Russia considers the UK one of its top Western intelligence targets, according to a long-awaited report into Russian interference in UK politics published by Britain’s parliament on Tuesday, also criticizing the government for failing to investigate charges that Russia influenced the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The report, compiled by parliament’s powerful Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), questioned: “whether Government took its eye off the ball on Russia, finds that they underestimated the response required to the Russian threat and are still playing catch up.”
In a press release summarizing the report, the ISC said: “Russian influence in the UK is the new normal. Successive Governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’, and connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures.”
This, in turn, led to an industry of “enablers,” including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who were wittingly or unwittingly “de facto agents of the Russian state.”
“[The] UK is clearly a target for Russian disinformation. While the mechanics of our paper-based voting system are largely sound, we cannot be complacent about a hostile state taking deliberate action with the aim of influencing our democratic processes,” the press release warned.
“Yet the defence of those democratic processes has appeared something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation considering itself to be in the lead, or apparently willing to conduct an assessment of such interference. This must change,” it added.
The committee called on social media to take action and remove hostile state material, as well as calling for greater international cooperation, perhaps looking to its US allies: “We need other countries to step up with the UK and attach a cost to Putin’s actions.”
Russian intelligence ‘acts without restraint’
The report was blunt about the threat Russia poses to the UK.
“The UK is one of Russia’s top Western intelligence targets: particularly given the UK’s firm stance against recent Russian aggression and the UK-led international response to the 2018 Salisbury attack,” it said, referring to the poison attack on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent living in the UK, and his daughter.
“Russia’s intelligence services are disproportionately large and powerful and, given the lack of rule of law, are able to act without constraint. The fusion between state, business, and serious and organised crime provides further weight and leverage: Russia is able to pose an all-encompassing security threat – which is fuelled by paranoia about the West and a desire to be seen as a resurgent great power,” it said.
“Russia is a highly capable cyber actor, employing organised crime groups to supplement its cyber skills. Russia carries out malicious cyber activity in order to assert itself aggressively – for example, attempting to interfere in other countries’ elections.”
In the face of detailed accusations by Western spy agencies, Russia has denied interfering in other countries’ elections.
“It has been clear for some time that Russia under Putin has moved from potential partner to established threat, fundamentally unwilling to adhere to international law,” the report said.
“The [London] murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 were stark indicators of this. We, therefore, question whether the Government took its eye off the ball because of its focus on counter-terrorism: it was the opinion of the Committee that until recently the Government had badly underestimated the response required to the Russian threat – and is still playing catch up.”
“Russia poses a tough intelligence challenge and our intelligence agencies must have the tools they need to tackle it.”
A blind eye to Russian interference in UK elections
The report confirmed that there was credible evidence that Russia attempted to influence the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, and that this should have served as a wake-up call.
On the hot topic of Brexit, the report said: “There have been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: studies have pointed to the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on [Russian news outlets] RT and Sputnik, and the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’, as evidence.
“The actual impact of such attempts on the result itself would be difficult – if not impossible – to prove.”
The report went on to say that the Government was “slow to recognise the existence of the threat.”
It was only after Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Party in the 2016 US presidential election that the UK understood the threat it faced, “when it should have been seen as early as 2014.”
“As a result, the Government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016,” the report said. “In our view, there must be an analogous assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum.”
The report criticized the “illogical” intelligence services for their unwillingness to examine Russian interference in the Brexit referendum, in stark contrast with US intelligence and congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
Stewart Hosie, a member of the committee, said the government did not know if Russia influenced the Brexit referendum “because they did not want to know” and “actively avoided any effort” to look into the issue.
“There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole,” he told a news conference.
“There should have been an assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and there must now be one, and the public must be told the results of that assessment.”
Reaction to report
Tobias Ellwood, the chair of parliament’s Defence Select Committee, told Sky News: “We’re actually now seeing the new modern battlefield in play. This is what happens – subversion, disinformation, interference in elections.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been widely criticized for delaying publication of the report, despite it being ready for publication since before the last election.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said: “It is extraordinary that the prime minister, Boris Johnson, took the political decision last October ahead of the general election to block the publication of this important report that systematically goes through the threat Russia poses to the UK’s national security.
“The report is very clear that the government has underestimated the response required to Russia and it is imperative we learn the lessons from the mistakes that have been made.”
By Karim El-Bar