UK establishment criticised for dropping the ball on Kremlin threat

Just last week, the British government said it believed Russian hackers with likely links to the Kremlin had tried to interfere in last year’s general election. But on Tuesday, ministers were accused of having “badly underestimated” the threat posed by Moscow, as parliament’s intelligence and security committee published its much delayed report into Russian influence operations in the UK.

The core criticism was that the government had failed to investigate whether Russians had meddled in the Brexit referendum four years ago. “It wasn’t that this was some sort of wild fishing expedition,” Labour ISC member Kevan Jones said, citing other examples of interference including the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2016 US presidential campaign.

The UK’s diplomatic, military and security establishment has long talked of the risks posed by Russia but the ISC’s report highlighted the broad range of that threat including attempts to derail democratic processes, cyber hostility and Russia’s reliance on London as a centre for illicit finance. Here are the report’s five key findings.

Ministers ignored possible election interference

Mr Johnson rejected the committee’s call for a retrospective intelligence services report into “potential interference in the EU referendum”, with the government insisting it had seen “no evidence” of such meddling.

But Scottish National party committee member Stewart Hosie said there was no evidence because the government “did not want to know”.

The prime minister, a leader of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, appears to have little appetite for an inquiry into whether Russia helped to deliver the Brexit vote. That contrasts with the near-certainty with which Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, last week claimed that “Russian actors” had tried to help Jeremy Corbyn win the 2019 general election by circulating a leaked report on US-UK trade talks.

Theresa May, former prime minister, also declined to launch an investigation into allegations of Russian disinformation during the EU referendum — an inquiry that would have infuriated Tory Eurosceptics. Although Mrs May took a tough line with Moscow after the Salisbury poisonings, she was happy to accept assurances from the security agencies that there was “no evidence” of successful Russian interference in the Brexit vote, according to former aides.

Nigel Farage, Brexit party leader, said the ISC report had failed to turn up evidence of Russian involvement with him or his Leave.EU campaign. “It was all a hoax — apologies are now required,” he said.

Nigel Farage, celebrates victory in the 2016 EU referendum at the Leave.EU party © Charlie Bibby/FT

Spy agencies dropped the ball

Britain’s main security agencies also face criticism in the report — not least because MI5’s response to the committee’s queries on the issue of possible interference in the EU referendum was limited to six lines of text, partly referencing open-source academic studies.

More widely, the committee concludes that “on figures alone, it could be said that they [the agencies] took their eye off the ball” in relation to Russia. The report states that 20 years ago, MI5, the UK’s domestic security service, devoted 20 per cent of its effort to hostile state activity including Russia, China and Iran.

As the threat from Islamist inspired terrorism grew that declined to 16 per cent by 2001-02 and to 10.7 per cent by 2003-04. By 2008-09 only 3 per cent of MI5’s effort was directed at hostile states. It was not until 2013-14 that resources began to increase again, rising to 14.5 per cent.

The report says that the agencies’ focus on terrorism was “understandable”, but that MI5’s “extreme caution” about involving itself in the issue of election interference by hostile states was “illogical”.

However Nigel Inkster, a former director of foreign intelligence agency MI6 and a senior adviser at the think-tank IISS, said the UK’s intelligence bill “would have to go up quite substantially” if the services were required to expand Russia operations while doing the same amount on counter terror.

The London ‘Laundromat’

The report describes how London became a favourable destination for Russian oligarchs and their money after a new “investor visa” was introduced in 1994. The UK government believed that developing links with major Russian companies would “promote good governance” by encouraging ethical and transparent practices, it says. Instead it offered mechanisms for illicit finance to be recycled through the city’s “laundromat”.

Meanwhile large sums were spent on extending patronage and building influence through PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions.

The report criticises the “enablers” working for the Russian elite in the UK, whether lawyers, accountants, estate agents, security professionals or PR advisers. Some critics of the Conservative party had hoped to see more explicit criticism of its donations from wealthy Russians, exceeding £3.5m in a decade.

British prime minister Boris Johnson (centre-left) speaks with Russian president Vladimir Putin (centre-right) during the International Libya Conference in Berlin this year © Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin/EPA/Shutterstock

Instead the report is more coy, referring only to unspecified members of the Russian elite who have been “involved with charitable and/or political organisations in the UK” having donated to political parties. More directly, however, it notes the number of members of the House of Lords with business interests linked to Russia or working directly for major Russian companies with connections to the state.

The ISC calls for the House of Lords’ register of interests to be updated in line with the House of Commons register so that details of any payments over £100 are made public. At present peers do not have to disclose the identity of people they do work for.

Russia’s ‘grave’ cyber threat

The committee issues particularly grim warnings on Moscow’s effectiveness in cyber operations, suggesting that Russia’s cyber capability, when combined with its willingness to deploy it maliciously, “is a matter of grave concern, and poses an immediate and urgent threat to our national security”.

It also contains GCHQ’s assessment that Russia is a “highly capable cyber actor”, and exposes Moscow’s phishing attempts against the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence’s DSTL science laboratory at Porton Down during the early stages of the investigation into the Salisbury poisonings.

As the report points out, the government has made significant efforts to address this, by being more “assertive” in publicly admonishing Russia when attacks can be attributed to Moscow. There is a recognition that the UK is becoming more adept at its own offensive cyber operations, though both the MoD and GCHQ are reluctant to discuss this openly and the details of their strategy are contained in a classified annexe.

Members of the UK emergency services in hazard suits tackling the novichok attacks in Salisbury © Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty

The role of organised crime

The report is revealing on the connections between Russian organised crime and espionage activity, detailing how Russia has “sought to employ organised crime groups to supplement its cyber skills” and reporting GCHQ’s view that there is a “symbiotic relationship” between organised crime and Russian intelligence.

Keir Giles, an expert in Russian power projection at the Chatham House think-tank, told the FT this took hold as early as the 1990s, when “you could be talking to a Russian official and you didn’t know whether this was in his role as a government employee, an intelligence official, an organised criminal, or possibly all three”.

As a result, efforts by UK law enforcement to target potential Russian criminals with tools such as unexplained wealth orders meet significant opposition: the National Crime Agency told the committee that the subjects of such orders were “wealthy people with access to the best lawyers” which were taking up significant resources from the agency’s legal teams. The committee has suggested that the government should urgently toughen its legislation on sanctions and money laundering.