The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

British Parliament says government failed to investigate possible Russian election interference

Former ministers Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers, Conservative members of the British Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, leave the committee’s offices in London on July 16. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Successive British governments have embraced Russian oligarchs and then looked the other way on alleged election interference, according to the United Kingdom's long-delayed and highly anticipated "Russia Report," released Tuesday.

The 50-page document, prepared by Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee and based on material from British spy agencies, did not provide any striking evidence of Russian interference. It concluded that it was impossible to assess any actions in the 2014 Scottish independence vote, the 2016 Brexit referendum or the 2017 general election, because the British government — under the Conservative Party leadership of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson — did not conduct serious assessments.

“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,” said Stewart Hosie, a member of the intelligence committee and a lawmaker from the Scottish National Party. The British government “actively avoided looking for evidence that Russia interfered,” he said.

The report further charged that Conservative governments have “welcomed the [Russian] 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.”

Russian oligarchs, who enriched themselves with the breakup of the Soviet Union, are deeply embedded in the British establishment, using their fortunes to snap up Belgravian mansions and countryside estates, put their children through Eton College and Oxford University, and buy companies, high-rises and hedge funds. Some of the wealthy Russian immigrants insist they are anti-Putin.

The report called Moscow’s influence in the U.K. “the new normal.”

Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian Federal Council’s foreign affairs committee, called the report’s findings “groundless, hollow and unconvincing.” Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chairman of the committee, called the findings “absolutely unfounded.”

Ahead of its release, Britain’s “Russia Report” had drawn comparisons to the investigation and report from former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

But the report landed Tuesday with somewhat of a dull thud, especially for those who predicted that it would draw clear lines between Russian influencers and Britain’s right wingers.

Bill Browder, an American financier, told The Washington Post that he gave the committee evidence showing that “the new way Russia interferes in Britain is through this buffer network where they use corrupt oligarchs to pay members of the British establishment.”

Browder said this chummy state of affairs — often centered on high finance in London’s investment, real estate and banking communities — also included members of the House of Lords. He said he gave names to the committee, although it opted not to print them.

Much of the detail gathered by the committee was redacted in the published report.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage said the report exonerated him and his movement to leave the European Union. “Years of lies and smears from Remain politicians and much of our media. There is no evidence of Russian involvement with Leave EU or me in the referendum,” he wrote on Facebook. “It was all a hoax — apologies are now required.”

Guy Verhofstadt, the chief Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament, tweeted that Brexit had been “a gift” to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But he offered only the relatively toothless observation that “the Russia Report shows just how many questions remain unanswered.”

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Committee members said they could not determine whether Russian intelligence services and their troll farms and hackers had successfully interfered in the Brexit vote because the government made no effort to find out.

“Even if the conclusion of any such assessment were that there was minimal interference, this would nonetheless represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the U.K.’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe,” the report stated.

Compared with Washington, the report said, London “took its eye off the ball on Russia.”

“This situation is in stark contrast to the U.S. handling of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, where an intelligence community assessment was produced within two months of the vote, with an unclassified summary being made public,” the report said.

The parliamentary report was finished in March 2019 and sent to 10 Downing Street for vetting but then held back from release. The government cited different explanations at different points, including not wanting to cloud the December 2019 general election.

The long delay gave rise to conspiracy theories and accusations of a coverup.

Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, told the BBC last year that the publication delay was “shameful.” She added that in Washington, there was “no doubt of the role that Russia played in our 2016 election and is continuing to play.”

The British government has pointed a finger at Russian interference more recently.

Last week, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told a parliamentary intelligence committee that “Russian actors” sought to interfere in the country’s 2019 general election by acquiring unpublished documents used in trade talks between the United States and Britain, and then leaking the material via social media.

“Sensitive government documents relating to the U.K.-U.S. Free Trade Agreement were illicitly acquired before the 2019 General Election and disseminated online via the social media platform Reddit,” Raab said in a written statement to Parliament.

The foreign secretary added, “It is almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019 General Election through the online amplification of illicitly acquired and leaked Government documents.”

Moscow last week called Raab’s charges of election interference “unfounded.”

“The British administration is making the same anti-Russian mistake again and thus not only further undermining bilateral relations with Moscow, but also its own authority,” Leonid Slutsky, head of the Russian State Duma’s foreign affairs committee, told reporters Thursday, according to the Interfax news agency.

“Raab is using the phrase ‘highly likely’ again,” Slutsky said. “That is, a criminal case is again being initiated on the basis of ‘highly likely,’ in the absence of specific evidence, which the head of the Foreign Office admits. What happened to the presumption of innocence? Where is the evidence?”

Also last week, Britain, the United States and Canada accused Russian cyberspies of trying to steal coronavirus vaccine-related research.

James Nixey, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, questioned whether anything would change as a result of the report.

He cited the poisoning of a former Russian double agent on British soil and its aftermath as typical of the dynamics between Britain and Russia. In 2018, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the English city of Salisbury. Britain accused Russia of attempting to assassinate Skripal and expelled Russian diplomats. Russia denied it.

“Nobody seems willing to break that cycle of transgression, accusation, denial. We just go around and around,” Nixey said.

“Russia likes to keep itself in the news cycle and relevant; even if it’s sort of morally ambiguous, it doesn’t want to be ignored. It produces some form of bad news story, and Russia becomes significant once more. Brits for their part don’t have the political backbone to make a substantive response that imposes costs on Russia,” he said.

He described the relations between the two countries, which have been frosty for decades, as “abysmal.”

“I would say that they are rock-bottom, but you never know what fresh hell comes our way next week,” he said.

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