Critics say U.K. ignored Russia threat after report finds Britain target of cyberattacks

“The big surprise for us was the great gaping hole in the middle of the report which was the failure to investigate electoral interference.”
Image: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in the House of Commons on Wednesday.Jessica Taylor / AFP - Getty Images

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By Rachel Elbaum

LONDON — A long-awaited report has found that the U.K. is an ongoing target of Russian cyberattacks.

Now the British government is fighting on another front: criticism that it took its eye off the ball and did not look into evidence of Kremlin meddling.

"We categorically reject any suggestion that the U.K. actively avoided investigating Russia," security minister James Brokenshire told fellow lawmakers on Wednesday, adding that the government was “unafraid to act wherever necessary to protect the U.K. and our allies from any state threat."

The 55-page report from the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament said the U.K. is a target for Russian disinformation and described Russian influence in Britain as "the new normal."

It also said that intelligence agencies had not sought out evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 Brexit vote, although Moscow had tried to influence the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

Police officers near the scene of the nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in March 2018.Jack Taylor / Getty Images file

The Kremlin denies any Russian interference in U.K. affairs.

The report has long been the source of speculation, with its publication delayed for nine months. It also comes during a low tide in relations between Russia and the U.K. after Britain accused the Russian state of commissioning the poisoning of former Russian military spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury in March 2018.

To retaliate, the U.K. expelled 23 Russian diplomats allegedly operating as undeclared intelligence officers.

In 2006, former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko died after drinking green tea poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in a London hotel. A British judge ruled in 2016 that he was murdered on the orders of Russia's FSB security agency — and that the action was "probably approved" by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

So for some, the report’s main findings came as little surprise.

“It’s what we’ve been saying for the last decade plus, and it’s a bit of a weary sigh when we see that people are finally catching on,” said Keir Giles, an expert in Russian power projection at Chatham House and the author of “Moscow Rules, What Drives Russia to Confront the West.”

“The big surprise for us was the great gaping hole in the middle of the report which was the failure to investigate electoral interference.”

That was the sentiment of the former chair of the intelligence committee under whose leadership the inquiry took place from November 2017 to November 2019.

“Somebody took their eye off the ball or didn’t actually ever put their eye on the ball in the first place and simply assumed this wasn’t an issue,” Dominic Grieve, a former Conservative lawmaker who was effectively kicked out of the party over Brexit, told Sky News on Tuesday.

Opposition lawmakers have sharply criticized the government as well, with a senior Labour Party member Nick Thomas-Symonds saying that the government has “consistently underestimated the Russian threat over the past six years.”

Heaccused the government of “a chronic, systemic failure where the government has had no single responsible minister or responsible department for defending our democracy.”

Though Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been in his post for just one year, his party has been in power or in a coalition government since 2010.

In addition to highlighting an “immediate and urgent threat” from Russia’s “malicious cyber activity,” the report also lays out how wealthy Russians, some with close ties to Putin, peddled influence and integrated themselves into Britain’s business and social scene.

The findings come more than a year after special counsel Robert Mueller found evidence of Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That report failed to find evidence that President Donald Trump’s campaign "coordinated or conspired" with the Russian government.

On Wednesday, however, Johnson, as well as other ministers and lawmakers, said the U.K. was on top of the threat from Russia.

Britain “leads the world in caution about Russian interference,” Johnson said in Parliament.

Johnson also brushed off criticism on the delay of the report’s publication, saying that it was motivated by a desire to “give the impression that Russian interference is somehow responsible for Brexit.”

The British government has repeatedly said there is no evidence of successful Russian interference in the U.K.’s 2016 referendum to leave the European Union.

Brokenshire said on Wednesday that the government had committed to bringing new legislation to counter hostile state activity and espionage, modernizing current laws that aren’t equipped to deal with current threats.

According to Giles, the focus on the threat from Russia is welcome, but he warned against the recommendations in the report forgotten or overtaken by other events.

“This will not stop because this is a default state and a normal condition for Moscow,” Giles said on Russian meddling efforts. “Playing nice in the hope that Russia will play nice back is as hopeless as it has ever been.”