Russia and the UK General Election

When I heard the news that Prime Minister Theresa May had announced a surprise General Election, the thought did cross my mind that I could expect to take a break from media work for a while, since I am in no way an expert on British politics. In contrast to the United States, where the campaign starts ridiculously early but doesn’t entirely drown out all other news, general election campaigns in this country are short-lived and so intense that they almost completely dominate current events coverage. But these days there is a Russia angle to so many news stories, and so I found myself speaking to Jon Holmes at talkRADIO this afternoon about whether the UK general election might be on the receiving end of Russian interventions.

One of the things that I want to do with this blog is to use it to expand on points that I make in media commentary, so let’s see how this works in practice.

There are several parts to the question of whether Russia might seek to influence the results of the upcoming British election. One part is capability – and based on recent precedents, Russia is clearly able to make such interventions. The US presidential elections demonstrated how the leaking of hacked emails can damage a candidate, but while some kind of cyber attack is certainly possible in the UK setting, it is not necessary for Moscow to choose such a complicated course of action. Russia has developed a degree of expertise in using open media (through outlets such as RT and Sputnik) and social media to disseminate messages in Western countries. As we become more and more dependent on our Facebook and Twitter feeds to access the news, Russia’s trolling tactics have more opportunities to succeed in creating confusion and uncertainty and perhaps in gaining acceptance for completely false narratives. Russia already has the infrastructure for this type of intervention, so it would be fairly cheap and easy to extend its focus to the UK general election.

Another part to this question is motive – why would Russia seek to influence the outcome of the British elections? Here I don’t think there is an obvious candidate for Moscow to support or to oppose, as there was in the US or as there has been in France, Germany and the Netherlands. This may be where my lack of in-depth knowledge of British politics lets me down, but I haven’t noticed any of the leaders of the major parties clamouring for an end to economic sanctions against Russia, or talking about the wasted opportunities for closer cooperation with Moscow. On the specifics of dealing with Putin’s Russia, there seems to be a pretty broad consensus in mainstream UK politics.

Even the issue in the campaign likely to be of greatest interest to Moscow – how British voters feel about Brexit one year on from the referendum and with a better sense now of what it might mean in practical terms to leave the European Union – cuts across party lines in confusing ways. But while there may not be a straightforward protege for Russia to praise or an opponent to disparage, there is some benefit to Moscow in sowing dissension and dissatisfaction in the West. In general, Russia prefers not to face the West as a solid bloc united in opinions that do not serve Moscow’s interests. Issues and events that create or exacerbate social, economic and political tensions within a given society can open up the possibility for Russian advantage. As Katarzyna Zysk pointed out in an interview with E-IR, the use of disinformation/propaganda is part of Russia’s New Generation Warfare approach (often referred to in the West as “hybrid warfare”), which places emphasis on non-military means of gaining an advantage over adversaries.

Every time the issue of Russian intervention in Western elections comes up, it is swiftly followed by discussions about what can be done about it. Experts in communications and public relations have particular strategies to suggest to expose and counter fake news (informed perhaps by the Ukrainian experience), while those who know about cyber security can advise on making systems less vulnerable to attack. At this point in the discussions, my feminist side usually pushes its way to the fore and makes me want to issue a reminder that the best way of avoiding the exploitation of underlying tensions is to deal with those tensions at their sources. If groups in society feel ignored or marginalised and believe (or know) that they do not get fair treatment and opportunities, they are much more likely to be receptive to messages that question the status quo and the established authorities. Let’s not fool ourselves that this is a problem that can be solved by short-term, technical fixes. If we want Western societies that are strong enough to resist these kinds of interventions, we need to put more effort into finding long-term solutions to problems of injustice and inequality.

Trump, Putin and leadership masculinities

Recently I  have been thinking a lot about masculinities, how they are constructed and maintained and how they operate in everyday politics and international relations. To a large extent this interest comes from a book I am co-editing with Veronica Kitchen at the University of Waterloo on heroism in global politics, and the chapter I am contributing to the volume, which is about how the military masculinities of the contemporary American warrior hero have been constructed through the narratives in medal citations.

But as I have been reading, thinking and writing about these very specific military masculinities, I have also been watching Donald Trump construct the public face of his masculinity, first as candidate, then as president-elect and finally as sitting president.

