The Government “took its eye off the ball” and failed to respond to Moscow’s menace, reveals a report.
The findings by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) noted there were allegations Russia tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 Brexit vote.
However, it said it would be “difficult – if not impossible” to assess if that was the case.
The committee said the Government was “slow to recognise the existence of the threat”.
It added the intelligence services and ministers should have been aware of the risks, given Russia looked to influence the Scottish referendum on independence in 2014.
The long-awaited – albeit heavily redacted – report has been delayed by the 2019 general election.
Also, the length of time it’s taken to set up a new ISC committee.
The last sitting committee prepared the report.
It described Russian influence in the UK as “the new normal” after successive governments happily welcomed oligarchs to the country.
Some of these Russians have “very close links” with President Vladimir Putin.
They are part of “Londongrad” – a group well established and integrated into British business, politics, and the social circuit.
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 ISC noted that “a number of members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia or work directly for major Russian companies”.
It said these relationships should be “carefully scrutinised” given the potential for Moscow to exploit them.
The committee 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 under-estimated the response required to the Russian threat – and is still playing catch-up.”
The committee suggested that the prospect of interference in domestic political processes by the Russians was viewed as a “hot potato” which none of the intelligence agencies wanted to grasp.
“Open source studies have pointed to the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, and the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’ as evidence of Russian attempts to influence the process,” the report said.
“We have sought to establish whether there is secret intelligence which supported or built on these studies.
“In response to our request for written evidence at the outset of the inquiry, MI5 initially provided just six lines of text.”
The committee called for the intelligence community to carry out a full assessment of potential Russian meddling in the 2016 referendum.
It said: “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.”
Committee member and SNP MP Stewart Hosie said:
“There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.”
In a 20-page response to the report, the Government rejected the call for an assessment of alleged Russian activity during the Brexit referendum.
It said: “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU Referendum.”
The Government also denied the suggestion it had “badly underestimated” the Russian threat.
“The Government has long recognised there is an enduring and significant threat posed by Russia to the UK and its allies, including conventional military capabilities, disinformation, illicit finance, influence operations, and cyber-attacks.
“As such, Russia remains a top national security priority for the Government.”