The Daily Telegraph

Putin’s friends wield serious power in UK’S ‘new normal’ Brexit referendum Social media

Long-awaited committee report reveals how Russian figures influence politics and society, and calls for Government action

- By Christophe­r Hope and Gordon Rayner

RUSSIA’S influence in British politics and society is the “new normal”, and the Government has “badly underestim­ated” the response needed, a longawaite­d report by Parliament’s intelligen­ce watchdog said.

The report into Russia’s influence in the UK was finally published yesterday, more than nine months after it was handed in to 10 Downing Street.

The intelligen­ce and security committee found many Russians with “very close links” to Vladimir Putin are “well integrated into the UK business and social scene”.

And it said there was “credible open source commentary” suggesting that Russia tried to influence the Scottish independen­ce referendum in 2014.

But the report, which took evidence from MI5, MI6 and GCHQ as well as other senior intelligen­ce figures, said assessing allegation­s that Russia sought to influence the 2016 EU referendum would be “difficult – if not impossible”.

It called for an inquiry to be held into the matter, with the results published.

Boris Johnson is preparing to give MI5 increased powers to tackle foreign adversarie­s. The government is planning to push ahead with new counteresp­ionage legislatio­n which will introduce a “register of foreign” agents modelled on the approach in the US and Australia according to The Times.

Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, said Russia was a “top national security priority” adding: “We are not for a second complacent about the threat Russia poses when it comes to cyber.”

The committee’s 55-page published report was heavily redacted. Here are the key findings:

Cyber attacks

“Russia’s cyber capability, when combined with its willingnes­s to deploy it in a malicious capacity, is a matter of grave concern, and poses an immediate and urgent threat to our national security,” the committee said.

Moscow had “carried out malicious cyber activity in order to assert itself aggressive­ly in a number of spheres, including attempting to influence the democratic elections of other countries” such as France, where members of the En Marche party had their email accounts hacked.

GCHQ told the MPS Russia “orchestrat­ed phishing attempts against Government department­s” such as the Foreign Office and the UK’S chemical weapons facility in March 2018.

The MPS and peers said ministers had to “call out” Russia’s behaviour internatio­nally, saying that “the Government must now leverage its diplomatic relationsh­ips to develop a common internatio­nal approach”.

Scottish referendum

The referendum in September 2014 on Scottish independen­ce was covered in just one paragraph in the report.

It said: “There has been credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independen­ce referendum in 2014.”

The following heavily redacted paragraph added tantalisin­gly: “However, at the time ***. It appears that *** what some commentato­rs have described as potentiall­y the first post-soviet Russian interferen­ce in a Western democratic process. We note that – almost five years on – ***”.

The MPS and peers pointed out that after the referendum “Russian election observers suggested that there were irregulari­ties in the conduct of the vote, and this position was widely pushed by Russian state media”.

They said: “We understand HM Government viewed this as being primarily aimed at discrediti­ng the UK in the eyes of a domestic Russian audience.”

The report said: “Had the relevant parts of the Intelligen­ce Community conducted a similar threat assessment prior to the [Brexit] referendum, it is inconceiva­ble that they would not have reached the same conclusion as to Russian intent, which might have led them to take action to protect the process.”

Stewart Hosie, an SNP member of the committee, described the attempt to discredit the referendum as a “warning light” ahead of the later attempts from Russia to influence UK affairs.

It is “difficult, if not impossible” to assess the impact of any attempt by Russia to interfere with the 2016 Brexit referendum, the report stated.

The Government “had not seen or sought evidence of successful interferen­ce in UK democratic processes” including the 2016 Brexit referendum, it wrote, confirming a report in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph.

This was in “stark contrast” to the approach in Washington, where the US government carried out an investigat­ion within two months of the 2016 US presidenti­al election and published an unclassifi­ed summary of its findings.

The committee’s inquiry into evidence of Russian attempts to influence the outcome of the EU referendum was met with a six-line reply from MI5.

This was “indicative of the extreme caution” among Britain’s intelligen­ce agencies over their role in the UK’S democratic processes. The committee describes this attitude as “illogical”.

The MPS called for the UK intelligen­ce community to produce “an analogous assessment of potential Russian interferen­ce in the EU referendum and that an unclassifi­ed summary of it be published”, adding that: “Even if the conclusion of any such assessment were that there was minimal interferen­ce, this would nonetheles­s represent a helpful reassuranc­e to the public that the UK’S democratic processes had remained relatively safe.”

Arron Banks, the millionair­e who gave £8million to the campaign, who had been accused by critics of being too close to Russia, escaped any criticism in the report.


Labour and Conservati­ve government­s had welcomed Russian billionair­es “with open arms” for decades with the UK seen as “a particular­ly favourable destinatio­n for Russian oligarchs and their money” after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1994.

“The UK’S rule of law and judicial system were also seen as a draw,” the report said. “The UK welcomed Russian money, and few questions – if any – were asked about the provenance of this considerab­le wealth.”

The Government at the time thought that “developing links with major Russian companies would promote good governance by encouragin­g ethical and transparen­t practices”.

However, the MPS and peers said: “It was in fact counterpro­ductive, in that it offered ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat’.

“The money was also invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishm­ent in a “reputation laundering” process. In brief, Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’. “This level of integratio­n means that any measures now being taken by the Government are not preventive but rather constitute damage limitation.”

The MPS took aim at “a growth industry of enablers – individual­s and organisati­ons who manage and lobby for the Russian elite in the UK”.

There were also concerns about Russian links with peers who are not required to give full details of financial links, unlike MPS. “These relationsh­ips should be carefully scrutinise­d, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them,” the committee said. The Government said the Lords should consider the recommenda­tions.


Concerns about donations from Russians to political parties – a controvers­y which has dogged the Conservati­ves in recent years – merited a single mention in the 50-page report.

The MPS and peers said: “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.”

They added: “The extent to which Russian expatriate­s are using their access to UK businesses and politician­s to exert influence in the UK is” before the sentence was abruptly redacted.

The committee raised a concern from the director-general of MI5 that it was not an offence in the UK to be “a covert agent of Russian intelligen­ce in the UK … unless you acquire damaging secrets and give them to your masters”. The Government replied it was looking at tightening the law.

Britain was “clearly a target for Russia’s disinforma­tion campaigns and political influence operations and must equip itself to counter such efforts”, the committee said.

Social media was a key channel used by Russia to influence the UK through “bots” and “trolls” aimed at spreading disinforma­tion, the report added.

It highlighte­d what it described as the “astroturfi­ng” propaganda technique when a viewpoint is falsely presented as belonging to a certain group.

The committee said: “Employees of the Russian state and Russian-controlled bots may masquerade as ordinary British citizens on social media and give politician­s, journalist­s and other people who may have power and influence the impression – simply via the sheer quantity of posts – that the views espoused are genuinely those of a majority of their country’s public.”

It pointed out that “promoting disinforma­tion does not usually lead to any criminal or civil liability under UK law, but an influence campaign which interferes in a democratic process could”.

MI5, MI6 and GCHQ “do not view themselves as holding primary responsibi­lity for the active defence of the UK’S democratic processes from hostile foreign interferen­ce,” the committee said. This was wrong because the Government bodies in charge – the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Electoral Commission – were not equipped to tackle a “major hostile state threat”.

The MPS said MI5 should be put in operationa­l charge of protecting elections and referendum­s, led by the Office for Security and Counter-terrorism in the Home Office, which would set policy.

Social media companies should also be given deadlines to take down postings by hostile states, with those who fail to do so being named and shamed.

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