BORIS Johnson has rejected calls from MPs for an investigation into whether Russia interfered in the Brexit referendum.
A bombshell report today revealed Putin sees Britain as a “top target” and the UK government “underestimated the threat” of Russia.
The long-awaited report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee confirmed a series of attempts by the Kremlin to interfere in British democracy.
The 50-page document analysed Russian meddling in UK elections and referendums across donations, cyber attacks and even assassinations.
The shocking document says: “It is clear that Russia currently poses a significant threat to the UK on a number of fronts – from espionage to interference in democratic processes, and to serious crime.
“The UK is one of Russia’s top Western intelligence targets: particularly given the UK’s firm stance against recent Russian aggression and the UK-led international response to the 2018 Salisbury attack.
“Russia’s intelligence services are disproportionately large and powerful and, given the lack of rule of law, are able to act without constraint.”
It also warned Britain had been “playing catch-up” to the threat posed by the Kremlin, with Russian interference the “new normal”.
But the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said Mr Johnson is ‘absolutely’ confident the Brexit result was fair.
The results of the 18 month long investigation were finally published this morning after a nine month delay.
The report said:
- There was no evidence of interference in the Brexit referendum- but also the Government did not look for any
- Russia sees Britain as “top target” for cyber attacks and political interference
- The Government “took its eye of the ball” and “badly underestimated” the threat of Russia
- Russian influence in the UK is the “new normal”
- It blasted “successive governments” for welcoming Russian oligarchs and their money “’with open arms” to be recycled through the London “laundromat”
- Claims Russia interfered in the Scottish Independence referendum were “credible”
The report found no evidence of interference in the Brexit vote.
It warned it was “impossible to assess” any level of involvement from Russia and instead demanded a further probe.
Committee member Stewart Hosie MP said: “The report reveals that no one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the [Brexit] referendum because they did not want to know.
“The UK Government have actively avoided looking for evidence that Russia interfered, we were told they hadn’t seen any evidence but that is meaningless if they didn’t even look for it.”
Kevan Jones MP added: “We wanted to see the post-referendum assessments but there isn’t one there has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and that goes back to no one wanting to touch this issue with a 10ft pole”.
The report also backed Britain’s voting system to stand up to any attacks.
It adds: “While the mechanics of our paper-based voting system are largely sound, we cannot be complacent about a hostile state taking deliberate action with the aim of influencing our democratic processes.”
The committee explained it had sent a request for written evidence from MI5 on interference and got a reply with just “six lines of text”.
The ISC said it believed this was because the intelligence and security agencies were worried they could be seen to have any role in the UK’s democratic processes.
It explained: “We understand the nervousness around any suggestion that the intelligence Agencies might be involved in the mechanics of the democratic process, but that does not apply when it comes to the protection of those processes.
“Democracy is intrinsic to our country’s success and well-being. Protecting it must be a ministerial priority, with the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism taking the policy lead and the operational role sitting with MI5.”
Responding to the report, the Government insisted a “retrospective assessment” of the EU referendum was not necessary.
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman today insisted Boris Johnson is “absolutely” confident the 2016 EU referendum result was fair.
He added: “We haven’t seen any evidence of successful interference in EU referendum.”
It suggested interference did take place in the Scottish Independence referendum, labelling the claims Russia was involved as “credible”.
It pointed to the use of “bots” and “trolls” as evidence Moscow tried to interfere.
Mr Jones said there was “clear evidence” of Russian interference not just from the Scottish referendum but also the hacking of the Democrats in the US.
He added that despite this the Government still failed to direct intelligence agencies to look into any influence in past or future elections.
After last week’s revelations Russia had intervened in the 2019 election by “amplifying” documents used by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Intelligence Committee said its future task would be to look at into how widespread the interference was.
The report also demanded new legislation to crack down on foreign spies, and accused the Government of being slow to act.
It said: “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.
“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.”
The committee also raised concerns about which Government organisation is actually responsible for protecting the UK against foreign interference.
It said: “The defence of those democratic processes has appeared something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation considering itself to be in the lead, or apparently willing to conduct an assessment of such interference.”
The ISC also warned Britain could not stand up to Russia alone.
They said: “We need other countries to step up with the UK and attach a cost to Putin’s actions.
“Salisbury must not be allowed to become the high water mark in international unity over the Russia threat.”
Speaking after the publication of the report, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab dismissed claims Britain had not handled Russia properly.
He said: “Russia is a top security priority. We call out Russia when it’s necessary.
“We’ve shown that in relation to the cyberattacks on research and development facilities in the US, UK and Canada.
“We’ve done that together with our partners, and we are not for a second complacent about the threat Russia poses when it comes to cyber.”
It blasted “successive governments” for having welcomed Russian oligarchs and their money “’with open arms”.
The report warned this gave them power and access to influential figures.
It said: “Successive Governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London “laundromat”, and connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures.
“This has led to a growth industry of “enablers” including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who are – wittingly or unwittingly – de facto agents of the Russian state.”
The report admitted that is now too late to “shut the stable door” but that the UK can still introduce “greater powers and transparency”.
The report also pointed to a series of false stories pumped out by Russian state broadcasters, as well as through bots online.
It has now called for a social media crackdown on fake news.
It said: “The Government must now seek to establish a protocol with the social media companies to ensure that they take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously, and have clear timescales within which they commit to removing such material.”
Chief EU Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt claimed the report shows “just how many questions remain unanswered” about the referendum.
Nigel Farage insisted it showed “no evidence of Russian involvement”, despite the report explaining it did not look for it.
Today a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson dismissed the report.
Mariya Zakharova said: “There was no sensation. It’s Russophobia set in a fake shape”.
Russia has been accused of repeated interventions and attacks on British soil.
This includes the Salisbury poisoning attack on spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, 33.
The ex-KGB spy and his daughter Yulia, 36, were exposed to a nerve agent and fell gravely ill after having a pizza lunch in Salisbury on Sunday, March 4, 2018.
Russia denied that their special services were involved in the attack, which sparked a diplomatic spat and the expulsion of embassy staff.
The former head of MI6 had previously claimed there was no evidence of Russian intervention in the Brexit vote, but that it interfered in the US election.
Publication of the report was delayed by Boris Johnson’s decision to call a general election and the need to re-establish the ISC.
The PM is likely to discuss Russia in today’s meeting with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.
It comes just days after Putin’s Russia was accused of trying to steal a coronavirus vaccine from Britain.
The Kremlin laughed off the allegations calling them “foggy and contradictory”.
Security sources say the high-tech espionage was ordered “at the highest levels” – possibly by Putin himself.
One source told The Sun the Kremlin was “terrified of being left behind” in the new Cold War race to find a vaccine.