London – Britain’s security forces are secretly happy that King Charles III’s coronation went off without a hitch, despite some charges of heavy-handed police. But a second major event this month is giving them further trouble.
On the surface, the stakes of the Eurovision Song Contest grand final may not be very great. However, this year’s competition is being held in Liverpool, England, because the victor of last year’s match and the legal host nation, Ukraine, is battling an unwarranted invasion from its larger neighbor, Russia. As a result, British security officials are more concerned than they would have been otherwise over a cheesy musical competition.
“Our main concern was never the coronation, but Eurovision,” a top British security source told the associated press.
The contest is a prime target for hostile actors due to a unique confluence of circumstances. “On the one hand, there are thousands of people enjoying the nightlife, which means physical targets and organized crime.” On the other hand, you have a contest that is highly political even at the best of times, but especially so in the context of Ukraine’s war,” a security source explains.
The primary concern is to safeguard anyone attending the event from physical threats, even though there is no credible intelligence that the event could be the target of a terror attack, according to Merseyside Police, who are in charge of the event.
What security sources and analysts feel is more plausible is an attempt by Russia to disrupt the competition in other ways, insulting Britain and poking Ukraine in the eye.
Why would Russia try to sabotage a singing competition?
Russia is serious about Eurovision. Moscow regarded Eurovision as a window through which it could define its culture war with Western Europe and its perceived liberal norms even before it invaded Ukraine.
Its foreign secretary, Sergei Lavrov, protested about “stolen” ballots in 2013. In 2014, Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg senator and influential member of Vladimir Putin’s party, termed the competition “blatant homosexual propaganda and spiritual decay.”
Russia was barred from participating last year owing to its invasion of Ukraine, which went on to win the competition on a wave of public support. Britain finished second, which is why it was chosen to host on Ukraine’s behalf.
Russia has numerous potentials to wreak turmoil and disturbance at Eurovision.
First and foremost, there is the competition itself. Voting is done digitally, which makes it subject to cyber-attacks and Russian operatives casting fake ballots, according to a security source.
Then there’s the actual broadcast. Eurovision is viewed by millions around the world, making it an excellent target for anyone looking to establish a name for themselves, according to Iain Wyke, Chief Inspector of Protective Security Operations at Merseyside Police. “This is an outstanding platform.” If you were a single-issue group or had a specific ideology or beef you wanted to have with someone or a government, what better stage to present your case, display banners, and so on? “You have the entire world’s attention focused on you.”
Disruptions to the transmission may take various forms. Officials said that cyber attacks or attempts to interfere with the feed could result in broadcast hijacking or blackouts. There are also fears that the infrastructure surrounding the competition, such as venues or social media feeds, could be attacked digitally to cause disruption or propagate misinformation.
If a demonstration occurs, it may not be directly tied to Russia or Ukraine, but rather an attempt to shame the United Kingdom and weaken Western principles that Russia hates.
Former UK government National Security Adviser Peter Ricketts told the associated press that he could imagine Russian actors supporting or encouraging incidents that are “anti-LGBT rights or held by far-right groups in the UK,” undermining the idea of Britain as a liberal state and stoking discord and division on cultural issues.
However, a cyber threat, such as “taking over the broadcast, causing blackouts, or something else to disrupt proceedings, which everyone would know came from Russia but which might be difficult to attribute quickly,” is at the top of Ricketts’ list of fears.
Why would this be beneficial to Russia?
This year’s event is a collaboration between the United Kingdom and Ukraine, two major thorns on the Kremlin’s side. Security authorities are well aware of the situation and how much Russia wishes to embarrass them both.
“This is UK PLC in the spotlight, putting its best foot forward and demonstrating how we can deliver this event for Ukraine, on their behalf, and in Ukrainian style,” Wyke says. “It’s the largest non-sporting event ever televised… if that’s not a captive audience, I’m not sure what is.”
It’s also critical to understand how Russia employs tactics such as cyberattacks and propaganda against perceived adversaries.
“Russia has a zero-sum view of security, so anything that hurts the West is seen as a Russian gain,” says Keir Giles, a senior consultant at Chatham House. “Take, for example, the anti-vaccine propaganda they disseminated both before and during the pandemic. That undoubtedly damaged Russian citizens as well, but if it damages the West, the risk is outweighed.”
Giles also observes that, while the likelihood of a physical terrorist act is minimal, it cannot be completely ruled out: “It is an anomaly that Russia isn’t known to be funding and supporting terror groups to cause death and destruction in European capitals at the moment.” It is a cheap and effective way for Russia to wreak harm. A high-profile event like this, with ties to both Britain and Ukraine, would be an obvious target.”
Of course, a physical attack is a priority, despite Wyke’s statement that “no specific intelligence concerning this event suggests any form of terror threat.”
However, the inflow of people to a major city gathering in venues and waiting in long lines is exactly the type of soft target that terrorists have tended to attack.
In the run-up to Saturday’s final, Merseyside Police will deploy 5,500 police across Liverpool. Armed officers and security fencing will be apparent counter-terrorism measures. However, Wykes says that raising awareness in the local community is one of the best methods to keep this event safe: “A couple of weeks ago, we launched the vigilance campaign that was to bring the community into the policing operation, and ultimately, the public are our eyes and ears.” And what better way to establish a security regime than with an event of this magnitude?”
To those who are unfamiliar, it may appear strange that a singing competition designed to promote peace in Europe after World War II could become such a hotspot. However, Russia’s decades-long emphasis on asymmetric warfare has made an international television event with millions of people watching at home and in person the ideal battleground for Russia’s fight against enemies it is reluctant – or incapable – to physically invade.