By Tom Kingsbury
On July 21, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published its much-anticipated report on Russia.
The report examined a range of issues relating to the Russian government, its influence on the UK and the response of both the Government and intelligence community.
The ISC’s inquiry began in November 2017 and the report was sent to Prime Minister Boris Johnson in October 2019.
The document was not cleared for publication by No 10 before Parliament was dissolved the following month, meaning a new ISC would have to be formed before the report could be published.
It was announced July 20 that the report would finally be published after the Committee was reformed under the new Parliament.
‘An all-encompassing security threat’
The report found that Russia posed “a significant threat” to the UK, “on a number of fronts”.
It claims Russia is “simultaneously both very strong and very weak.”
Weaknesses identified included a lack of reliable partners and influence outside of countries formerly under Russia’s control, weak public and democratic institutions, a comparatively lower population than the West and a weak economy.
“Despite its economic weakness,” the report states, “[Russia] nonetheless heavily resources its intelligence services and armed forces, which are disproportionately large and powerful.”
The report claims Russia has an “enormous risk appetite” and “appears fundamentally nihilistic”. Combined with a decision-making process centralised in the Kremlin, this makes it very difficult for the UK Intelligence Community to predict or understand Russia’s intentions.
A concern of the report is the lack of independent public bodies and the “fusion of government and business”, which allow Russia to “leverage all its intelligence, military and economic power at the same time to pose an all-encompassing security threat.”
The UK also appears to be a top Western intelligence target, the report finds.
The ISC examined Russian interference in democratic processes during its inquiry, including in the 2016 EU referendum.
The report notes that open source studies have demonstrated a “preponderance of pro-Brexit and anti-EU stories” on Russian state-owned international broadcasters, and point to this – as well as the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’ – as evidence of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 referendum.
The Committee requested information to examine if secret intelligence supported these open source studies and, though the results of this are redacted, the report does highlight the “brevity” of MI5’s response to a request.
The report stated:
The brevity is “indicative of the extreme caution amongst the intelligence and security Agencies at the thought that they might have any role in relation to the UK’s democratic processes, and particularly one as contentious as the EU referendum.”
The Committee called this attitude “illogical”, stating that protection of the democratic process from hostile state interference should fall in intelligence and security agencies’ remit.
It is only following the email ‘hack and leak’ operation at the Democratic National Conference that the UK Government “belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose” to the democratic process, the report suggests.
We also learn from the report that a threat assessment was not conducted prior to the 2016 EU referendum, and that if one was, it is “conceivable” that it may have concluded that Russia was a threat and this “might have led [the Government] to take action to protect the process.”
This is despite the report’s observation that “There has been credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.”
“Since 2014,” the ISC’s report states, “Russia has carried out malicious cyber activity in order to aggressively assert itself in a number of spheres”.
The report identifies a number of ways in which Russia uses cyber activity to influence and undermine states, including:
- Pre-positioning – securing an entry point in a network that can be used in the future (or immediately). The report states that “Russia has undertaken cyber pre-positioning activity on other nations’ Critical National Infrastructure (CNI).” Information regarding the UK’s vulnerability to such activity is redacted, though it appears there have at least been attempts to employ pre-positioning on the UK’s CNI.
- Phishing – sending fraudulent emails in order to attain personal information, including passwords. The Government’s signals and communications intelligence department, GCHQ, advised the Committee that “Russian GRU [military intelligence] actors have orchestrated phishing attempts against Government departments”, including “during the early stages of the investigation into the Salisbury attacks.”
The Russian state “has sought to employ organised crime groups to supplement its cyber skills”, the report finds, noting that GCHQ described their relationship as “symbiotic”.
The Committee expressed concerns at the cyber threat Russia poses, stating:
“Russia’s cyber capability, when combined with its willingness to deploy it in a malicious manner, is a matter of grave concern, and poses an immediate threat to our national security.”
It expressed a “need for greater cohesion” among the intelligence community in countering the Russian cyber threat.
It also pressed the importance of ‘cyber attribution’ – identifying and announcing the perpetrators of cyber-attacks – and recommended cooperative international action, stating that the UK must “leverage its diplomatic relationships to develop a common international approach” in attributing cyber activity.
‘Fake News’ – Russia’s disinformation campaign
While the mechanics of the UK’s voting system are “largely sound”, the report finds, the UK is “clearly vulnerable” to digital influence campaigns.
The report states that Russia spreads disinformation for a number of purposes, but all supporting its main foreign policy objectives, which include:
- “direct support of a pro-Russian narrative in relation to particular events”
- “direct support of Russia’s preferred outcome in relation to an overseas election or political issue”
- “general poisoning of the political narrative in the West”
This ‘poisoning’ is achieved through methods such as “fomenting political extremism and ‘wedge issues’,” and the use of ‘astroturfing’ – falsely portraying a viewpoint as one supported by a grassroots group.
