Who protects British democracy from Russia? No one, concludes UK Parliament report

The report described how British politicians had welcomed Russia's oligarchs to London, allowing them to launder their illicit money through what it called the London “laundromat”

The New York Times July 23, 2020 07:34:58 IST
Who protects British democracy from Russia? No one, concludes UK Parliament report

London: Russia has mounted a prolonged, sophisticated campaign to undermine Britain’s democracy and corrupt its politics, while successive British governments have looked the other way, according to a long-delayed report released Tuesday by a British parliamentary committee.

From meddling in elections and spreading disinformation to funnelling dirty money and employing members of the House of Lords, the Russians have tried to coopt politicians and corrode institutions, often with little resistance from law enforcement or intelligence agencies that ignored years of warning signs.

The report, in many ways harder on British officials than the Russians, did not answer the question of whether Russia swayed one of the most consequential votes in modern British history: The 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union. But it was unforgiving about who is protecting British democracy.

“No one is,” said the report’s authors.

“The outrage isn’t if there is interference,” said Kevan Jones, a Labour Party member of Parliament who served on the intelligence committee that released the report. “The outrage is no one wanted to know if there was interference.”

The release of the report came more than seven months after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party racked up an 80-seat majority in Parliament and almost 18 months after the end of the inquiry by the Intelligence and Security Committee, a parliamentary body that oversees the country’s spy agencies.

Still, it was eagerly awaited in Britain, where anxieties about Russia’s behaviour range from influence-peddling with oligarchs in London to the poisoning of a former Russian intelligence agent and his daughter in Salisbury, England.

The report also landed in the heat of a US presidential election, shadowed by questions about ties between President Donald Trump and Russia, as well as fears of renewed foreign tampering, not just by Russia but also by China and Iran.

The committee’s account characterised Russia as a reckless country bent on recapturing its status as a “great power,” primarily by destabilising those in the West.

“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,” the authors said.

Experts said the report showed parallels between Britain and the United States in the failure to pick up warning signs, but also important differences. The FBI and other US agencies, they said, had investigated election interference more aggressively than their British counterparts, while the British were ahead of the United States in scrutinising how Russian money had corrupted politics.

“This is one of the pieces that is not really well understood in the US,” said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which tracks Russian disinformation efforts in the United States. “Whether there is dirty Russian money that has flowed into our political system.”

The report described how British politicians had welcomed oligarchs to London, allowing them to launder their illicit money through what it called the London “laundromat.” A growth industry of “enablers” — lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, and public relations consultants — sprang up to serve their needs.

These people, the report said, “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.”

Several members of the House of Lords, the report said, had business interests linked to Russia or worked for companies with Russian ties. It urged an investigation of them, though it did not name any names. That information, as well as the names of politicians who received donations, was redacted from the public report, along with other sensitive intelligence.

“The most disturbing thing is the recognition of what the Russian government has gotten away, under our eyes,” said William F Browder, a US-born British financier who has worked extensively in Russia and provided evidence to the committee. “The government, and particularly law enforcement, has been toothless.”

The report painted a picture of years of Russian interference through disinformation spread by traditional media outlets, like the cable TV channel RT, and by the use of internet bots and trolls. This activity dated to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, but it was never confronted by the country’s political establishment or by an intelligence community with other priorities.

Focused more on clandestine operations, the spy agencies were anxious to keep their distance from political campaigns, regarding them as a “hot potato,” the report said. Nor was it clear who in the government was in charge of countering the Russian threat to destabilise Britain’s political process.

“It has been surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what,” the report said.

Despite pressing questions, the report said the government had shown little interest in investigating whether the Brexit referendum was targeted by Russia. The government responded that it had “seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum” and dismissed the need for further investigation.

But the committee suggested that the reason no evidence had been uncovered was because nobody had looked for it.

“In response to our request for written evidence at the outset of the inquiry, MI5 initially provided just six lines of text,” the committee said. Had the intelligence agencies conducted a threat assessment before the vote, it added, it was “inconceivable” that they would not have concluded there was a Russian threat.

Among the report’s most politically salient conclusions might be about a Russian influence campaign during the Scottish independence referendum. Nationalist sentiment is surging again in Scotland, partly because many voters consider the Scottish authorities to have handled the coronavirus pandemic better than the government in England. Based on its previous behaviour, some experts said, Russia would try again to encourage the fracturing of the United Kingdom.

“That obviously has implications for next year’s Scottish elections, and the polling on referendums,” said Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government, a research institute in London. “All this is very, very relevant.”

Concerns about Russian meddling and aggression stretch back more than a decade to the death in 2006 of Alexander V Litvinenko, a former KGB officer and critic of the Kremlin, who was killed in London using a radioactive poison, polonium-210, believed to have been administered in a cup of tea. An inquiry concluded that his killing “was probably approved” by President Vladimir Putin.

In 2018, another former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, were found seriously ill on a bench in Salisbury, after a poisoning attack that left them hospitalised for weeks. Britain accused two Russians of using a rare nerve agent to try to kill Skripal and expelled 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation.

Although the report was approved by Downing Street in 2019, its release was held up before the election that gave Johnson his decisive parliamentary majority. Critics said he had been compromised by donations to his party from wealthy Russians living in Britain and they argued that the report was delayed unnecessarily.

After the election, there was a second delay while Downing Street agreed on the membership of a new Intelligence and Security Committee.

While the publicly available part of the report unearthed little new material, one expert said that it underscored the need to widen the focus and improve the coordination of Britain’s intelligence apparatus.

“We did know most of this,” said Martin Innes, director of the Crime and Security Research Institute at Cardiff University, “but people were not joining the dots and seeing that quite a serious situation was developing.”

“What Russia wants is to be able to play great power politics,” Innes said. “And one of the ways of doing that is by destabilising the UK and some of its close allies to create that space to manoeuvre.”

Mark Landler and Stephen Castle c.2020 The New York Times Company

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