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Opinion: The Russia Report warrants a stronger response from the UK Government

28 August, 2020

by Hamish Cruickshank – Research Assistant

Almost a year after its completion, the long-awaited report into Russian activity and interference in the UK was finally published on 21 July 2020 by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC). Boris Johnson has been accused of delaying the report’s publication in an attempt to ward off potential embarrassment regarding Moscow’s interference in British politics, and upon the document’s release he was swift to state that the report contained “no smoking gun”. Rather, he argued, the furore around the report was an attempt by “Islington Remainers” to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Subsequently, the UK Government quickly moved on from the issue.

However, the findings of the report have highlighted the considerable threat the Kremlin poses to British security and made clear that the UK is currently not fit to meet this challenge. The ISC has accused the UK Government of “taking its eyes off the ball” with regards to the Russian threat and such a damning indictment requires a far stronger response from the UK Government.

A brief summary

From the start, the report (available here) emphasises that Russia is a real and significant threat to British security. The Kremlin is accused of seeking to undermine the current international order and damage the West, with the UK being labelled a “top Western intelligence target” for Moscow. The UK is said to be an important target because of its strong ties to the US and NATO and for its robust response to the Salisbury poisoning in 2018 (153 Russian intelligence officers and diplomats were expelled from 29 countries across the world thanks to a UK-led international response.)

The Russian threat is then broken down into three categories:

Cyber – Russia is labelled a “highly capable cyber actor” and the ISC states there is evidence of Russian intrusion into the UK’s ‘critical national infrastructure’ and phishing attempts against UK Government departments.

Disinformation and influence – Russia is said to frequently spread disinformation and run ‘influence campaigns’ to manipulate political events and sow distrust in society. The report states that there is “credible open source commentary” that Russia sought to influence the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and contends that only after Russia perpetrated a ‘hack and leak’ attack on the Democratic National Committee in the US in 2016 did the Government realise how significant a threat Russia posed in this area. Consequently, the UK Government failed to protect the Brexit referendum process and the Government has made no attempts to investigate whether Russia successfully interfered in the referendum – despite numerous open source studies citing evidence that this transpired. The ISC contend that an urgent investigation into Russian interference in the Brexit referendum is required.

Russian expatriates – the report labels London as “Londongrad”, and states that Russian oligarchs and billionaires have increasingly chosen the UK as a favourable destination for themselves and their business. The ISC notes there are “a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin” who have integrated into British business, politics and society and hold significant sway across the country. On the other end of the spectrum, the report also highlights that many Putin critics have sought refuge in the UK and have become targets for the Kremlin.

The ISC investigation revealed that no single intelligence agency or Government ministry has taken the lead in protecting UK democracy from Russia and states that the issue has become a political “hot potato”. British intelligence agencies allegedly did not see the defense of UK democracy as a primary responsibility, with MI5 responding initially with just “six lines of text” when asked about Russian disinformation efforts. The concluding sections of the report emphasise the need for new legislation to counter Russian espionage, tackle crime and protect democracy in the UK, before making suggestions to guide Britain’s future engagement with Russia. The Committee state that a strong focus on counterterrorism in the post-9/11 years has sidelined the Russian threat and the UK is now playing “catch-up”.

A weak reply

Alongside Boris Johnson’s statement in PMQs that “the people of this country didn’t vote to leave the EU because of … Russian interference”, the Government also published its official response to the ISC’s report on 21 July. The response (available here) comes across as a rather defensive and uninformative rebuttal that reiterates official Government positions and simply fails to address some of the ISC’s recommendations. While the response does state that the Government acknowledges the need to strengthen and better coordinate the UK’s intelligence agencies and outlines potential plans for a foreign agent registration system – as operated by the US and Australia – to monitor the activity of those representing the interests of foreign powers in the UK, it offers no comprehensive response to the Russian threat.

Additionally, the Government continues to refuse to investigate potential Russian interference in the Brexit referendum due to there being “no evidence of successful interference”. This refusal to even look at the issue is puzzling given the ISC’s comments on Russian interference in the Scottish independence vote in 2014 and comments in the Government response that state Russia “almost certainly” did interfere in the 2019 UK general election. It also runs contrary to the Government’s statement that “any attempt to interfere in our democratic processes is completely unacceptable.”

The Government response also seems naive and complacent at points. It talks about a long-term strategy to move towards a relationship of cooperation with Russia despite the ISC’s comments that expectations of improvements in bilateral relations are “unrealistic” under the current Russian leadership. Furthermore, there is no comprehensive plan to tackle illicit Russian money nor is there a strategy to manage the increasing number of Russian elites with links to Putin who hold positions or favour with political and charitable organisations in the UK. In sum, the response falls somewhat short.

The necessity for a stronger response

As the ISC point out, British democracy is “intrinsic to our country’s success and wellbeing”. To safeguard democracy in the UK, therefore, stronger measures are needed than what is prescribed in the Government’s official response. For a start, a full investigation into potential Russian interference in the Brexit referendum is a necessity. If on the one hand Russian meddling is discovered, then an urgent rethink is needed into how Britain can protect its democratic processes; while on the other hand, if no evidence is found then this will at least provide the Government with confidence that UK democratic processes are secure.

The Government also needs to clearly outline how British security services will be provided with the right legislative tools and resources to stave off the Russian threat and bring the country’s defences up to speed. Furthermore, the Government needs to develop a comprehensive strategy to tackle illicit Russian finance in the UK and get to grips with the growing number of Russian elites with significant influence in ‘Londongrad’.

The Government’s tepid response to the Russia Report is unlikely to have made any in the Kremlin lose much sleep. A stronger effort is therefore imperative to deter any future attempts to undermine UK democracy. With UK-Russian relations “close to being frozen”, tangible improvements in bilateral relations look doubtful in the coming years. While the UK Government should continue to preserve and cultivate communication channels with Moscow, it should also not be afraid to take a firm stand here and take the opportunity to make clear that the Russian threat has been truly taken into account.

Image: Vladimir Putin and Boris Johnson at the International conference on Libya, 19 January 2020 (Source: Kremlin.ru/CC BY 4.0)

About Hamish Cruickshank

Hamish Cruickshank has an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Edinburgh and recently completed a master’s degree with distinction at the University of Amsterdam where he specialised in Russian and Eastern European Affairs. He produced his master’s thesis on Russia’s Arctic turn and examined the transforming security dynamics of the High North. Hamish has a strong interest in international relations and security studies and has conducted considerable research on Russian foreign policy, Eurasian geopolitics and Arctic security.