Social media companies play a significant role in the dissemination of ‘fake news’, the report shows, adding that they “hold the key and yet are failing to play their part.”
It recommends the Government “establish a protocol” with social media companies to address more seriously covert hostile state use of their platforms, and “‘name and shame’ those which fail to act.”
‘Londongrad’ – Russian influence in the UK
The UK, and especially London, the report finds, has become “a particularly favourable destination” for Russian oligarchs.
“The UK welcomed Russian money, and few questions – if any – were asked about the provenance of this considerable wealth.”
Offering ‘investment visas’ to wealthy Russians appears to be part of the problem, with individuals being able to stay in the UK for three years and four months for an investment of £2 million.
Due to London’s strong capital and housing markets, it “offered ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat’.”
The report also pointed to an “industry of enablers” – lawyers, accountants, estate agents, PR professionals and private security companies all playing a role through working with Russians linked to the Kremlin in “the extension of Russian influence which is often linked to promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state.”
Russian influence has seeped into the UK through the huge amounts of wealth tied to it. The money has been used in “building influence across a wide range of the British establishment”, according to the report, in what leads to a ‘reputation laundering process’ for wealthy Russians. The report states:
“Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, and there are a lot of Russians with very close ties to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth.”
Russian business and investment in the UK have provided access to UK companies and political figures, the report finds, allowing “broad Russian influence in the UK.”
It also notes a number of members of the House of Lords are linked to Russia through business interests or directly working for companies linked to the Russian state. It suggests that these relationships should be “carefully scrutinised, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them.”
The Committee recommends that Lords are required to register payments received of more than £100, as Members of Parliament are, since currently they do not have to disclose any money received, nor its source.
The report identified a number of issues with the intelligence community, including treating the examination of Russian influence on the UK’s democratic process as a political ‘hot potato’.
Regarding the process, the report found that “it has been surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what.”
It also noted “an unnecessarily complicated wiring diagram of responsibilities” between intelligence agencies, and that it was difficult for the UK’s “democratic and consensus-based structures” to match the pace of Russian decision-making.
The report recommends legislation is passed to strengthen the powers of the intelligence community, stating that it is “essential that the intelligence community have the legislative powers and tools they need” to counter Russian activity.
The Committee also points to Government inaction, and states that “the Government badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response it required.”
It noted that the Government’s response to Russia had improved recently, with an increase in resource allocation to hostile state activity, where it had been very heavily weighted towards counter-terrorism.
However, it qualified this by indicating that this was not only due to a proportional increase in threat, but also that the Government was “playing catch-up” with the Russian threat, describing the Government as taking “a somewhat laissez-faire policy approach”.
The report also details a “lack of retrospective assessment” by the Government regarding Russian democratic interference, which is “in stark contrast” to US handling of Russian electoral interference.
Further, it stated that the Government “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.”
What has the response been to the report?
Speaking at a press conference, ISC member and SNP MP Stewart Hosie stated:
“The Committee found it astonishing that no one in Government had sought beforehand to protect the [EU] referendum from such attempts or investigated afterwards what attempts to influence it there may have been.”
He added that the Government should have recognised the threat of Russia following the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, but didn’t and that “because it was so slow to recognise the threat, it didn’t take action to protect the UK in 2016.”
“There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum,” he said, “and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole.”
Former ISC chair and former Conservative MP Dominic Grieve said of the release of the report, “My pleasure is mitigated by a sense of frustration and – bluntly – anger at the way the Government behaved over this report in October last year – there was no valid reason for it not being published then”.
Lisa Nandy, Shadow Foreign Secretary, said in a statement that the report “paints a very bad picture of a government that was far too slow to wake up to the threat posed by Russia towards our democracy and has a confused, inconsistent approach to Russia even now.” She added that “national security should not be an afterthought.”
Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the report exposed “deep systemic failings” in security, and that “on key issues it is clear that there is no overall strategic response to this challenge – little wonder the Government have been so keen to delay the publication.”
During Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer asked the Prime Minister about the long delay between the report being sent to No 10 and its publication.
“The prime minister received that report 10 months ago. Given that the threat is described as immediate and urgent, why did the prime minister sit on that report for so long?”
In response, Mr Johnson said he had taken strong action on Russia and accused Mr Starmer of “sitting on his hands” following the 2018 Salisbury attacks.
Starmer then asked how the Prime Minister explained the report’s claim that the Government had “badly underestimated” the Russian threat.
Mr Johnson replied that no country was more vigilant in protecting against Russian influence than the UK, and said Mr Starmer’s argument was that of an “Islingtonian remainer” who was trying to give the appearance that Russian interference was responsible for Brexit.
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