done more damage to herself than to us, making a fool of herself in the eyes of the world community and once again raising Russia’s profile.”

What was her purpose?

It is unlikely that May believed her speech would influence Russian foreign policy, and also improbable that it was aimed at currying favour with the British electorate. Indeed, Russian news stories have become so commonplace that the public risks being desensitised to them.

Whilst the annexation of Crimea – and wars in the Donbass and Georgia – offered ample evidence of Russia’s ills, claims of electoral interference are far harder to tangibly prove. Add this to the jittery reactions to Russian military exercises and the doom-mongering over a potential Russian invasion of the Baltic States that has yet to materialise and May risks creating a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario where people will simply stop listening when Russia is used as the bogeyman.

Russian state TV channel RT has predictably cottoned onto disillusionment with the anti-Russia narrative. The channel has launched an advertising campaign on the London underground with proclamations such as “Missed the train? Lost a vote? Blame it on us!” or “Watch RT and find out who we are planning to hack next”. Meanwhile the Russian Embassy in London’s Twitter account, which regularly posts sarcastic quips satirising Russophobia, now has a following of nearly 60,000.

RT advertisements london underground
Russian State News Channel RT’s advertisements on the London Underground. Photo Credit: Joe Barnes/Jericho

Controlling Boris

Who were the targets then? Was the speech a rebuke to Boris Johnson? Last month the foreign secretary told MPs, after much hesitation, that, “as far has he knew, [the Russian government] has played no role” in recent British elections, including the EU referendum in June last year.

In October, Johnson led calls to cautiously engage with Russia. He will travel to Moscow next month to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, but the prime minister’s speech has limited her Foreign Secretary’s room for manoeuvre, as well as undermining his authority. The Kremlin is now in no doubt as to Britain’s stance towards Russia – making it less likely that Johnson will be allowed to go “off piste” in his meetings with Russian officials.

Looking for friends

Perhaps most importantly, May sought to underline the continued relevance of the UK to EU foreign policy. The speech repeatedly stressed Britain’s solidarity with its neighbours in Europe, singling out nations such as Germany and Denmark, and stating that only by staying together can Europe hope to counter the Russian threat.

We know what you are doing,” she challenged Russia, “and you will not succeed because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies and the commitment of Western nations to the alliances that bind us.”

It is unlikely to have been lost on anybody in the room that Britain, in leaving the EU, is in the process of dismembering one of the alliances that binds these Western nations together.

There are also likely to have been a few wry smiles in Brussels. Few there will have forgotten that it was just six months ago that May was also accusing Jean-Claude Juncker and the European Commission of interfering in the General Election of 2017.

Nevertheless, with her party and the country in political turmoil and negotiations with Brussels floundering, it is unsurprising that May has sought to shed light upon a subject that provides European elites with some common ground.

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