After more than nine months of, as Johnson himself might put it, ‘dither and delay’(read more about it here), the long-awaited “Russia Report” was finally released on Tuesday July 21st.
It was quickly portrayed as a damp squib by the Brexit crowd: Nigel Farage, quickly reinforced by Brexit-bad-boy-in-chief, Arron Banks, took to Twitter to demand ‘apologies’. Mr. Farage was on a misleading technicality, correct when he asserted that the Report uncovered ‘no evidence of Russian interference in the referendum.’ For those whose views might blinker them from reading the full thing, Farage’s tweeted summary was enough.
Of course, though, that is far from the full story. As MP Kevan Jones aptly precised: “The outrage isn’t that there was interference, the outrage is that no one wanted to know if there was interference.” On that point and many more, the Report was truly damning.
Its opening pages detail how the U.K., just behind the U.S. and NATO, is one of Russia’s top Western intelligence targets. The aggressor in this instance is weak due to a “lack of strong public and democratic institutions, including the rule of law.” Of course, in that weakness inheres the Russian state’s greatest strength, as the Report goes on to recognise: Putin and his associates are able to make hugely consequential decisions on what, in most cases, appear to be personal whims; he is unencumbered by a pesky Parliament that might really hold the government to account – as, for example, PM David Cameron was in his plans to bomb Syria in 2013. After all, how would the ideas of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko or the Skripals – both decisions likely taken within the higher echelons of the Russian state – have stood up to parliamentary and public scrutiny?
As for the latter instance, the Report informs us that the government, presumably as a result of that brazen violation of international law on the streets of Salisbury, and other such indiscretions of the Russian state, “has now begun to take a more assertive approach”. “Now begun” is the problem with this assertion: what about Mr. Litvinenko (who was murdered, I might add, back in 2006), the various other Russian dissidents who have died (many in suspicious circumstances) in the U.K., the Russia-sponsored attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016, Crimea in 2014, Georgia in 2008? The list could go on. Why has it taken this long?
Of course, the Russian threat is pluriform: it is not just brash murders and annexations but, and perhaps even more disconcertingly, it is the multi-platform Russian disinformation campaigns, its electoral meddling, its cyber and ‘gas attacks’ on states in its near abroad, and plenty more besides. The Report, then, is right to draw attention to ‘RT’ (formerly Russia Today) and ‘Sputnik’ – two state-controlled media platforms, the former with a strong U.K., and international presence. The objective, the Report argues, is to cast doubt on the true account of events – more than inkeeping with RT’s “Question More” tagline.
One key objective of such disinformation and influence campaigns, according to the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), is to support “Russia’s preferred outcome in relation to an overseas election or political issue”. That misses the point. Yes, the Russians undermined the Clinton campaign in support of Trump in 2016, but, whoever emerged victorious from that battle, the Russians had won: it is not so much the outcome, however favourable, but the fostering of division and chaos in the West that really makes Russia tick. In this, it is nihilistic. Anything that sows discord in the U.S., or any of its allies for that matter, is a victory for Putin – a dark throwback to the zero-sum nature of the Cold War.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, we are told, has ‘primary responsibility’ for disinformation campaigns – a job, given the often complex and nebulous nature of such campaigns, that seems more fitting for a hard-hitting department or agency, be it the Ministry of Defence, or one of the U.K.’s intelligence agencies.
On page 12 of this most fascinating – and, in some places, irksome – document, the ISC crows that “our democracy is intrinsic to our country’s success”. That is true, of course, and yet the Brexit plebiscite – perhaps one of the most astonishing exemplars of direct democracy in the U.K.’s long history – could, for all we know, have been subject to manipulation by outside powers. “Could”, I emphasise because, of course, we don’t know, and we likely never will. Hours after the release of the Report, Mr. Johnson rejected calls to investigate Russian interference in the referendum.
Yet, despite the clear threats to British democracy, MI5, the Report tells us, is cautious of appearing to have a role in democratic processes. This is perhaps the most flawed piece of reasoning propagated throughout this whole saga. Its role should be to protect our democratic processes; this smacks of a derogation of responsibility. Indeed, in response to the Committee’s request for evidence, MI5 initially provided just six lines of text. Later in the report, a representative of MI6 – 5’s counterpart for assessing foreign threats – gave their opinion that “the appetite for work against the Russian threat has sort of waxed and waned.” It is hard to believe that this was honestly said in reference to a critical aspect of our nation’s national security.
The Report also considers, and rightly so, the impact of the inflow of Russian cash into London – a city it refers to as the ‘laundromat’.
