The Russian Influence on Brexit: Decoding the Russia Report

Renew member and candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 2019 general election, Haseeb Ur-Rehman, argues that the Russia Report damningly reveals just how influential a part Russia has played within UK politics.


The Russia Report is a peculiar document, which obfuscates, skirts, insinuates and in some places almost sarcastically detracts from the Brexit issue; the latter of which nevertheless is central to the Report’s very existence.


It seems that this version of the Report is not the same as that from nine months ago, as it is not explicitly or directly as damaging to the Johnson’s Government, as his initial reluctance to release it, would suggest. Many things are left unsaid or implied and have to be garnered or pieced to together by the reader, suggesting that the Report was intended to be read in conjunction with other information in the public domain dealing with Russian influence over and interference with, the 2016 Brexit Referendum, yet still not providing a full and clear picture. For instance, the two threads more specifically dealing with the 2016 Brexit Referendum; “Case study: the EU referendum” and the political influence of “Russian Expatriates”, are not explicitly linked together, although when considered together, do more clearly indicate the nature of the relationship between Russia and Brexit. The Russia Report, unto itself, almost confirms the very issue that it is trying to address; the weakness and inability of the UK security and intelligence agencies to protect the UK from Brexit and is almost a testament to the extent of party-political control over the security agencies, particularly where they are almost tasked with protecting the UK from the very political party, forming the government they report to. 


The Russia Report deals with Brexit indirectly in its various parts and has to be read in its entirety to draw conclusions. The portion “Disinformation and Influence” begins to touch upon Brexit and states in Paragraph 28 that “Russia’s promotion of disinformation and its attempts at broader political influence overseas have been widely reported” with the example of “Kremlin-linked entities hav(ing) made ‘soft loans’ to the (then) Front National in France, seemingly at least in part as a reward for the party having supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea”. The source for this statement is redacted. Without admitting to anything untoward on the part of any UK political party, pressure-group or “think-tank”, the suggestion here is that Russian funding for Far-Right movements across the EU is a documented fact, indicating that the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament is fully aware of such funding being received by such groups. 


In the following Paragraph 29, the Report states, “Russia may spread disinformation or seek to influence political events for a wide range of purposes, but all in support of its underlying foreign policy objectives” with the example of “direct support of Russia’s preferred outcome in relation to an overseas election or political issue; and (the) general poisoning of the political narrative in the West by fomenting political extremism and ‘wedge issues’”. The Report states that ‘wedge issues’ refers to “highly divisive subjects which bifurcate a country’s population, often (but not always) into socially liberal and socially conservative camps, and which often to at least some degree transcend traditional political party boundaries. Examples of wedge issues include abortion and gun control in the US and Brexit in the UK.” ]


Paragraph 29, is therefore very laterally confirming that Brexit is a Russian foreign policy objective and is subject to Russian disinformation campaigns and “astroturfing”: “a propaganda technique whereby a viewpoint is falsely presented as belonging to a certain group”.


Confirming both Paragraphs 28 and 29, Paragraph 31 states that “(t)he UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations and must therefore equip itself to counter such efforts.” noting that “that the formal HMG assessment categorises the UK as a “REDACTED” target for political influence operations.”  Paragraph 31 goes on to further state that “(t)he Agencies have emphasised that they see their role in this as providing secret intelligence as context for other organisations… and do not see themselves holding primary responsibility for the active defence of the UK’s democratic processes from hostile foreign interference, and indeed… appeared determined to distance themselves from any suggestion that they might have a prominent role in relation to the democratic process itself, noting the caution which had to be applied in relation to intrusive powers in the context of a democratic process.” 


This is followed in Paragraph 32, with “Overall, the issue of defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead.” Paragraph 33 and 34, then proceed to discuss issues of scale, capability and access of the various organisations who would ordinarily be tasked with protecting electoral and democratic integrity, with various recommendations from the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament. 


