September 30, 2020

‘No One’ Protected British Democracy From Russia, U.K. Report Concludes

LONDON — Russia has weaponized information as part of a broad and long-running effort to interfere in the British political system and sow discord, and those efforts were widely ignored by successive British governments, according to a long-awaited report released on Tuesday by the British Parliament.

While the report examined Russia’s possible role in fomenting conflict surrounding some of the United Kingdom’s most divisive political battles in recent years — including the 2016 Brexit referendum that rejected membership of European Union and a 2014 referendum in which Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom — it did not draw conclusions on the success of those efforts.

Instead, the authors of the report told British lawmakers that they could not speak to the effectiveness of the Russian influence campaign because the government had failed to even be alert to the threat despite years of mounting evidence.

It raised a fundamental question: Who is protecting the country’s democratic system?

“No one is,” was the answer given by the authors.

“The government here has let us down,” Kevan Jones, a member of Parliament who served on the intelligence committee that released the report, said at a news conference.

“The outrage isn’t if there is interference, the outrage is no one wanted to know if there was interference,” Mr. Jones said. “What we do know about Russian interference in the U.K. is it is the new normal.”

The release of the Russia report comes almost one and a half years after the conclusion of the inquiry by the British Parliament’s intelligence and security committee, the body that oversees the country’s spy agencies.

Despite the long wait, it comes at a moment of high interest in the extent of Russian interference in western politics, ahead of the U.S. presidential elections in November.

The report, based on secret intelligence as well as evidence from independent experts, aims to summarize the threat Russia poses to Britain and the effectiveness of countermeasures.

Concerns about Russian meddling and aggression stretch back more than a decade to the death in November 2006 of Alexander V. Litvinenko.

A former K.G.B. officer and critic of the Kremlin, Mr. Litvinenko had won asylum in Britain. He was killed in central London by the radioactive poison polonium-210, believed to have been administered by a cup of tea. A subsequent British inquiry concluded that his killing “was probably approved” by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and the head of the country’s intelligence service.

In 2018, Sergei Skripal, another former Russian spy, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, were found seriously ill on a bench in Salisbury, England, after a poisoning attack that left them hospitalized for weeks. Britain accused two Russians of using a rare nerve agent to try to kill Mr. Skripal.

Although the intelligence and security committee report was seen and approved by Downing Street in 2019, its release was held up before a general election in December that brought Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, a large majority in Parliament.

Critics of Mr. Johnson say he has been compromised by donations to his Conservative Party from wealthy Russian donors living in Britain and argue that the report was delayed unnecessarily.

The report itself raised questions about the influence Russia wields in the country’s corridors of power.

“It is notable that a number of members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state,” according to the report. “These relationships should be carefully scrutinized, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them.”

Last week, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said that Russian “actors” almost certainly sought to interfere in the 2019 general election through the online “amplification” of stolen documents relating to trade talks between Britain and the U.S.

After the election, there was a second delay in the publication of the Russia report until Downing Street agreed on the membership of a new intelligence and security committee.