THE fires of the independence crisis in Catalonia were deliberately stoked by Russia in a deliberate campaign to destabilise Spain, claim western leaders and defence chiefs.
Social media networks were flooded with millions of fake messages in the run in to and after the controversial 1st October referendum in the region – declared illegal by Madrid.
And the West maintains it has proof the official Russian news outlets and unofficial sites have launched a propaganda campaign against Spain. After the Cold War and Star Wars, welcome to Cyber Wars – tactics said to have been recently employed in events such as the USA’s presidential election, the Brexit vote, the Ukraine border war, and against the European Union.
NATO believes Moscow is involved in a deliberate strategy of hi-tech information warfare; using disinformation – so-called ‘fake news’ – to spread disharmony and attempt to divide western allies and break the painful economic sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Spain has taken over running Catalonia after imposing constitutional laws; fresh elections have been called for 21st December; however, the region declared independence following the referendum claiming it had a mandate when 92% of the ballot from a 43% turnout voted to breakaway.
Many opposing independence did not vote because they refused to recognise it as a legal process and the Spanish government responded by dissolving the parliament in Barcelona.
Sacked President Carles Puigdemont and four colleagues went into self-imposed exile in Belgium, allies in Spain face prosecution for rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.
Catalonia’s separatist leaders deny Russian interference helped their cause but Spain maintains it has evidence Twitter, Facebook and other internet sites were used to massively plug the independence movement; even using fake images of violence being used against supporters.
“What we know today is that much of this came from Russian territory,” said Spain’s Defence Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal. “These are groups that, public and private, are trying to influence the situation and create instability in Europe.”
Government colleague, Defence Minister Alfonso Dastis added false accounts were traced back to Russia and Venezuela; created to amplify the benefits of independence for Catalonia. “We have proof.”
And in Brussels, MEP Victor Bostinaru – vice chairman of the Social Democratic group in the European Parliament – said he had evidence of cyber-meddling and Catalonia was “another case of perverse interference” by Russian-backed media organisations.
He said: “We must not be naive; behind those words and those slogans favourable to the independence movement, there are hidden intentions.”
One of the UK’s cyber-defence chiefs, Ciaran Martin believes Russia was “seeking to undermine the international system” aimed at “eroding” established order.
Chief executive of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, he said: “International order as we know it is in danger of being eroded. This is clearly a cause for concern and we are actively engaging with international partners, industry and civil society to tackle this threat.”
Spanish daily newspaper El Pais said scientists had discovered two media organisations linked to the Kremlin – RT and Sputnik – made use of social media accounts spread from Russia, sometimes using Venuezuela and ‘chavista’ accounts.
It used research from the George Washington University in the United States which examined more than 5 million messages and warned of a “serious crisis and economic reputation in Spain and the EU.”