Parliamentary report highlights Russian interference as “urgent threat” to UK security
— 3 minute read — By Sam Portillo
July 2020 saw the release of a long-awaited Intelligence and Security Committee report concerning Russian state activity in the UK. The fifty-five page document alleges that the Putin administration, working with oligarchs, wealthy expatriates and crime syndicates, have been working to destabilise and undermine British democracy for a number of years.
The report describes a Russia that is both “very strong” – with regards to its military, intelligence and nuclear weaponry – and “very weak”, having an inferior economy and population size to the NATO alliance. According to the report, Putin’s administration considers foreign affairs a zero-sum game, meaning that anything negative for the West has an opposite and therefore positive effect on Russia.
UK ballots are recorded and counted entirely on paper, which makes tampering with the voting process extremely difficult. Instead, it appears Russian entities have used digital methods in an attempt to manipulate public opinion. Bots and fake accounts flood social media platforms like Facebook with intentionally false disinformation, designed to denounce political causes and create distrust in democracies. As the report notes: “when people start to say ‘you don’t know what to believe’, or ‘they’re all as bad as each other’, the disinformers are winning.”
Russian agents have been found responsible for “hack and leak” attacks against the Democratic Party in 2016, releasing private emails to the public and uncovering an inherent bias against Bernie Sanders. In 2017, members of the pro-E.U., centrist En Marche! party had their emails leaked, too. Before the 2019 general election, the Labour Party leadership hoped their golden ticket to power: confidential files which seemed to include NHS assets in UK-U.S. trade talks. Social media company Reddit linked the account from which the document had originated to others on Facebook, which had in turn, been linked to the Kremlin.
But propaganda is just one weapon in Russia’s arsenal. The report also talks of long-running financial ties between Westminster and the Kremlin, in the form of donations by wealthy Putin allies. Welcoming investment and prosperity, successive UK governments failed to ask enough questions and prevent illicit interests from gaining a foothold in the country. The presence of Russian funding in London, therefore, has become the “new normal”, and it is difficult if not impossible to distinguish the harmless from the hostile.
The report also notes that a number of members of the House of Lords – who play a pivotal role in signing bills into law – have business interests in, or related to, Russia. It is worth investigating whether the Kremlin has made disguised donations to these members, in an attempt to control UK legislation.
Perhaps more worrying than Russian intervention itself is the lack of a coherent response. No one department across the government or civil service claimed primary responsibility for protecting the UK’s democracy from foreign states. When asked for the inquiry, the National Cyber Security Centre pointed towards the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. DCMS however said that its responsibilities involve setting the rules around disinformation – not leading a response against attacks.
The report suggests that MI5 should lead the response, as with counter-terrorism and espionage duties, and also calls upon social media companies to “play their part” where they suspect illicit activity. The government, it says, should not cower from leading a strong international response, which could involve sanctions and expelling diplomats. Instead of handling the issue like a “hot potato”, the UK should readily name and shame those responsible for meddling in democratic affairs.
It is highly likely that the Putin administration interfered with the Scottish independence and Brexit referendums, as well as recent general elections, although the government says there is no evidence that their attempts “successfully” changed the results. Successful or not, the Russian threat will continue, which requires the government to rethink and resolve the issue.