UK report shows Russian interference must be taken seriously
2020-07-27 | Since 2 Month


Russian leaders have a thing about Britain. The rivalry is deep-rooted, dating from the earliest days of engaging the Ottoman Empire to fighting over its carcass, not least in the Crimean War. The Great Game lasted decades and saw Russia attempting to weaken Britain’s hold over India. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin asserted that “England is our greatest enemy.” If he paid attention to Winston Churchill, who referred to “the foul baboonery of Bolshevism,” he may have had a point.
British interest in Russian and Soviet affairs has often been reciprocated, notably during the Cold War. But if a controversial report from the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, which was finally released last week, is to be believed, the interest is not as intense as it should be. Russia “considers the UK one of its top Western intelligence targets,” deploying considerable resources of the state. Its paramount aim is to seek any and every opportunity to create division, not least in NATO member states, hence its clear preference that the UK be weakened through its departure from the EU. This is why President Vladimir Putin also appears to back Scottish independence.
The standout shocking revelation of the report was not that the British security services had been asleep at the wheel and did not understand the extent of Russian interference in elections — it was that they did not appear to be interested, even after the well-publicized Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential vote. When the committee asked MI5, the security service, about such interference, it came back with a trifling six lines. It was not that they did not know the answer; they were not even bothering to ask the question.
Few committee reports have attracted such controversy. It was written more than a year ago and submitted last October, but the government prevented publication prior to December’s general election, claiming it had not had time to take out any elements that could compromise national security. It was only after a falling-out over the election of the intelligence committee’s new chair — a battle the government lost — that its publication was ordered, some 18 months after it had stopped taking evidence. The new chair was clear: “This committee has been subject to unprecedented delay and dislocation.”
Russian oligarchs have frequently headed to London, earning the capital city the moniker “Londongrad.” They are well ensconced in the British political and business worlds, along with criminal organizations looking to launder their funds. Added to the mix is the considerable amount of political donations linked to Russia. A total of 14 government ministers are known to have accepted donations linked to Moscow, as well as two members of the intelligence committee itself. The underlying accusation is that Russian funding to the Tory party influenced the delays to the report’s publication.
Remember, when considering the Russian threat to the UK, that its agents used Polonium-210 to assassinate opposition figure Alexander Litvinenko in the center of London in 2006. And, in 2018, an advanced nerve agent was used in a failed attempt to kill former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. The idea that Russia could be an ally under Putin was surely smashed.
Stories of Russian attempts to interfere in elections also have a significant history. Accusations that Moscow attempted various disinformation activities during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 were rife.
But this reached new heights during the EU referendum campaign of 2016 and the general election of 2017. Added to these were the hacking of the US Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016 and interference in the French presidential election in 2017. The committee did not attempt to reach any conclusions as to whether such Russian measures made any difference, as it would be tough to prove. But it did query why the British government and security services showed so little interest. At first, British ministers were reluctant to point fingers at Russia, but this started changing from 2017 onwards.
What has changed is the ability to spread fake news and disinformation via social media. Russian agencies, aided by bots and trolls as well as its international media outlets RT and Sputnik, can spread fake news. It can also engage in hack and leak operations, as with the DNC. The committee was disparaging about social media firms, which should “take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously.”
Britain has taken a tough stance on Russia overseas. It was party to imposing sanctions on Moscow after its illegal annexation of Crimea, opposed its interference in Ukraine, and also in Syria. Strangely, this appears not to have extended to the domestic front. The concentration on Daesh and Al-Qaeda may explain this in part, but there is also an understandable reluctance among the security services to have any involvement in elections, for fear of accusations of interference in the democratic process.
Having tried to suppress the committee’s report, one has to question how seriously the government will take its findings. Will a single agency become responsible for protecting British democracy from intrusion? The committee could not determine who was in charge of cyber operations. Other recommendations that might be taken up include a register of lobbyists representing foreign powers, something the US has done since 1938. Proactive measures should not be ruled out, as Britain did finally announce plans for an offensive cyber capability in 2013.
For the moment, states like Russia and China have opportunities galore to interfere with and disrupt Western political systems. Even now, the extent of this infiltration is far from clear. Does it work? Who knows, and it seems too few care. However, 49 percent of Brits believe Russia did influence the EU referendum, undermining faith in the democratic process — itself a Russian aim. Britain has to work with its allies to batten down the hatches and take concerted joint action. Other states should be examining this report carefully to take on board the cautionary tales it highlights.

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