Boris Johnson and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of an international summit on Libya, January 2020 (Alexei Nikolsky/TASS)
On July 21, after months of delays, the UK Government’s Intelligence and Security Committee finally released its report on Russian interference in British politics. The publication made alarmingly clear the depth of Moscow’s attempts to influence UK electoral and political processes.
But far from being concerned, the Kremlin gave the report a warm reception, relishing its portrayal of Russia as the power pulling the strings in Westminster.
Showcasing the fragmentation of the UK Government and its intelligence agencies, the report fed the narrative that President Vladimir Putin has pushing for decades of a weak and divided West and a strong and unified Russia.
Moscow’s message, put out through State outlet RT: “It is not Russian foreign policy which is in the grip of paranoia but the West’s.”
Key Claims of the Russia Report
The ISC report assesses that Russia has intervened significantly in British politics for years. It argues that Moscow interfered in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2016 Brexit referendum, as well as in decisions within the House of Lords, engaging in the “general poisoning of the political narrative in the west”. It summarizes the role of Russian elites, connected to the Kremlin, in “Londongrad”, the European heart of Russian money laundering and cultural power plays.
The ISC found that not only has the UK Government been aware of the extent of Moscow’s influence, but it also has ignored signs of Russian interference in British political and financial circles over the past decade. With no lead from the Government, UK intelligence agencies took their “eye off the ball” on the issue of Russia.
But the Committee, in its report and in statements of frustration from leading members, said the accusations could not be fully established with evidence because of the Government’s aversion to any investigation and analysis. The consequence is that no legal charges or political claims can be made, offering Russia the perfect escape from responsibility.
In the Kremlin, Putin and his advisors enjoyed the report’s depiction of Russia as the scheming disruptor of the West, a “highly capable cyber actor”, and a “real world threat”.
As journalist Emma Burrows explains, the narrative plays into the hands of the Kremlin as it portrays a tense political climate between Russia and the UK.
Since the outset of his Presidency, and particularly since 2012, Putin has pushed an anti-European doctrine that sees the West as inherently opposed to Russia. This “new Cold War” narrative rests on a power binary through which Russia is politically, culturally, and economically superior to its Western counterparts. The Russia Report feeds this, showcasing the length of the Kremlin’s whilst demonstrating the British Government’s disinterest or inability to counter Moscow.
Despite its sweeping conclusions, the report’s limited evidence is compounded by redactions that hide the true extent of Russia’s disinformation campaigns, data mining, and illicit activities. Setting out Russian influence on the EU Referendum, “open source studies” and media articles are complemented by only five lines of text from the domestic intelligence service MI5 and statements such as “in May 2017, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) concluded that *** and that ***”.
With no way of accessing the full truth, the report’s claims fall on deaf ears. The culprit gets off scot-free because the victim will not reveal the evidence of the crime.
RT labeled the report as nothing more than the regurgitating of “sensationalist Buzzfeed stories”. The site claimed that ISC was playing into the hands of “Russophobia”, bolstering the Kremlin’s presentation — in line with its dismissal of Trump-Russia links in the 2016 US Presidential election — as nothing more than another “witch hunt”.
The Russia Report has highlighted the weaknesses in Westminster. Rather than deterring Moscow, it has revealed major cracks in the UK’s ability to protect itself from external threats. Journalist and academic Dan Lomas summarizes that the report establishes how “successive government and the UK agencies have taken their eyes of the ball”.
Systemic issues are highlighted throughout the report, such as the Government’s failure to coordinate evaluation and action on the issue of Russian interference. In a “hot potato” scenario, the intelligence agencies MI6, MI5, and GCHQ have passed the Russia issue to one another, hoping to avoid dealing with it.
The report also details the poor institutional funding of the UK’s primary defense agencies. Since the end of the Cold War, GCHQ’s budget for research on Russian threats plummeted from 70% of its operational effort in 1990 to 6% in 2012. Even though Russia has displayed an increasingly hostile presence in Europe since then, there has been little reallocation.
The problem is exacerbated by the Government’s poor response to disinformation. Without a clear structure, direction, and resource for agencies, the UK is impotent in the 21st-century media environment. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee can only plead, “We’re urging the government to get on with long promised legislation to protect against online harms.”
These weaknesses have been compounded by lack of accountability. The Government has dithered back-and-forth with the ISC for years, because of preoccupation with matters of domestic politics.
The negligence over Russian interference would have been a political blow for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party in the lead-up to the December 2019 election. Exposure would also have jeopardized Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done”, with the devotion to leaving the European Union by the end of 2020. Deutsche Welle’s Rob Mudge noted, “No one likes to be embarrassed — and the UK government under Johnson is no exception.”
The lack of accountability continues in the aftermath of the report. Little to no action has been taken as headlines over the Russian meddling, and the Government’s complicity through negligence, quickly dissipated.
The Russia Report portrays the Kremlin’s incursion into the heart of the British system, with evidence from influence in the House of Lords to “political donations” seeking leverage within parties. But Moscow’s reach can also be felt in cultural, educational, and financial sectors.
Nowhere is this presence greater than online. Mark Galeotti summarizes, “Often it is not about the obvious disinformation being used, it is about how it is contextualized into the capillaries of the modern information system.”
The Kremlin continues to cover up its economic weakness with the veneer of another victory over the West. If its accomplice is the UK Government, its weapon is ambiguity. Without reliable evidence, there is no certainty about the Kremlin’s influence.
Within the cloud of ambiguity, Russia’s narrative is more powerful than any reality. Its power no longer relies on economic or military strength, but on the ability to project strength in itself and weakness in others. In politics, it is often not about how scary you actually are, but how scary people think you are — be it over your election interference, your nerve agent attack on UK soil, or your poisoning of Vladimir Putin’s domestic opponents.
James Nixey, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House explains, “Russia likes to keep itself in the news cycle and relevant; even if it’s sort of morally ambiguous.” As it prepares for Putin’s indefinite Presidency, the Kremlin celebrates the Russia Report for helping with the task.
To counter this, British institutions need to create clarity and transparency. Due to a lack of will and coordination, they are unlikely to do so.