LONDON — A long-awaited report into Russian influence in Britain was finally published on Tuesday, painting a damning picture of the failure of successive British governments to combat a series of threats and interference in its affairs, ranging from disinformation to the purchase of influence.
The British took their eye off the ball and are still playing catch up, the report revealed, concluding that Britain was one of Moscow’s top intelligence targets amid growing diplomatic tensions between the two nations. As Kevan Jones, a member of Parliament who served on the intelligence committee that released the report, said on Tuesday, Russian interference in Britain “is the new normal,” and a major overhaul is needed to counter Moscow’s destabilization efforts in the future.
Here are some of the main takeaways of the report.
British intelligence agencies ignored the threat posed by Moscow.
According to the report, intelligence agencies ignored threats from Russian interference that they should have seen coming.
No one agency seems to have been responsible for protecting Britain’s democratic process during a series of high profile votes and the report said that it was “surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for” that.
Much of the Russian interference took place in the open — occurring through disinformation — and that meant that it was not the top focus of spy agencies and was partly the responsibility of other government officials. The intelligence community avoided it because it did not want to get involved in domestic politics. They regarded questions about Russian influence in the Brexit referendum as a “hot potato.” But in hanging back, they may have made life easier for Moscow.
It did not reveal evidence that Russia swayed the Brexit referendum.
The report did not show that Russia meddled to any significant extent in the 2016 Brexit vote that prompted Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union — nor did Russia influence the final outcome. But it suggests that no one in the British government ever really asked the question while the campaign was underway — or even after it — despite evidence of meddling.
It notes that open source studies pointed to Russia’s use of bots and trolls to misinform, as well as pro-Brexit and anti-European Union articles on Russian foreign language media outlets. But when the intelligence committee requested information from the domestic intelligence service, MI5, about Russian interference in the referendum, M15 had little to offer. Its initial response was just six lines of text.
There were signs of Russian meddling in British politics before the Brexit referendum.
Two years before the Brexit vote, Scotland held a referendum in which it opted to remain part of the United Kingdom. According to the report there was “credible open source commentary” suggesting that Russia attempted to influence the referendum in 2014.
Some commentators suggested that this was the “first post-Soviet Russian interference in a western democratic process,” the inquiry said.
Russian money, not just disinformation, also plays a role.
Another strand of Russian influence in Britain comes from hard cash. Britain has welcomed oligarchs and allowed them to recycle their cash through “Londongrad,” as the capital has been dubbed, where rich Russians are well integrated in the business and social scene. A large network of lawyers, accountants and real estate agents became wittingly or unwittingly de facto agents of the Russian state, the report found.
And Russia’s influence extended to the highest levels of companies in Britain. Even political figures, including some members of the House of Lords, the unelected second chamber of Parliament, are in some respects on Moscow’s payroll thanks to business interests linked to Russia. Some work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state.
The report’s release was delayed until after a general election.
The inquiry was produced by Parliament’s intelligence and security committee, a group of senior lawmakers whose job it is to oversee Britain’s spy agencies. But the report was completed more than a year and a half ago. So why was its release delayed until Tuesday?
The report, which paints the government in a particularly unflattering light, was sent to Downing Street last year, but its release was delayed until after a general election in December that gave Prime Minister Boris Johnson a big majority. Then publication was held up again amid haggling over the membership of the committee which had to be reconstituted after the election.