Alex Phillips: We need to talk about Russia, a master of high drama

'Russia has always been a master of high drama and suspenseful storylines'

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Somewhere legions below a rippling expanse of sea, a spy submarine zigzags across the ocean floor, armed with state of the art intercontinental ballistic missiles. But it’s prey is not other military hardware. Not yet, anyway. Spysub The Yantar is prowling like a demersal predator searching for the miles of internet cables that feed every flickering and beeping bit of information glimmering across the UK.

One small snip and power stations will fall, hospital computer systems collapse, banks stop trading crashing the markets and plunging the country into mass confusion. Meanwhile a fleet of supersonic Typhoon Fighter Planes are scrambled from Britain's East Coast to intimidate two TU-142 Bear F Maritime Reconnaissance planes stalking our waters.

You would be mistaken for thinking these are the opening scenes of the new Top Gun film, picking up the narrative of the dog fights between Tomcats and Migs at the peak of Cold War tension. But it isn’t fiction. This is actually happening. Today.

Russia has always been a master of high drama and suspenseful storylines. The toppling of the beguiling Tsars with the infamous and invincible Mad Monk Rasputin, the Revolution with its bloodthirsty characters and Communist Zealots creating poverty through collectivism, horrific images of cannibalism on the streets and gulags in the fields. Cultural genocides and unbridled imperial greed, scooping up handfuls of satellite states by wiping out intelligentsia and imposing Soviet rule across an expanse of one sixth of earth's terrain.

The Cold War, where the constant threat of nuclear apocalypse left the entire world teetering on the edge of mass destruction, one critical phone call away.

Reams of spy novels and Bond films have tracked Russia’s diachronic undulations creating fascinating and fear-inducing plot lines cementing Russia’s position as a shadowy rogue state. Yet this month marks the 30 year anniversary of the dissolution of the USSR. A formidable empire brought to its knees as democracy found green shoots under the promises of glasnost and perestroika.

Fast forward to today, and the narrative is ramping up again. Alleged election interference, Cyber Warfare, doped athletes, spies poisoned on British soil by radioactive compounds. But is Russia little more than a magician behind a curtain, projecting a cinematic fantasy to hook the world in fearful anticipation? It is well known that Putin’s right hand man, Surkov, a political technologist, adopts the approach of a playwright to create by sleight of hand the illusion of imminent threat.

TV scare stories of looming pogroms, fake far right movements magicked up to terrify citizens into submission, the confused narratives of Agitprop constantly manipulating its own population, and the world. Curating belief through the filter of ostranenie - or defamiliarisation - making everything simultaneously both palpably real, and a mirage.

What is this nation on the doorstep of the democratic West up to? It serves us well to pay attention.

In 2014, Putin convened an all night meeting with security chiefs, organised pro-Russia demonstrations in Sevastopol, sent in masked Russian troops without insignia to overrun the Supreme Council, captured strategic sites, installed a new government, staged a smokescreen referendum and had annexed Crimea from Ukraine, right under the noses of her neighbours. It started on 22nd February. By 18th March, it was all over.

Europe had been caught napping. As the West got caught up in the terrorism of the Middle East, The previous Cold War focus that saw 70% of surveillance resources directed at Moscow fell to just 4%. All the while ex Russian operatives were assassinated with chemical weapons on British soil, influence was being bought at the highest levels of our institutions, Oligarchs flooded into London alongside 200 intelligence officers and 500 agents. Moscow, flexing her muscles again.

Today, Ukraine wants Crimea back. Yet as she pleads to EU leaders to assist, Germany is busy guaranteeing herself new flows of Russian gas, bypassing Ukraine’s levy, hungry for fuel, yet warning any politicking of the deal would see Moscow face sanctions.

America, too distracted by fighting itself following constant low level civil unrest in a society divided after polarising elections, accusations of Russian interference amplifying suspicion and balkanising the once great power.

Meanwhile as the West flees Afghanistan, Russia is planning to conduct extensive military exercises in the Persian Gulf alongside China and Iran, like vultures circling carrion in a marriage of menace.

It all sounds rather harrowing and dystopian doesn’t it? But is it real?

Today...we really need to talk about Russia.