Russia report: Interference is 'the new normal'

A damning and long-delayed parliamentary report has declared that Russian interference in the UK is “the new normal”.

The report, by a respected committee of parliamentarians that oversee the UK’s intelligence agencies, found that “Russians with very close links to Putin” were now “well integrated” into British society through financial ties to political parties, peers, charities, academia, the legal profession and more.

“A wide sphere of the British establishment – PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process,” the report concluded.

The committee found that this “reputation laundering” was part of a much wider pattern of Russian interference, including efforts to hack critical infrastructure, assassinate enemies of the state on UK soil, and deploy disinformation operations during elections and referendums.

The report was critical of the government and intelligence agencies for taking their eye off the ball on Russian interference, noting 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”.

The committee members recommended that the intelligence agencies should now assess Russian attempts at interference during the Brexit referendum campaign and publish “an unclassified summary” as part of this process.

The ISC had asked the intelligence agencies for information on 14 deaths on UK soil that were reported by BuzzFeed News as potentially linked to the Russian state. All of the committee’s conclusions on this matter were redacted.

The report also calls for new legislation “to tackle espionage, the illicit financial dealings of the Russian elite and the ‘enablers’ who support this activity”.

While the committee’s recommendations are not binding, the government traditionally has a majority of its MPs on the nine-member panel and its non-partisan reports are usually taken seriously by officials and ministers.

The publication of the report was mired in controversy late last year when Dominic Grieve, the committee’s previous chair who lost his seat at the last election, submitted it to the prime minister to clear for publication before the 2019 election.

In an unprecedented move, Boris Johnson did not give his approval for the report – which had been cleared by the committee and the intelligence agencies – before the election, leading the Bureau to attempt a crowdfunded legal challenge to force its publication. Though this effort was ultimately unsuccessful, the Bureau – with donors’ generous permission – is using the remaining funds for a two-year reporting effort focusing on Russian and Eurasian influence in the UK, and how UK institutions enable malfeasance and corruption overseas.

The publication of the report now raises serious questions for Johnson and his ministers. The wide-reaching proposals for the UK would:

  • See new powers to make it easier to sanction or confiscate the wealth of oligarchs found to be involved in serious crime
  • Require lobbyists and others working on behalf of foreign governments to officially register themselves
  • Strengthen the Official Secrets Act
  • Require members of the House of Lords to disclose more of their business activities.

Given the government has a strong majority, it can almost certainly choose which measures to adopt, and which to drop.

Briefings of the report given to selected media outlets yesterday hinted that the ISC report would suggest Russia had played a big role in the Scottish independence referendum, but a minimal role in Brexit. Both of these turned out to be substantially inaccurate: the report makes one passing reference to the independence vote, citing public domain sources, but called for a public investigation into interference in Brexit.

Header image: St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow reflected on a Union Jack flag. Credit: Getty Images

Our reporting on the Russia Report was funded out of Bureau core funds. None of our funders have any influence over the Bureau’s editorial decisions or output.