Britain’s security services are quietly relieved that the coronation of King Charles III passed without major incident – save for some accusations of heavy-handed policing. But a second big event this month is causing them a bigger headache.
On the face of it, the stakes associated with the grand final of the Eurovision Song Contest would not appear to be particularly high. But this year’s contest is being staged in the English city of Liverpool because the winner of last year’s contest and the rightful host nation, Ukraine, is fighting off an unprovoked invasion from its bigger neighbor, Russia. For that reason, British security officials are more exercised than they might otherwise have been about a kitschy musical competition.
A senior British security source laid it out plainly to CNN: “Our principal concern was never the coronation, but Eurovision.”
A unique combination of factors make the contest a prime target for hostile actors. “On one hand you have thousands of people enjoying the nightlife, which means potential of physical targets and organized crime. On the other, you have a contest that is highly political at the best of times, but especially so in the context of the war in Ukraine,” the security source says.
The main concern is to protect those attending the event from physical threats, though there is no credible intelligence that the event might be victim to a terror attack, according to the Merseyside Police, who are responsible for the event.
What security sources and analysts believe is more likely, however, is an attempt by Russia to disrupt the contest in other ways, embarrassing Britain and delivering a poke in the eye to Ukraine.
Why would Russia want to disrupt a singing contest?
Russia takes Eurovision very seriously. Even before it invaded Ukraine, Moscow saw Eurovision as a window through which it could frame its culture war with Western Europe and its perceived liberal values.
Its foreign secretary, Sergei Lavrov, complained in 2013 about “stolen” votes. St. Petersburg legislator Vitaly Milonov, an influential member of Vladimir Putin’s party, called the contest “blatant propaganda of homosexuality and spiritual decay” in 2014.
Last year Russia was banned from participating due to its invasion of Ukraine, which went on to win the contest on a wave of public solidarity. Britain came second, which is why it was selected to host on behalf of Ukraine.
Eurovision provides Russia with multiple opportunities to cause havoc and disruption.
First there’s the contest itself. Voting is conducted digitally, which means it could be vulnerable to cyber attacks and Russian actors casting false votes, the security source said.
Then there’s the broadcast itself. Eurovision is watched by millions all over the world, which makes it an ideal target for anyone wanting to make a splash, says Iain Wyke, Chief Inspector of Protective Security Operations at Merseyside Police. “This is a really, really good platform. If you were a single-issue group or you had a particular ideology or particular beef you wanted to have with someone or a government, what better stage to put forward your argument, display banners and such? You’ve got the eyes of the world well and truly looking around you.”
Disruptions to the broadcast could come in other forms. Cyber attacks or attempts to interfere with the feed could lead to hijacking of the broadcast or blackouts, officials explained. There are also concerns that infrastructure around the contest – venues or social media feeds – could be targeted digitally, to cause disruption or spread disinformation.
If any protest does take place, it might not be directly related to Russia or Ukraine, but more an effort to embarrass the UK and undermine Western values that Russia opposes.
Peter Ricketts, a former National Security Adviser to the UK government, told CNN that he could imagine incidents supported or encouraged by Russian actors 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 up discord and division on cultural issues.
However, top of Ricketts’ list of concerns is 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 it might be hard to attribute quickly.”
Why would this help Russia?
This year’s event is, at its heart, a partnership between the UK and Ukraine, two major thorns in the Kremlin’s side. Security officials are very aware of this context and how much Russia would like to embarrass them both.
“This is UK PLC in the spotlight, putting its best foot forward and showing how we can deliver this event for Ukraine, on their behalf with a Ukrainian style,” says Wyke. “It’s the largest non-sporting event televised … if that’s not a captive audience I don’t know what is.”
It’s also crucial to understand how Russia uses things like cyberattacks and propaganda against its perceived enemies.
“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 consulting fellow at Chatham House. “Take the anti-vaccine propaganda they pushed out both before and during the pandemic. That probably hurt Russian citizens too, but if it hurts the West, it outweighs the risk.”
Giles also notes that while the risk of a physical terrorist act is low, it cannot be fully discounted: “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 cause harm. A high-profile event like this, with ties to both Britain and Ukraine, would be an obviously tempting target.”
Of course, a physical attack is the priority, even though Wyke says “no specific intelligence in relation to this event suggest any form of terror threat.”
But the influx of people to a major city gathering in venues and standing in large queues are exactly the sort of soft targets terrorists have tended to hit.
Merseyside Police will deploy 5,500 officers across Liverpool in the runup to Saturday’s final. There will be visible counter-terror measures in place like armed officers and security fences. But Wykes also notes that one of the best ways to keep this event secure is creating awareness in the local community: “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 than to reinforce a security regime around an event of this nature?”
It might seem odd to those unfamiliar that a singing competition created to promote peace in Europe after World War II could become such a flashpoint. But Russia’s decades-long focus on asymmetric, warfare has made an international television event with millions watching at home and in person the perfect battleground for Russia’s fight against the enemies it is unwilling – or unable – to physically invade.