Russia launched cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns on U.K., study says

"Russian influence in the U.K. is the new normal," according to the report by Parliament's intelligence and security committee.
Image: A Russian flag flies by surveillance cameras at the entrance to the Russian consulate in London
A Russian flag flies by surveillance cameras at the entrance to the Russian consulate in London.Justin Tallis / AFP - Getty Images

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By Patrick Smith

LONDON — Russian cyberattackers "intruded" into the U.K.'s critical national infrastructure and represent an "immediate and urgent threat" to national security, according to intelligence agencies and experts quoted in a report released by British lawmakers Tuesday.

The report from the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, which was delayed for nine months and has been heavily redacted, says the U.K. is clearly a target for Russian disinformation and described Russian influence in Britain as "the new normal."

The U.K. report also says British authorities were slow to react to the possibility of hacking and should have acted after the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016.

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 in a two-year investigation concluding in 2019. That report failed to find evidence that the Trump campaign "coordinated or conspired" with the Russian government.

Mueller's investigation concluded that paid Russian activists spent years crafting convincing social media accounts and fake profiles that would engage with Trump campaign team members, while Russian intelligence officials’ attempted to systemically hack and dump documents stolen from Democratic officials.

The U.K. report said Russia carried out "pre-positioning activity" on multiple countries' critical national infrastructure networks, including in the U.K., citing the country's National Cyber Security Centre. Pre-positioning is where hackers explore and secure an "entry point" in a network that could be used to disruptive effect.

The report added that the G.R.U, Russia's military intelligence agency, orchestrated phishing attacks against British government departments and that Russian actors on occasion employed organized crime groups "to supplement its cyber skills."

A Brexit-themed billboard depicting Boris Johnson waving Russian national flags in November 2018.Dnaiel Sorabji / AFP - Getty Images file

The report also stated that "until recently, the government had badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response it required."

In his daily media briefing just before the report's release, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any Russian interference in U.K. affairs.

"Russia has never interfered in electoral processes in any country in the world: not in the U.S., nor in Great Britain," he said. "We do not do this ourselves, and we do not tolerate it when other countries try to interfere in our affairs."

Opposition politicians said the report, and the delay in issuing it, was an indictment of the ruling Conservative Party.

Lisa Nandy, the opposition Labour Party's shadow foreign secretary said it was "extraordinary" that Boris Johnson chose to "block the publication of this important report that systematically goes through the threat Russia poses to the U.K.’s national security."

Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, said after the report's release: "I do think the main message would be negligence on the part of the U.K. government in the face of Russian interference."

The report said there was "credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns" during the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, but failed to include any new evidence of meddling in that vote.

Contrary to widespread allegations that the report would confirm Russian meddling in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the report fails to confirm this but calls for more research on possible Russian influence on the Brexit vote.

But it adds that the U.K. government had not seen or "sought evidence of successful interference in U.K. democratic processes," leading the committee to conclude it had "taken its eye off the ball" on Russian influence.

The report's authors called for new laws to "tackle espionage, the illicit financial dealings of the Russian elite and the ‘enablers’ who support this activity."

"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 U.K. companies and political figures," the committee said in a summary shared with the media.

"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."

In a lengthy response to the report, the U.K. government said it had "long recognized there is an enduring and significant threat posed by Russia" including cyber-attacks. "As such, Russia remains a top national security priority for the government."

A pro-independence supporter holds a Saltire flag with "Yes" written on it in during a march in Edinburgh in 2013.Andy Buchanan / AFP/Getty Images file

The U.K. report, which was completed in October 2019 and only released Tuesday, became a long-running sore in U.K. politics as Prime Minister Boris Johnson continually blocked its release. The committee needed his approval to release it due to potential national security risks, leading some rival lawmakers to accuse Johnson of burying bad news.

Relations between Moscow and London fell to their lowest point in decades in March 2018, after Britain squarely accused the Russian state of commissioning the poisoning of former Russian military spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. It was the first known use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II.