RUSSIA’S billion-pound propaganda machine will use its considerable resources to oppose Scottish  independence, experts believe.

Kremlin-funded news outlets and social media accounts have been widely seen as sympathetic to the Yes cause since early 2014. 

However, Russia watchers now expect Vladimir Putin’s regime media – such as TV station RT and news agency Sputnik – to turn their previous stance “on its head” after the SNP moves firmly against Brexit and in to the European Union mainstream.

Speaking on condition of anonymity at a private meeting in the Scottish Parliament, sources familiar with the threat of Russian propaganda said: “Their work will be to support  Scotland being in the UK.”

A Kremlin news agency was the first to broadcast conspiracy theories that the 2014 independence referendum had been rigged, sparking calls for a recount or re-run of the plebiscite.

ANALYSIS: How Scotland 'media bias' moans played in to Putin's hands

Western and Russian intelligence as well as media monitoring operations say outlets such as Sputnik, which opened an office in Edinburgh last year employing several Yes supporters, backed Donald Trump in the United States and his far-right ally Marine Le Pen in France.

Sputnik

HeraldScotland:

However, sources warn that  Kremlin propagandists can be unpredictable and are simultaneously hyping both the anti-immigration right and the former Communist far left in Germany ahead of elections there later this year. 

The experts on Russian propaganda were speaking at a meeting organised under Chatham House Rules – which means they cannot be identified – by Holyrood’s cross-party group on Russia. 

Green MSP Andy Wightman, who chairs the group, said: “One of the speakers argued that ‘Russia does not have an ideology to export. What it exports is trouble’. 

“During the independence referendum, Kremlin-funded media outlets promoted stories about a rigged referendum and have taken a close interest in Scottish nationalist politics ever since. 

“I was particularly struck therefore by the view that as the UK embarks on the process of leaving the EU, that ‘trouble’ is best fomented not by supporting secessionist sentiment but by promoting unionist sentiment.  “In short, the departure of the UK [from the EU] is a bigger deal that Scottish independence.”

Andy Wightman MSPHeraldScotland: Andy Wightman

Mainstream SNP figures have long warned against the party or its followers relying on Kremlin outlets, even if they appear to be supportive of their aims.

Russia, they point out, was hostile to the SNP until its own hasty efforts to organise a much-criticised vote to legitimise its annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 sparked a sudden interest in independence referendums. Mr Putin’s government, moreover, outlaws separatism within Russia.

BACKGROUND: How the Ukraine conflict sparked Kremlin media's tacit backing for Scottish independence

HERALD VIEW: The SNP's moderate approach to politics make it more of an enemy of the Kremlin than a useful if unwitting ally. 

Martin Docherty, currently fighting to keep his West Dunbartonshire Westminster seat for the SNP, said he was not surprised to hear experts predict a change of tact by Russia.

He said: “I have long maintained that the values of organisations like RT and Sputnik have been inimical to our own, in that they are opposed to the modern global system of respect for International Law, and the sovereignty of small states.

“Any seeming support for Scottish independence was just cynical ploy: for Russian Government propaganda, whether it is the truth or the lie that fits, the principle goal is to weaken Western institutions, and principally the EU – hence why they were delighted with Brexit.”

Mr Docherty has previously urged SNP politicians to shun RT and  Sputnik. However, recent research by the Conservatives found that SNP figures, including former first minister Alex Salmond, had appeared on  such outlets around 50 times. Labour and Conservatives politicians have also been interviewed by the organisations.  Mr Wightman also urged politicians to show caution. He said: “It  is in our DNA to embrace every  opportunity to have our views  heard in the media. But when that media is in service to a foreign power, we need to be very aware of how modern media methods and propaganda strategies can subvert  otherwise honestly expressed opinions.”

Alex Salmond on RT ahead of independence referendumHeraldScotland:

Sputnik Edinburgh-based UK  operation was not invited to the meeting of Mr Wightman’s group, which took place late on Tuesday.  The news agency, which has an internet radio and online base in Edinburgh, in a news report declared: “MSPs efforts to present themselves as champions of free speech have been unsuccessful.”

In an article written by its editor Nikolay Gorshkov, the news agency said one of its radio hosts, John Wight, had demanded the right to be represented at the meeting after his agency was characterised as a propaganda outlet. 

Mr Gorshkov said: “As a Scottish citizen and journalist, who has appeared in the Guardian and Independent, as well as BBC Radio Scotland, and now works closely with Sputnik News and RT, John has written to the organisers, protesting this ‘offensive and entirely false rendering of the work that I and other journalists at Sputnik in Edinburgh produce’.”
Sputnik is funded by the Kremlin, its director is appointed by the president and its founding statute says its job is to provide international coverage of “Russian government policy”.

Sputnik News opened its first British hub in the Scottish capital in 2016.

So what does Sputnik say about itself?

The agency, which has an internet radio and online base in Edinburgh, pitches itself as a balanced counter to what it calls "mainstream media" bias. Its Edinburgh-based UK editor, Nikolay Gorshkov, this week set out his stall as his body was kept out of a Holyrood discussion on propaganda. He wasn't happy.  And in expressing his unhappiness he felt the need to use the word "balance" over and over again.

Speaking of his agency, Mr Gorshkov said: "Is it not its mission to tear Scotland away from the United Kingdom as the British press and politicians would like the Great British public to believe?

"Well, given the palpable bias against Scottish independence exhibited by the British media — and politicians in London, Brussels and Washington DC — at the time of the 2014 referendum, a bit of balance from Sputnik News would have helped.

"Alas, we only set up shop in Edinburgh after the referendum. Was it us who suggested to the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to try a second time? Now that Sputnik News sits in Edinburgh, MSPs have a chance of getting a more balanced coverage of their policies. But it looks like they are not really interested in balance."

Nikolay Gorshkov

HeraldScotland: Putin's Sputnik defends Edinburgh landing

He added: "In contrast to MSPs' treatment of Sputnik, we have always sought the views of a wide cross-section of the political and public landscape in Scotland and beyond."