After long delays and a surprising twist in the appointment of the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (the ISC), the Russia Report has finally been published.
Unsurprisingly, it has been redacted – and quite cleverly. Instead of the conventional black rectangles, the redactions are marked with a trio of asterisks ***. This does make a difference: with the black rectangles you could see if there was a single word or name missing, or a paragraph, or even two pages. With the asterisks, this is not the case. So we don’t really know what we are missing.
Nevertheless, there are some clear and important findings which have not been redacted. You can read the report here. But we have summarised some of the key points below.
In brief, the report suggests that Russia poses a significant threat to our democracy which the UK is not well set up to counter; and government has turned a blind eye to the problem:
- Russia poses a significant threat to the Western world as a whole and the UK in particular;
- Russia’s weapons include disinformation and direct influence to achieve its aims;
- in the UK those with the capability to defend have not taken responsibility for defending; and those with responsibility do not have the capability;
- the UK has uncritically welcomed Russian money and allowed networks of witting or unwitting Russian assets to penetrate business and government;
- the government has turned a blind eye to this fundamental threat to democracy.
Russia poses a significant threat to the West and the UK in particular
“Despite its economic weakness, it [Russia] nonetheless heavily resources its intelligence services and armed forces, which are disproportionately large and powerful.
Moreover, Russia is adept at using its apparent weaknesses to its advantage: for example, its poor national brand and lack of long-term global friends appear to feed its enormous risk appetite – perhaps on the basis that it thinks it has nothing to lose; its lack of democracy and rule of law allows its intelligence agencies to act quickly, without constraint or consideration; and its lack of strong independent public bodies and the fusion of government and business allow it to leverage all its intelligence, military and economic power at the same time to pose an all-encompassing security threat.”
“The security threat posed by Russia is difficult for the West to manage as, in our view and that of many others, it appears fundamentally nihilistic. Russia seems to see foreign policy as a zero-sum game: any actions it can take which damage the West are fundamentally good for Russia. It is also seemingly fed by paranoia, believing that Western institutions such as NATO and the EU have a far more aggressive posture towards it than they do in reality.”
“It appears that Russia considers the UK one of its top Western intelligence targets: while we may not experience the level and type of threat that countries on Russia’s borders suffer, witnesses have suggested that we would sit just behind the US and NATO in any priority list. This is likely to be related to the UK’s close relationship with the US, and the fact that the UK is seen as central to the Western anti-Russian lobby.”
The Weapons Russia uses are wide ranging
“Russia’s promotion of disinformation and its attempts at broader political influence overseas have been widely reported. Examples include:
- use of state-owned traditional media: open source studies have shown serious distortions in the coverage provided by Russian state-owned international broadcasters such as RT and Sputnik;
- ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’: open source studies have identified significant activity on social media;
- ‘hack and leak’: the US has publicly avowed that Russia conducted ‘hack and leak’ operations in relation to its presidential election in 2016, and it has been widely alleged that Russia was responsible for a similar attack on the French presidential election in 2017; and
- ‘real life’ political interference: it has been widely reported that Kremlin-linked entities have made ‘soft loans’ to the (then) Front National in France, seemingly at least in part as a reward for the party having supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the GRU sponsored a failed coup in Montenegro in October 2016 – an astonishingly bold move in a country just a few months from its accession to NATO.”
Those with power are not taking responsibility and those with responsibility lack power
“Whilst we understand the nervousness around any suggestion that the intelligence and security Agencies might be involved in democratic processes – certainly a fear that is writ large in other countries – that cannot apply when it comes to the protection of those processes. And without seeking in any way to imply that DCMS [the Department for Culture Media and Sport] is not capable, or that the Electoral Commission is not a staunch defender of democracy, it is a question of scale and access. DCMS is a small Whitehall policy department and the Electoral Commission is an arm’s length body; neither is in the central position required to tackle a major hostile state threat to our democracy. Protecting our democratic discourse and processes from hostile foreign interference is a central responsibility of Government, and should be a ministerial priority.
