British Parliamentary Committee releases an intelligence report on Russian election interference, crime, and other illicit activities. Ava DeSantis writes about the parliamentary agenda on relations with Russia.
The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament began a report on Russian interference in British politics one and a half years ago, pausing only briefly when Boris Johnson called a general election. The newly released report concludes that Russian involvement in Western politics is “fundamentally nihilistic.” Russia, the committee speculates, “[sees] foreign policy as a zero-sum game: any actions it can take which damage the West are fundamentally good for Russia.”
Russian leadership aims to make Russia “seen as a resurgent ‘great power’ — in particular, dominating the countries of the former USSR — and to ensure that the privileged position of its leadership clique is not damaged.” In pursuit of this goal, the report alleges, Russian forces interfered in British politics through cyberwarfare, disinformation, and threats to the safety and security of Russian expatriates.
The anti-Western Russian goals pose a specific threat to UK security. “The Russian decision-making apparatus is concentrated on Putin and a small group of trusted and secretive advisers,” writes the committee, this limited decision-making allows Putin to “make swift decisions.” This ability further “[complicates] any ability to understand or predict Russian government intent,” allowing Putin to outmaneuver his foreign opponents, despite Russia’s lack of foreign influence outside the former USSR.
The report argues that the UK should address the Russian threat as the United States did in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election.
“Russia’s cyber capability,” says the report, “when combined with its willingness to deploy it in a malicious capacity, is a matter of grave concern, and poses an immediate and urgent threat to our national security.”
In 2018, a former Russian spy and his daughter, Sergei and Yulia Skripal, were victims of poisoning and hospitalized for weeks. The British government accused two Russian operatives of using a rare nerve agent on the victims. The report refers to this attack as ‘Salisbury,’ claiming it to be of serious concern and a failing of the British government to follow-up with this breach of national security.
The description of Russian meddling in British politics is heavily redacted within the public copy of the report. The report does make public, however, the fact that there were multiple phishing attempts against Government departments, like the Foreign and Commonwealth and Defence Science and Technology Laboratory offices. These attacks, the report speculates, may have a connection to the Salisbury attacks.
To disincentivize Putin’s administration from engaging in cyberattacks, the committee recommends a ‘blame and shame’ tactic. In 2017, the British Foreign Minister employed the technique, publicly condemning the North Korean ‘WannaCry’ cyberattacks, promising British commitment to “a free, open, peaceful and secure cyberspace.” This is the “right approach,” writes the committee, because “there has to now be a cost attached to such activity.”
In addition to ‘naming and shaming,’ the British government should “leverage its diplomatic relationships” to create an international alliance against undemocratic cyberattacks. The British government should also work with social media companies to ensure that these companies commit to protecting their platforms from hostile takeovers and remove material resulting from these attacks.
Beyond direct cyberattacks, the report accuses Russian agents of deliberately spreading misinformation, or disinformation, to influence political events in the West. The motives of these Russian actors vary, but all attempts support Russian foreign policy objectives of a pro-Russian narrative, Russia’s preferred outcome in a foreign election or referendum, and the “general poisoning of the political narrative in the West by fomenting political extremism.”
The stunting of disinformation campaigns happens with increasing transparency in political advertisements. The committee recommends “all online political adverts should include an advert should include an imprint stating who is paying for it.” This action would empower British citizens to filter through disinformation independently.
Russian oligarchs and ‘the new normal’
The report describes a more insidious level of Russian influence: business. “In brief,” the committee writes “Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal,’ and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth.”
The moneyed Russian influence reaches Parliament, as well. Many members of the House of Lords have business interests in Russia or work directly for ‘major Russian companies linked to the Russian state.’ The committee recommends Intelligence communities “carefully [scrutinize]” these interests, and their corruptive nature.
This influence requires Parliament to pass new legislation, which would allow the Intelligence Community the tools it needs to address Russian influence. These tools include a new statutory framework to tackle espionage and illicit Russian financial dealings.
The American method of screening potential threats to U.S. security, under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), is preferable to British screening practices. FARA requires anyone other than accredited diplomats who represent the interests of foreign power to register as such with the Department of Justice. The report suggests British policymakers recreate this practice. To prevent dangerous expatriates from entering the country, the committee argues for an overhaul of the Tier 1 visa program, making it more difficult to approve of visas.
The new British agenda
Although, as the report notes “the mechanics of the UK’s voting system are deemed largely sound,” it was a significant failing of the British government to “take lightly” interference in Britain’s democratic process. The report praises the American government’s handling of comparable Russian attacks; referencing the Mueller report, released to the American public in 2019, which detailed Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election.
“We have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference,” the parliamentary committee criticizes. “This situation is in stark contrast to the US handling of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.”
British Intelligence Agencies intentionally abstained from investigating Russian interference in the Brexit referendum to vote due to the contentious nature of the topic. The report calls this abstention an “illogical” choice.
“Whilst the issues at stake in the EU referendum campaign are less clear-cut, it is nonetheless the Committee’s view that the UK Intelligence Community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum,” the committee advises such a report should be available to the public.
Parliament must adopt the American method of investigating all potential Russian threats, the report concludes, despite the inherent threat of a potential escalation of tensions with Russia. “Covert activity against any state carries the potential for conflict,” read the report, but “in the case of Russia, the potential for escalation is particularly potent.”
The Russian regime is “paranoid about Western intelligence activities,” unable to be objective, and views any action as “Western efforts to encourage internal protest and regime change.” Regardless, it is important for Britain to take action, the committee pleads.