The UK as a Russian Battleground State

Since its emergence nearly a decade ago, digital diplomacy has been accompanied by a need to justify its costs. This is due to the fact that senior diplomats and policy makers often regarded digital diplomacy as a fad rather than a strategic tool for achieving foreign policy goals. This negative view of digital tools led MFAs to focus on quantitative measurements that could demonstrate a return on investment (e.g., numbers of followers, online reach, likes and shares).

While digital diplomacy has evolved over the past decade, many MFAs still struggle to invest adequate resources in online activities. Amid digital skepticism, shrinking budgets and continuous erosion in the standing of MFAs within governments, digital departments are asked to do more with less. As a result, many MFAs fail to leverage the potential of digital diplomacy.

For instance, MFAs may fail to foster relations with foreign populations as these activities necessitate an online presence, appealing content and diplomats ready to converse online with connected publics. Similarly, MFAs are often unable to tailor their content to specific target audiences as they manage social media empires consisting of hundreds, if not thousands, of accounts. Duplicate content is therefore shared across multiple platforms. Finally, limited resources prevent MFAs from experimenting with the most innovative technologies ranging from augmented reality to big data analysis.

The question that soon follows is how can MFAs best realize the potential of digital diplomacy amid limited resources? One answer might be the definition of battleground states. The term “battleground states” is used mostly in American elections and denotes US States that may be won by either Presidential candidate. Presidential candidates are likely to invest more resources in battleground States than States that already lean one way or another. Thus, battleground states enable Presidential candidates to prioritize States and, subsequently, increase the return on investment.

The identification and definition of battleground states may also be applicable to digital diplomacy. Nations can prioritize other countries based on a myriad of criteria. These can include historic ties between two countries, the need to maintain strategic alliances, possible shifts in public opinion, military and economic size and even the existence of armed conflict.

Once an MFA has identified battleground states, it may invest more resources into local digital activities. These could include additional training for embassy staff in prioritized embassies, assistance from the MFA in creating tailored content that might appeal to local social media users, making senior policy makers available for online Q&A sessions and even creating a digital presence on new platforms (e.g., virtual worlds).

Additional resources for battleground states could include the employment of sophisticated digital tools such as network analysis to identify online influencers, sentiment analysis to characterize local discourse and big data analysis to gauge shifts in public opinion or identify publics that may be receptive to another country’s digital messaging.

For countries with small diplomatic corps and even tighter budgets, the definition of battleground states might prove especially valuable. For instance, the Latvian and Lithuanian MFAs may decide to strategically use digital platforms in order to boost support for NATO among skeptic audiences or amid countries where anti-globalist sentiments are on the rise. Additionally, such countries can target audiences that did not grow up at a time when NATO was seen as an imperative global actor. This could include millennials who rely on digital platforms for news consumption and opinion formulation.

Finally, battleground states may be defined as countries that may be contemplating foreign policy shifts. The US could choose to target Egyptian policy makers who have begun to explore closer ties with Russia while Israel could target Sunni states that may also oppose Iran’s regional ambitions.

One MFA that may have taken the concept of battleground states to heart in the Russian foreign ministry.

The UK as a Battleground State for Russia

Recent months have seen a steady increase in the digital activity, and digital creativity, of the Russian embassy in London. Although the embassy has been active on social media for some time, and although social media is regarded as an important tool by both the Ambassador and the press attaché, the embassy has been increasingly combative and daring on social media since the Brexit referendum. This includes a steady increase in the amount of daily tweets published by the embassy, a growing use of British phrases and cultural products, more references to popular memes and internet culture and the use of new tools such as twitter survey questions.

