UK govt ‘actively avoided’ looking into Russia’s Brexit meddling

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A parliament report has said while it would be “difficult” to prove that Russia sought to influence the EU referendum, it was clear Britain “was slow to recognise the existence of the threat” despite past evidence of Russia interfering in 2014.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson meet on sidelines of the Libya summit in Berlin, Germany on January 19, 2020.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson meet on sidelines of the Libya summit in Berlin, Germany on January 19, 2020. (Reuters)

A long-awaited report on Russia’s influence in British politics has criticised the British government for its slow response to Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, with its authors saying it was “astonishing” that no one sought to protect that democratic process.

Authors of the damning report that was released on Tuesday accused the British government of “actively avoiding” looking into evidence of the Russian threat in the EU referendum.

“Serious questions needed to be asked,” the authors of the report from the parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said.

Lawmakers made clear their frustration with being unable to make firmer conclusions, describing themselves as “shocked” and “baffled” that the government failed to recognise the threat.

MPs said they were unable to come to any firm conclusions as the current government or its predecessor had not ordered any investigation due to an apparent “lack of curiosity”.

READ MORE: UK accuses Russia of vote meddling in 2019

Difficult to prove allegations: report

While the report said it would be “difficult, if not impossible, to prove” allegations that Russia sought to influence the referendum, it was clear that the government “was slow to recognise the existence of the threat” even after evidence emerged of Russian interference in the US elections and the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

“As a result, the government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016,” the report said.

Responding to Russia report, the government said a retrospective assessment of the Brexit vote is not necessary.

‘Russophobia in a fake frame’

The report says Russia sees Britain as one of its top intelligence targets in the West. It said Russian influence in the UK is the “new normal” and successive governments have welcomed Russian oligarchs with open arms.

Russians with “very close links” to President Vladimir Putin were “well integrated into the UK business, political and social scene, in ‘Londongrad’ in particular,” it said.

Speaking before the report was released, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia “never interfered in electoral processes in any country in the world.”

“Not in the United States, not in Britain, not in any other country. We don’t do that ourselves and we don’t tolerate when other countries try to interfere with our political affairs,” Peskov said.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova cast the report as “Russophobia in a fake frame”.

Failed gambit

The report’s authors said they were subjected to an unprecedented delay in making the document public, with officials holding off its release for more than six months.

Critics claimed that was meant to shield Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party from embarrassment.

The report was originally submitted to Johnson on October 17.

The government initially said it couldn’t be published until it was reviewed for national security issues, which postponed its release until after the December 12 general election.

Further holdups were caused by delays in appointing new members to the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Finally, Johnson named five Conservative lawmakers to the nine-person panel in hopes his handpicked candidate would be chosen as chairman and block the report.

The gambit failed when a renegade Conservative was chosen to head the committee with backing from opposition parties.

The opposition Labour Party has accused the government of failing to publish the report because it would lead to further questions about links between Russia and the pro-Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum on European Union membership , which Johnson helped lead.

Another parliamentary panel –– the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee which previously published the results of its own inquiry into disinformation and “fake news” –– called on election regulators and law enforcement to investigate reports that a British businessman with links to Russia donated $10.6 million to the Brexit campaign.

The National Crime Agency said in September that it found no evidence of criminal offences related to the donation.

All-inclusive report 

The intelligence committee report covers the full range of the Russian threat to the UK, including election interference, espionage and targeted assassinations such as the attempt to kill former spy Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury two years ago, said Dominic Grieve, who chaired the panel until he left the House of Commons after the election.

READ MORE: UK charges two Russians in absentia with Skripal poisoning

The government’s explanations for delaying the report “are simply not credible,” Grieve said in an interview with Britain’s Channel 4 News.

The report’s release comes only days after Britain, the United States and Canada accused hackers linked to Russian intelligence agencies of trying to steal information from researchers working on a potential coronavirus vaccine.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies
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