In our opinion, the operational role must sit primarily with MI5, in line with its statutory responsibility for “the protection of national security and, in particular, its protection against threats from espionage, terrorism and sabotage, from the activities of agents of foreign powers and from actions intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy … ”. The policy role should sit with the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) – primarily due to its ten years of experience in countering the terrorist threat and its position working closely with MI5 within the central Government machinery. This would also have the advantage that the relationship built with social media companies to encourage them to co-operate in dealing with terrorist use of social media could be brought to bear against the hostile state threat; indeed, it is not clear to us why the Government is not already doing this.
With that said, we note that – as with so many other issues currently – it is the social media companies which hold the key and yet are failing to play their part; DCMS informed us that ***. The Government must now seek to establish a protocol with the social media companies to ensure that they take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously, and have clear timescales within which they commit to removing such material. Government should ‘name and shame’ those which fail to act.”
The UK has uncritically welcomed Russian money in business and politics
“The money was also invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment – PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process. In brief, Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth. This level of integration – in ‘Londongrad’ in particular – means that any measures now being taken by the Government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation.
It is not just the oligarchs either: the arrival of Russian money resulted in a growth industry of enablers – individuals and organisations who manage and lobby for the Russian elite in the UK. Lawyers, accountants, estate agents and PR professionals have played a role, wittingly or unwittingly, in the extension of Russian influence which is often linked to promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state.
Russian state interests, working in conjunction with and through criminal private interests, set up a ‘buffer’ of Westerners who become de facto Russian state agents, many unwittingly, but others with a reason to know exactly what they are doing and for whom. As a result, UK actors have to deal with Russian criminal interests masked as state interests, and Russian state interests masked by their Western agents.”
“Several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organisations in the UK, having donated to political parties, with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations. It is notable that a number of Members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state – these relationships should be carefully scrutinised, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them. It is important that the Code of Conduct for Members of the House of Lords, and the Register of Lords’ interests, including financial interests, provide the necessary transparency and are enforced. In this respect, we note that the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament requires that MPs register individual payments of more than £100 which they receive for any employment outside the House – this does not apply to the House of Lords, and consideration should be given to introducing such a requirement. A ‘Foreign Agents Registration Act’ (an issue which is addressed in the section on Legislation) would also be helpful in this respect.”
Government turned a blind eye to the threat
“The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results.”
“We have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference, ***. This situation is in stark contrast to the US handling of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, where an intelligence community assessment was produced within two months of the vote, with an unclassified summary being made public. Whilst the issues at stake in the EU referendum campaign are less clear-cut, it is nonetheless the Committee’s view that the UK Intelligence Community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum and that an unclassified summary of it be published.”
Prime Minister Johnson’s response to this request has been to deny it. The Financial Times reported,
“Prime minister Boris Johnson, who led the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, on Tuesday made it clear he would not bow to the ISC’s call for a security review of potential interference in the Brexit vote. ‘We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum,’ the government said, adding: ‘A retrospective assessment of the EU referendum is not necessary.’”
Which seems to confirm the ISC’s point.
“We have previously discussed the extent to which economic policy dictated the opening up of the UK to Russian investment. This indicates a failure of the security policy departments to engage with this issue – to the extent that the UK now faces a threat from Russia within its own borders. What appears to have been a somewhat laissez-faire policy approach is less easy to forgive than the response of the busy Agencies.”
“It is nevertheless striking that two out of the five ‘pillars’ of the cross-Whitehall Russia Strategy are still focused on proactive engagement and relationship-building with Russia, beyond essential communication. Whilst it is possible that an improved relationship between Russia and the UK may one day reduce the threat to the UK, it is unrealistic to think that that might happen under the current Russian leadership. It would have to be dependent on Russia ceasing its acts of aggression towards the UK, such as the use of chemical weapons on UK soil. The UK, as a Western democracy, cannot allow Russia to flout the Rules Based International Order without there being commensurate consequences. Any public move towards a more allied relationship with Russia at present would severely undermine the strength of the international response to Salisbury, and the UK’s leadership and credibility within this movement.”
It is clear that there have been multiple failures to take seriously the threat to democracy posed by Russian interference. For a long time the government sought to prevent publication of the report. Now that it is (largely) in the public domain, we should make sure we act to protect our democracy.
If this matters to you, please do sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.