Paragraph 31 and 32, in essence, state that Russia targets the UK with its disinformation campaigns and political influence operations, yet for largely unstated reasons including “nervousness around… intelligence and security Agencies (being) involved in democratic processes” (as stated in Paragraph 33), the various organisations, who would ordinarily be tasked with protecting electoral and democratic integrity, are not prepared to do so, as doing so evidently in their view, is a task for Government. 


Paragraphs 39 and 40 specifically begin to deal with the “Case study: the EU referendum”, in the context of that above, stating that the impact of attempts by Russia to influence the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU “would be difficult – if not impossible – to assess, and we have not sought to do so” and that yet “it is important to establish whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a UK democratic process…”. Paragraph 40 states that the brevity (“six lines of text”) of secret intelligence provided by MI5 at the outset of the Inquiry, is also indicative of the “nervousness” described in Paragraph 33. This “nervousness” is described in relation to an issue “as contentious as the EU referendum” as “illogical; this (being) about the protection of the process and mechanism from hostile state interference, which should fall to our intelligence and security Agencies.” 


Paragraphs 39 and 40, in effect, admit that Russian influence in the 2016 Brexit Referendum occurred, although no attempts have been made by Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament to ascertain the impact of such influence, for perceived difficulties in doing so. Paragraphs 39 and 40 further state that the failure of organisations tasked with protecting electoral and democratic integrity, vis-à-vis such Russian influence in the 2016 Brexit Referendum, occurred as a result of an illogical reluctance of these agencies to be involved in, or be seen to be involved in, democratic processes and a lack of ownership of such responsibilities by any one agency. 


Continuing to deal with the 2016 Brexit Referendum, as part of Section (i) of “Case study: the EU referendum”: “Failure to prepare”, Paragraph 41, refers to “credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014” particularly referencing “Ben Nimmo – #ElectionWatch: Scottish Vote, Pro-Kremlin Trolls, 12 December 2017”. This Paragraph concludes with “We note that – almost five years on – REDACTED””; presumably referring to the United Kingdom General Election held on 12 December 2019. 


Paragraph 42, states that it was only following the conclusion of the 2016 Brexit Referendum did “the Government belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose in this area” and admitting that such levels of threat were a “game changer” and that “prior to what we saw in the States, [Russian interference] wasn’t generally understood as a big threat to [electoral] processes”.


Paragraph 42, referring to two redacted conclusions of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) as of May 2017, states that “(h)ad the relevant parts of the Intelligence Community conducted a similar threat assessment prior to the (Brexit) referendum, it is inconceivable that they would not have reached the same conclusion as to Russian intent, which might then have led them to take action to protect the process.”


In Paragraph 41, the reference to Russian influence, specifically concerning the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, seems to be a party-political throw-away and the “credibility” of the “open source commentary” by which this particular instance of electoral interference is substantiated, seems primarily to be the pro-Atlanticist and ideological credentials, of the originator of the said commentary, more than anything else. Notably, the same commentator has previously, at least partially, acknowledged Russian influence in the 2016 Brexit Referendum and has variously and conspicuously tended to focus on the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014, as subject to such influence. By merits of acknowledged Russian influence in the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, and presumably in the United Kingdom General Election in 2019, as well as the acknowledgement of the severity of such interference only becoming apparent to the intelligence services, subsequent to the 2016 Brexit Referendum, Paragraphs 41 and 42 again confirm the high likelihood of Russian influence on the 2016 Brexit Referendum, particularly as the Report admits that this conclusion would have been reached had the Intelligence Community, assessed such risks prior to the 2016 Brexit Referendum. 


Still dealing with the 2016 Brexit Referendum, as part of Section (ii) “Narrow coverage”, Paragraph 44, states that “HMG had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election…” and proceeds to reiterate the innocence of Arron Banks. Paragraphs 45 and 46 deal with the failures of the government, intelligence and security agencies; to even have been able to detect Russian influence on the 2016 Brexit Referendum, from “open source materials”, which given that the Intelligence and Security Committee’s belief “that open source material is now fully represented in the Government’s understanding of the threat picture” was “surprising”.