Clearly, although, according to the Report, said inflow is seen as a boon in some quarters – namely the City of London (i.e. the square mile), and the offices of law firms and real estate agents – it raises concerns.
The report talks of “the very muddy nexus between business and corruption and state power in Russia.” Therein lies the issue: many of the Russian oligarchs made their vast sums in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse, often through shady means. Those who are most prominent today – including the likes of Roman Abramovich – have undoubtedly benefited from their relationship with Putin’s Kremlin. Indeed, Catherine Belton in her recent release, Putin’s People, discusses the possibility that Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea FC in 2003 was conducted on orders from the Kremlin in a bid to expand Russian influence in London.
There is, though, a large number of people who come to the U.K. to escape the violent proclivities of the Putin regime. Some of them were mentioned above, but there are plenty more resident in the U.K. as a matter of, quite literally, life or death. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for one, was arrested in Russia on what were likely trumped- up charges; he had his oil company, Yukos, wrested from him before it was subsumed into the partially state-controlled Gazprom. He has since funded anti-regime activities, including leaked documents damaging to Putin and his allies.
The activities of the Russian state and the fabulously wealthy Russians in London are, for the most part at least, separate issues. Britain should welcome foreign investment, as long as the cash is clean and a distance from Putin established. Those close to the Kremlin – especially given the sanctions imposed on Russian officials by countries around the world – should be subject to even more stringent checks.
What, then, can we gather from the Report that might give us a flavour of the future Britain-Russia relationship?
It is clear, beyond all else, that change is long past needed.
No government – contrary to what the Report claims – has “begun to make a more assertive approach”. How can one when it refuses to even investigate a potentially very serious threat in the form of meddling in the Brexit referendum? On the contrary, the “cross-Whitehall Russia strategy” aims to develop “a Russia that chooses to cooperate, rather than challenge or confront.” That ship has long sailed – in fact, one may well find it somewhere in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Two of the five pillars of said strategy still focus on proactive engagement and relationship-building. One is forced to wonder whether the whole Whitehall establishment has its collective head in the sand.
The Report includes discussion – including from the then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid – of how an increased focus on Russia must not come at the expense of other threats, including China. The irony is, of course, that those who gave evidence to the ISC – including representatives of MI5 and MI6 – spent a good portion of time justifying why the Russia threat had fallen down the pecking order: they had been focused, instead, on Islamist terrorism, they said.
National security isn’t a game of prioritisation: it is, or at least should be, a game of “let’s take every threat – be it China, Russia, North Korea, Islamic or far-right extremism – as seriously as they damn well should be.”
Worryingly, when asked to give a rating of their performance pertaining to the Russia threat, it seemed that MI5 and MI6 were unable to do so. I, for one, struggle to believe that the U.K.’s intelligence agencies do not have such internal ratings and systems to judge the threat and their response to it.
At a fundamental level, some of the eye-opening antiquities discussed in the Report must be addressed if we are to confront the Russia threat. One may be surprised to learn that, today, it is not an offence in any sense to be a covert agent of the Russian intelligence services in the U.K. unless one acquires damaging secrets and hands them to their superiors. That must change.
As must the Official Secrets Act (OSA) – half of which, we are told, was drafted for the WWI days, when the chief threat was German spies. One worthy recommendation included in the Report is the introduction of some version of the U.S.’s Foreign Agents Registration Act, which “requires anyone other than accredited diplomats – including both US and non-US citizens – who represents the interests of foreign powers in a “political or quasi-political capacity” to register with the Department of Justice, disclosing their relationship with the foreign government and information about related activities and finances.” That Act was introduced in 1938. At least on this, we would only be 82 years late – rather than over 100 when it comes to the OSA.
The Report’s authors appear weary of the potential for escalation, which they consider “particularly potent”. That ship, I suspect, might be found somewhere in the Black Sea, too; perhaps in formation with the aforementioned “cooperation” ship.
Of course, the escalation is already well underway – indeed, it has been for more than a decade.
Ironically, Edward Lucas, a commentator and author who gave evidence to the Committee, wrote a fascinating book entitled, tellingly, The New Cold War, as long afore as 2008. It was intended to act as a wake-up call for Western politicians and citizens alike. Only now, it appears, are Mr. Lucas’ sentiments being taken somewhat seriously.
This government, despite the rhetoric, will likely continue to be soft on Russia. That must change – beginning with an investigation into the Brexit referendum, which may well call into question the dubious claims of Farage and others.
That, unfortunately, would be just the beginning.