The increase in the Russian embassy’s use of twitter could suggest that more resources are being allocated to digital activities in the UK.  This may be a result of the fact that the UK is now entering a period of great uncertainty given the triggering of Brexit. As part of Brexit, old policies will be scrapped, new policies will be enacted and new relationships will be forged. It is possible that Russia has determined that during this period of transition, it may be able to sway certain British publics in favor of Russian policies. Moreover, Brexit will prove a substantial strain on the relationship between the UK and the EU, a rift that Russia may attempt to exploit. The more negative the perception of the EU among Brits, the more they align with Russia’s view of the European Union. Finally, the Trump presidency has also ushered a period of unpredictability in the “special relationship” between the UK and the US. This too may be exploited by Russia so as to drive a strategic wedge within the Atlantic community.

Even if Russia does not hope to realign itself with the UK, it may be hoping that the current period of flux in world politics, and the polarization of UK public opinion over Brexit, can be used to Russia’s advantage. The more the UK is bogged in internal matters, the less it can influence external matters. Thus, Russia can use digital tools to highlight tensions and increase polarization.

Therefore, Russia may have defined the UK as a possible battleground state.

An analysis of the tweets published over the last two months demonstrate how Russia is increasingly using Twitter to highlight disagreements, attack the UK government and belittle British diplomacy.

The UK Case Study

Notably, over the past two months the Russian embassy has taken to adopting a more brazen tone online as well as openly attacking the British government and its foreign policy. For instance, the embassy now openly attacks the UK and its allies over their airstrikes in Syria, as can be seen in the tweets below.

In addition, the embassy uses social media to refute or engage with arguments posted by the British FCO on twitter. Such is the case below in which the Russian embassy responds to the FCO’s “UK Against Daesh” Twitter Channel.

In the tweets below, the Russian embassy also takes on the British Ambassador to the UN and a US lawmaker. Especially noteworthy is the use of British cultural elements, such as the Oxford Dictionary and Downton Abbey, and a tone that combines contempt and humor.

This new humorous Russian tone is especially evident in the tweet below which is a reaction to Boris Johnson cancelling his trip to Russia. This tweet demonstrates the sophistication of the embassy’s use of twitter. At the most basic level, the tweet aims to highlight a contrast between Johnson’s rough diplomacy and Russia’s elegant diplomacy. At a deeper level, the tweet uses the term Soft Power as a double entendre-Russia will not react with force (i.e., hard power) to Johnson’s actions but, rather, will offer a soft melody in return.  Finally, the musical interlude is a piece composed by Tchaikovsky, a romantic Russian composer which again alludes to Russian elegance as opposed to Johnson’s roughness. This tweet therefore offers several layers of meaning and may appeal to various online publics.

Other activities include labeling UK news stories as “fake news” or calling on British news channels to offer a more balanced view of Russia. Importantly, such tweets often include humor or an attempt to ridicule British newspapers. Such tweets may be seen below.

One of the tools employed by the Russian embassy in London is twitter survey questions. This form of digital diplomacy may be seen as especially sophisticated as it enables the embassy to engage with followers, co-create content with followers and portray support for Russian policies within the UK. Below are some notable examples for the embassy’s use of survey questions.

Lastly, the embassy seems to be well versed in popular memes and online culture. In the tweet below, the embassy refers to the fictional Kekistan created by online users as a popular meme. By so doing, the embassy is able to win over digitally oriented publics.

Can the Strategy Succeed?

If one assumes that Russia has defined the UK as a battleground state, he must assess the Russian digital strategy and examine whether it can facilitate Russian foreign policy goals. The brazen and humoristic tone taken by the embassy, alongside its criticism of the British government and the British media, have attracted attention from UK journalists and news outlets throughout the world. Today alone both the London Times and the Telegraph have published articles on Russia’s digital activities in the UK. While media attention may increase the profile of the embassy, it does not attest to its ability to foster new relationships with the British population. This would require a different strategy, one based on open conversations with connected Brits, a willingness to respond to criticism and more opportunities for online engagement. However, if the goal of the Russian embassy is to exploit the uncertainty of Brexit and drive internal polarization in the UK, its new tone and activities may prove useful in the long run.

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