Foreign Policy

four Key Takeaways From the British Report on Russian Interference

On Tuesday, Britons got their first look at the long-anticipated Russia report from Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, which oversees the work of U.K. intelligence agencies. Four years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, a referendum long overshadowed by allegations of Russian meddling, the report is the first public examination by a parliamentary committee of Moscow’s efforts to use disinformation, malicious cyberactivity, and the influence of wealthy Russian expatriates to manipulate British politics. 

The 47-page, highly readable report, which has been shelved for over a year, offers a damning assessment of the U.K. government’s failure to examine Russian attempts to influence the course of the Brexit vote and describes Russian interference in the country as “the new normal.”

“There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum, and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole,” said committee member Stewart Hosie of the Scottish National Party during a press conference, raising questions about the British government’s efforts to protect the integrity of its elections.

Here are four key takeaways from the report. 

1. Failure to heed early warning signs

While Russia has long honed its hacking and disinformation skills on neighboring countries in Eastern Europe, the report notes that Russia’s efforts to sway voters in Scotland ahead of the 2014 independence referendum marked the first known attempt to interfere in the democratic processes of a Western country. Rachel Ellehuus, the deputy director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it was surprising that “as far back as 2014, knowing the objectives and the tactics of the Russians, they did not take more decisive steps.”

It was only after Russian operatives hacked and leaked internal emails from U.S. Democrats during the 2016 election that “the Government belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose in this area,” the report states, a realization that came one month after the Brexit vote. If an assessment had been conducted before the Brexit referendum, the report adds, “it is inconceivable that they would not have reached the same conclusion as to Russian intent, which might then have led them to take action to protect the process.”

2. It’s the not the British Mueller report

The report makes it clear that the physical process of voting in the United Kingdom is largely secure due to the continued use of paper ballots. But questions of what Russia may have done to try to influence the Brexit vote, and how effective its efforts were, remain unanswered—and most importantly, have not been examined by the British government, according to the report.

“The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG [Her Majesty’s 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,” the report notes. 

The committee also did not receive any U.K. government or intelligence assessments of the extent of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the Brexit vote. “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,” the report states.

In Washington, congressional investigations, the Mueller report, intelligence community assessments, and criminal indictments have together painted a detailed and public picture of Moscow’s efforts to sow discord and tip the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. The two-year investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller interviewed some 500 witnesses and issued over 2,800 subpoenas as part of its probe. 

Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian intelligence and organized crime, said he hoped the committee report would be followed by a more granular, Mueller-style report. “You need to actually have a clear sense of what you’re addressing, and above all you need to have a strong political will,” Galeotti said. 

3. “Hot potato”

The report notes that the issue of protecting the integrity of British elections had become a “hot potato” with no one government ministry or intelligence agency taking the lead. As such, it was at times “surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what,” the report found. 

Intelligence agencies, loath to be seen as getting involved in democratic processes, did not see the defense of electoral integrity from foreign interference as their primary responsibility, suggesting that task instead lay with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport and the Electoral Commission. When asked by the committee about Russian disinformation efforts, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, known as MI5, initially responded with just “six lines of text,” the report states. 

4. Londongrad

It’s no secret that London is awash with Russian money, which has flowed into the city since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A proliferation of lawyers, public relations firms, accountants, and real estate agents have enabled Russian oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin to launder their reputations and their money in the British capital. The report stops short of naming names but notes that wealthy Russians with expansive patronage networks have now become a fixture of the London elite. 

“It is widely recognised that Russian intelligence and business are completely intertwined,” the report states, noting that any attempts to contain the influence of wealthy Russians are now more likely to take the form of damage control, rather than prevention. 

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