May 17, 2022 - 10:15am

In recent weeks, Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he believes his country isn’t fighting a war against Ukraine, but against the entire Western world. While America is Moscow’s public enemy number one, the UK has cemented its position in second place, blamed for everything from supposedly goading Ukraine into assaulting Snake Island in the Black Sea to staging the harrowing massacre committed by Russian troops in Bucha.

“This was the work of British specialists,” Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov insisted as pictures of bodies lining the streets of the Kyiv suburb surfaced last month. Then on Friday, Russia’s failed bid to overturn a World Rugby Council ban was blamed on the UK too. “The council is heavily influenced by the British nations, which are at the head of all the sanctions being levelled at our state,” Kirill Yashenkov, the deputy chair of Moscow’s Rugby Association, declared. And, in one of Russian state TV’s more vivid packages, a senior Putin ally warned that Britain could be “plunged into the sea” thanks to Russia’s nuclear capacity.

So how has the UK convinced Russia, as it has Iran, that it is the ‘Little Satan’ to America’s ‘Great Satan’?

For Moscow’s elite, Britain is often seen as a mirror image of their own country — a once-great empire intent on turning around its decline and restoring its superpower status. During the height of the Cold War, the rivalry between the two countries intensified when the Russia and the USSR became synonymous with spying. This was, in part, due to the defection of intelligence officers like Kim Philby to the Soviet Union in the 1960s, as part of the Cambridge Five scandal, and partly thanks to the wildly popular James Bond films. Goldeneye, the first instalment in the series made after the fall of the USSR, became Russia’s top-grossing film in 1996, and saw the suave MI6 operative teaming up with a Russian Bond Girl to save the world.

Couple that with the rows over the poisoning of former Soviet spies including Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Scribal on British soil, and it’s easy to see why this reputation has been formed.

Fundamentally though, Putin’s clash with the West is being sold in Russia as a battle for the soul of Europe against American proxies. Pro-Russian politicians like Marine Le Pen in Paris and the AfD in Berlin are painted in propaganda as standing up for their countries’ interests — friendly relations and cheap gas from Moscow. Britain, meanwhile, has few such sympathisers, and its role in the Anglosphere places it, in the minds of the Kremlin at least, as a transatlantic power rather than a Eurasian one.

On top of that has been the strength of British intel — something that the Kremlin deeply resents. It was, after all, US and UK intelligence, contrary to French reports, that warned in early February that an invasion was imminent. In addition, Colonel Philip Ingram, a former British Military Intelligence officer, told me that it is the UK, along with the US, which is providing almost all of the operational information to those defending Ukraine. “The Russians have been wound up by the fact they are suffering on the ground, in the air and at sea partially because of the fidelity of the intelligence being sent over,” he says.

And so, for the time being, when it comes to an easy target for their propagandists like Solovyov to blame, Britannia rules the airwaves.

Gabriel Gavin is a Moscow-based journalist who has covered Eastern Europe for many publications.