Towards the end of the presidential campaign, I wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post UK site by the way that candidate Trump combined some stereotypically “female” behaviours and traits, such as a reliance on emotion, perception and irrationality, with more traditionally macho actions and attitudes, especially in the way that he describes and relates to women.

Since his inauguration, President Trump has continued on in this vein, with the added advantage that he can now command the use of military force – that most traditionally masculine of all institutions of the state. We have seen him call the US armed forces into action on several occasions already: spectacularly in Syria and Afghanistan, as well as in a lower-key but no less destructive way by increasing the frequency of drone strikes and reportedly considering changing the guidance for the use of drones in ways that would make “collateral damage” (the deaths of those who are not designated as targets for the drone strikes) more likely.

As Sarah Kendzior has argued, Trump reaches for military force to deal with other countries because he craves praise and the media and the public will consistently admire him for this behaviour. To that I would add that he uses the military to demonstrate his personal strength, toughness and manliness, as well as the power of the country that he leads. As I see it, the only way that Trump can maintain his continued and excessive reliance on emotional and irrational behaviour without the risk of appearing “weak” is by balancing it with equally excessive demonstrations of the most extreme alpha male speech and actions.

There is another aspect of Trump’s behaviour that has received more attention as a result of his use of military force against Syria, and that is his unpredictability. Repeatedly during the election campaign, Trump indicated that his foreign policy would take the world by surprise and that he did not intend to give away too much about his intentions, suggesting that this would make it more difficult for other countries to out manoeuvre the United States.

In this Trump may be getting some inspiration from Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly taken the West by surprise, for example by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in Ukraine and Syria. The West has found Putin difficult to deal with, in part perhaps because he refuses to conform to the norms of the hegemonic masculinity of the international statesman.

It seems to me that there is a recognised way of being an appropriately masculine international statesman, as defined by the major Western powers, and it involves a particular combination of diplomacy, alliance-building and enemy construction as well as the threat and measured use of force under certain circumstances and after appropriate warnings have been delivered. Putin breaks many of these conventions, particularly through his willingness to use force too quickly, without going through all the rhetorical steps that normally precede military operations. Western leaders find Putin too aggressive, too hyper-masculine and struggle to find ways of persuading him to conform to gender norms.

So far Trump’s swift resort to military force in Syria and the reversal of his previous policy positions that this represents are largely being treated as standing outside the gender norms for Western world leaders. But what if that changes? Could Trump’s presidency be instrumental in redefining this particular form of hegemonic masculinity?






As an academic who does a fair amount of media work – mainly radio commentary on current events which touch on my areas of research and teaching expertise – I often finish an interview or submit an op-ed piece feeling that I have more to say that doesn’t fit within the time or word length constraints I am given, or that might not make sense to the particular audience I was addressing. With this blog I would like to create a space to explore further some of those ideas, as well as to try out aspects of research projects I am working on and reflect on teaching and the insights that come from interacting with students and trying to figure out, together, how to interpret the world around us, using the academic tools that we craft and refine every day.

My academic interests began with a very conventional interest in a topic of great importance at the time – Soviet nuclear weapons (ballistic missile defence policy to be more precise) during the height of the Cold War. Those interests began to expand in the early 1990s, when I noticed that all the uniformed officials who check passports in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport changed from being only men to being only women. My curiosity was piqued, and in beginning to ask what was going on here and why, I started down the path of research projects that led me increasingly towards feminist and gender-focussed approaches. Through an interest in women in the Russian armed forces I developed a fascination with women in state and then non-state militaries, and then more broadly still with the way that conflicts – and the way that we think about conflicts – is gendered. My current project – a book length exploration of the Ukraine crisis from the perspective of Feminist Security Studies – brings together my continuing interest in issues of security and politics related to Russia and its immediate neighbours with my focus on gender.

Most of my media work is linked to my expertise on Russia – anytime Putin does something that makes headlines in the West, I usually get a request for commentary. But since the autumn of 2016, my interest in gender and my US citizenship have opened up a new line of commentary on the US presidential elections and now, on Trump and the gendered dimensions of his rhetoric and policies.

This blog – like my research and my media work – is likely to go in many different directions, but I hope that fellow academics and others may find some things of interest here.