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UK intelligence report finds 'credible' evidence Russia sought to influence Scottish independence vote

The Intelligence and Security Committee published its long-awaited report on Russia this morning.

The Russian Embassy in London (file photo)
The Russian Embassy in London (file photo)
Image: PA

A BRITISH REPORT into Russian interference in the UK has found that the government there “took its eye off the ball” when it came to the threat posed to the country’s democracy.

The long-awaited report by the Intelligence and Security Committee also found “credible” evidence that Russia attempted to influence the outcome of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

But it noted that although there have been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum, it would be “difficult – if not impossible” to assess whether any such attempts had been successful.

The report, published this morning following months of delays, is based on secret material from Britain’s intelligence agencies. It outlines the threat Russia posed to the UK, as well as efforts to counter it.

Its publication was delayed after Boris Johnson called a general election late last year, which led to a need to re-establish the committee in a new parliament.

In the report, the committee said that the British government was was “slow to recognise the existence of the threat” posed by Russia during the Brexit referendum campaign.

It noted that intelligence agencies and ministers should have been aware of the risk of Russian interference as a result of “credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum” in 2014.

The committee also said that Russian influence in the UK is “the new normal”.

It pointed to how successive governments have welcomed oligarchs into the country and provided them “with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’” and high-profile connections.

There were Russians with “very close links” to Vladimir Putin, it said, who were “well integrated into the UK business, political and social scene – in ‘Londongrad’ in particular”.

The committee also noted that a number of Members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies.

It said these relationships should be “carefully scrutinised” because of the potential for Moscow to exploit them.

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“It has been clear for some time that Russia under Putin has moved from potential partner to established threat, fundamentally unwilling to adhere to international law – the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 were stark indicators of this,” the committee said. 

“We therefore question whether the government took its eye off the ball because of its focus on counter-terrorism: it was the opinion of the committee that until recently the government had badly underestimated the response required to the Russian threat – and is still playing catch up.”

Attempts to steal vaccines

Relations between the UK and Russia have been under severe strain since the Salisbury Novichok poisoning in 2018, which left former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in hospital and led to the death of Dawn Sturgess.

The incident resulted in Russian diplomats being expelled from Britain by then prime minister Theresa May.

Britain, the US and Canada have recently claimed Russian intelligence-linked hackers tried to steal details of research into coronavirus vaccines.

It was alleged a group of hackers, known as the Dukes or Cozy Bear, had targeted research bodies around the world – including in the UK.

Last week, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab claimed that it was “almost certain” that Russia tried to interfere in the 2019 UK general election by “amplifying” stolen government papers online.

The Russian Embassy in London said the nation “has not and will never interfere in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom, especially in the context of democratic elections”.

Raab also announced this month, in a move that irked President Vladimir Putin’s administration, that he was imposing sanctions on 25 Russian nationals linked to the death in custody of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in 2009 after exposing massive corruption in the Interior Ministry.

Contains reporting by Stephen McDermott.

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