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Russian Influence in Britain is 'New Normal,' Intelligence Committee Warns

By Jamie Dettmer July 21, 2020

A long-awaited House of Commons report laying bare Kremlin-sponsored bids to influence the outcomes of British elections and other votes, and to meddle in the workings of British democracy generally, was released Tuesday, with lawmakers on the intelligence and security committee saying Russia sought to break up the United Kingdom by attempting to "influence" the 2014 Scottish independence vote.

The nine-member cross-party committee, which scrutinizes the work of Britain's spy agencies, dubbed the meddling in the referendum, in which the Scots opted by a small but healthy margin to remain tied to Britain, as the first time the Kremlin had sought to shape a vote in western Europe since the end of Soviet Communism.

Committee member Stewart Hosie said, "The UK is one of Russia's top intelligence targets." He added that Russia had weaponized information and disinformation. "Russia's cyber capability is matter of grave concern and poses an immediate threat to security," he added.

Russian political interference comes in a variety of forms, the panel said, including promoting disinformation to support or undermine a particular side. "Russian influence in the UK is the new normal," the report found. The panel noted the Kremlin has been disseminating fake news and controversial voices via state-backed news outlets like RT and Sputnik, and it has been using automated bot and troll accounts on social media sites Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

The panel, which heard testimony from senior officials from the country's spy agencies MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, as well as other expert witnesses, and was provided with secret intelligence material, expressed alarm about Russia-linked donations to Britain's political parties and issued a caution about the influence of Russian money on the City of London.

Britain's politicians, businesses people, lawyers, real estate agents, accountants and bankers were all warned in the report against becoming too involved with Kremlin-linked oligarchs. The committee criticized British "enablers and fixers," including members of Britain's House of Lords, who have facilitated the flow of Russian money into Britain over the past decade and enriched themselves while turning London into a "laundromat" for Russian cash.

"The arrival of Russian money resulted in a growth industry of enablers – individuals and organizations who manage and lobby for the Russian elite in the UK. Lawyers, accountants, estate agents and PR professionals have played a role, wittingly or unwittingly, in the extension of Russian influence which is often linked to promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state," the committee members said in their report.

The panel recommends the introduction of vigorous controls on Russian investments, saying the Kremlin and friends of Russian president Vladimir Putin sought to gain respectability by doing business in Britain and nurturing contacts in Westminster and the City to leverage cash into political influence. The report's annexes, which contain some of the evidence on which the conclusions are based, were redacted on the grounds of national security.

The committee blamed successive governments, Conservative and Labor, for being too lenient with Moscow even after it became clear Putin had become increasingly hostile toward Britain and the West. "Russia under Putin has moved from potential partner to established threat," according to the report, citing the murder on British soil of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer and Putin critic, and the annexation of Crimea as "stark indicators" that Russia is "unwilling to adhere to international law."

Andrei Kelin, Russia's ambassador in London, dismissed the report's conclusions, telling British broadcasters, "We do not interfere at all. We do not see any point in interference because for us, whether it will be [the] Conservative Party or Labor Party at the head of this country, we will try to establish better relations than now."

And Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-friendly political commentator and a member of Russian government advisory panels, mocked the report, saying the findings were predictable. "Russia is guilty – Russia is guilty of nearly everything. We make lot of jokes about this," he said.

The panel's report comes just days after Britain's foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, claimed it was "almost certain" Russia had tried to interfere in the 2019 British general election. He told lawmakers last week that "Russian actors" had tried to influence the electoral contest by "amplifying" online stolen British government papers detailing US-British trade negotiations.

The committee did not examine Russian activity during last year's election campaign, having already concluded its inquiry. Panel members had pushed for the release of their findings before the last election, but publication was blocked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, apparently fearful of an adverse political impact on the ruling Conservatives.

That delay was criticized by committee members Tuesday as they announced key findings.

The panel said it had not seen clear evidence of Russia seeking to influence the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum, saying it would be "difficult - if not impossible - to prove" allegations that Moscow tried to influence the vote. But the committee criticized the government and intelligence agencies for failing to be more alert about the danger of interference and for not undertaking subsequently to find out whether there was Russian interference on the Brexit referendum."

The committee members urged Johnson to order an assessment of possible Russian meddling in the Brexit referendum, saying the government "did not want to know" if there had been interference in the 2016 vote – and had "actively avoided looking for evidence."

A former British security minister Pauline Neville-Jones said Tuesday she suspects Kremlin did have an ongoing cyber and social media operation aimed at shaping the Brexit referendum, saying it struck her as highly unlikely that the Kremlin would interfere in the Scottish vote but would stay its hands in the Brexit referendum. "It is an objective of Russian policy to weaken democratic institutions in our countries and to weaken alliances between democracies," she added.

The findings of the 50-page report, based on an 18-month long inquiry, will add political. pressure on Johnson to adopt an even tougher line with Russia, and it increases the likelihood that Downing Street will impose further sanctions on Russia, say analysts and diplomats.

Britain's foreign secretary recently hinted at the possibility of new sanctions being imposed on Russia, in addition to those already in effect for Russia's annexation in 2014 of Ukraine's Crimea and for a nerve-agent attack on England targeting a Russian defector.

American, British and Canadian officials last week accused the Kremlin of being behind a massive and ongoing cyber-hack aimed at stealing research into coronavirus vaccines and treatment therapies from western pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions. In a joint statement, the governments of all three countries said the hacking operation started in February and has been unrelenting since.

The allegation was dismissed as nonsense by Kremlin officials, who said they had no need to steal coronavirus secrets as Russia was already far advanced in efforts to develop a vaccine and that the Kremlin had already negotiated to buy any successful vaccine developed by British scientists.

Bill Browder, the American-born financier who has campaigned to expose high-level corruption in Russia and Kremlin subversion overseas, welcomed the report, saying Kremlin-linked oligarchs "spend their money on highly placed people who would basically do intelligence and influence work" for Russia.

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