Russia report accuses government of ‘badly underestimating’ the risk of Russian interference in the UK

PUBLISHED: 11:23 21 July 2020 | UPDATED: 12:55 21 July 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives in Downing Street, after attending a Cabinet meeting, that was held at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives in Downing Street, after attending a Cabinet meeting, that was held at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London.

PA Wire/PA Images

The Russia report has openly accused the government of being too slow to act on the risk Russian interference, claiming it had “badly underestimated” its response to the threat.

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The long-awaited report alleges that Downing Street had taken “its eye off the ball” and failed to respond to Moscow’s meddling in UK elections and institutions.

The heavily-redacted Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) report noted that there had been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum but it would be “difficult - if not impossible” to assess whether any such attempts had been successful.

The committee said the government was “slow to recognise the existence of the threat”.

It said the intelligence agencies and ministers should have been aware of the risk of Russian interference as a result of “credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum” in 2014.

Publication of the committee’s report was postponed by Boris Johnson’s decision to call a general election and the subsequent delays in setting up a the ISC in the new parliament.

The report and a press summary were prepared by the previous incarnation of the committee in the last parliament.

The committee said Russian influence in the UK is “the new normal” as successive governments have welcomed oligarchs with open arms.

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There were Russians with “very close links” to Vladimir Putin who were “well integrated into the UK business, political and social scene - in ‘Londongrad’ in particular”.

The ISC said it was a priority to “mitigate the risk, and ensure that where hostile activity is uncovered, the proper tools exist to tackle it at source and to challenge the impunity of Putin-linked elites”.

The committee noted that “a number of members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies” and these relationships should be “carefully scrutinised” given the potential for Moscow to exploit them.

They said: “It has been clear for some time that Russia under Putin has moved from potential partner to established threat, fundamentally unwilling to adhere to international law - the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 were stark indicators of this.

“We therefore question whether the government took its eye off the ball because of its focus on counter-terrorism: it was the opinion of the Committee that until recently the government had badly underestimated the response required to the Russian threat - and is still playing catch up.”

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael welcomed the findings: “This watershed report confirms an alarming truth: this Conservative government has failed to take the Russian threat to our democracy seriously, even despite the clear evidence they interfered to help Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016.

“The first duty of government is to protect its citizens. However, the Conservatives have been found asleep at their post with their failure to conduct an assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

“The protection of our democracy should never come second to the Tories covering their embarrassing connections to Russian oligarchs before an election. Given what has come to light, Boris Johnson should think again about who his party takes money from and gives influence to.

“Without delay, the prime minister must now announce a wide-ranging and properly funded investigation of potential Russian interference in our democracy, including the EU referendum and independence referendum.”

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