Paragraphs 47 and 48 conclude the Report’s analysis of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit Referendum in Section (iii) ”Lack of retrospective assessment”, stating that, given the issues at stake for Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit Referendum are not as “clear-cut”, as for Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election, “where an intelligence community assessment was produced within two months of the vote with an unclassified summary being made public”, the Committee’s view is that a similar assessment of Russian interference in 2016 Brexit Referendum should be conducted and published. Paragraph 48 states that the discovery of minimal Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit Referendum would “represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the UK’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe.”. 


The next portion of the Report deals with Russian Expatriates, resident in the UK, stating in Paragraph 50 that “Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, with “a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin…well integrated into the UK business and social scene”. Paragraph 50 further states that “that any measures now being taken by the Government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation.”


Paragraph 51, addresses the “(g)rowth industry of enablers” “who manage and lobby for the Russian elite in the UK” including “(l)awyers, accountants, estate agents and PR professionals” who “played a role, wittingly or unwittingly, in the extension of Russian influence…” “…linked to promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state.” In Paragraph 53, the Report states that “it is widely recognised that Russian intelligence and business are completely intertwined”. Paragraph 54 states that “several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to Putin are identified as being involved with…political organisations… having donated to political parties, with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations”. This Paragraph follows on, stating that “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…” which should be scrutinised, “…given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them”. References are made to “the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament requires that MPs register individual payments of more than £100 which they receive for any employment outside the House”, which is recommended to be introduced at the Lords. 


The portion of the Report dealing with Russian Expatriates admits the extent of political influence Russia has over politics in the UK, including discussing the direct involvement of persons close to Vladimir Putin in making donations to political parties. For the purposes of Brexit, aside from undisclosed funding to other pro-Brexit organisations and parties, such donations would specifically be relevant to donation receipts by the Conservative Party. In the discussion involving “enablers”, the Report does not specifically focus on but presumably includes, such enablers who demonstrably had and have, a specific interest in promulgating the pro-Brexit narrative, particularly the various “55 Tufton Street” pro-Brexit think-tanks and especially the “Conservative Friends of Russia” (now re-labelled as the “Westminster Russia Forum”). For the purposes of Brexit, the participation in these organisations, by various Conservative Party MPs, almost certainly constitutes “Russian Influence” on politicians and is therefore within the scope of the consideration of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Although the business interests of the Lords are explicitly referred to, such relationships amongst others, of various Conservative Party MPs with compromising Russian interests, are not. This is also particular in the case of persons close to Number 10 and simultaneously close to the promulgating the pro-Brexit narrative, who have questionable relationships with the Russian State and Russian actors and enablers in the UK and Russia. 


The Russia Report very apprehensively and indirectly confirms that Brexit is a Russian foreign policy objective and was, and is, subject to Russian disinformation campaigns, with a view to destructively divide the British public into diametrically and ideologically opposed camps. The Report also indirectly suggests that Russian funding likely reached Far-Right pro-Brexit groups before the 2016 Brexit Referendum. Russian influence over British politicians and the political establishment is almost ubiquitous and the ability of Russia to facilitate Brexit as a foreign policy objective vis-à-vis the UK is an issue the British government were unable, or more likely unwilling, to take steps and measures to contain or prevent. The Report confirms that the intelligence and security apparatus of the UK were not able to contain, anticipate and did not even seek to anticipate Brexit as a Russian foreign policy objective and are almost entirely subservient to the Government on a party-political basis. The Intelligence and Security Committee finds some solace in celebrating the unlikelihood of Russian inference in the physical “paper-based” electoral processes of the UK, but are very unfortunately unable to even adequately discuss how Russian influence can actively and successfully manipulate the very national narrative of the UK that lead up to the 2016 Brexit Referendum.

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