“Since Putin became President in 2000 the Russian Government (RGOV) has increasingly shown itself to be actively hostile to the UK and the West, and unwilling to adhere to international laws and norms”, according to the Russia Report by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) of Parliament published in July 2020. It unsurprisingly revealed a concerted Russian strategy to interfere in the UK at a number of levels, to undermine its democracy. Since its publication, several commentators have focused on the erosion of trust in Western society institutions and established norms, and the creation of discord and chaos among the public and in relation to established institutions, promoted by Russian and other States’ activity. The Report is dismissed by RGOV as Russophobia.
Ever since the Investor Visa Scheme was introduced in the UK in 1994, whereby essentially UK residence can be bought for a price which, while high in normal terms, is insignificant to the truly wealthy, Russian money has flooded into the UK. Unfortunately the origin of the assets of the wealthiest of Russians apparently arose to large degree from the distribution or “privatisation” of State assets following the break-up of the USSR, amid Western hopes of an eventual capitalisation and democratisation of a new and friendly trading power.
It is commonly alleged, and perhaps believed, that this privatisation was an act of the grandest larceny – that is in effect the assets were a “steal” for those in power or friends of those in power. Vladimir Putin is today reported to be worth some £200 billion, but it is unclear how that can be proved. The wealthy oligarchs arising from the privatisation may be in two camps – friends of RGOV, and enemies of RGOV, for whatever reason. Certainly, as regards friends, a suspicion at least exists that they and RGOV policy work hand in hand: they are part of RGOV influence. It may be important to distinguish Russian refugees and dissidents from the RGOV linked friends, not lumping them all together.
Oligarchs have been made welcome in the UK, which is always seeking foreign investment, but recently they have come under greater scrutiny. Their ownership of swathes of London high-end property is well publicised – Londongrad and Moscow-on-Thames are epithets for substantive reasons. Trophy assets have been acquired – Chelsea F.C. has benefitted enormously from the ownership by Roman Abramovitch, though his welcome in the UK has frosted recently. The Times of 23 July focussed on the connections of two wealthy Russians, Lubov Chernukhin and Alexander Temerko, with UK politicians, particularly of the Conservative party to which they have been donors. It is odd to focus on them especially, as 3 full pages about their relationships were acknowledged to be based on matters of public record published by the Electoral Commission. All connections were transparent without suggestion of illegality or impropriety. Alexander Temerko is reported to have held significant office in RGOV before Vladimir Putin’s presidency, and is publicly critical of him. Lubov Chernukhin was reportedly a minister in RGOV under Vladimir Putin, but fled Russia after certain of his allies and friends were arrested. Perhaps there was a falling out.
Comparatively little was said about the current friends of RGOV among wealthy Russians in the UK. However, in the Report, the ISC was highly concerned about the level of integration by those friends in the UK, in business and socially; and their involvement in charitable and political organisations. Likewise, there is deep concern about how respectable lawyers and accountants, PR firms, middle-men, financiers and others provide support and defend these RGOV friends. These supporters are described as “enablers”, not in a complementary sense. Tom Tugenhadt, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, refers to “pinstriped fixers” pocketing money for a modern betrayal – the promotion of chaos and corruption. London is regarded by some as a global centre for money laundering.
DISINFORMATION AND DEMOCRATIC INTERFERENCE
RGOV- owned RT, Russia Today, and Sputnik are a serious concern to the ISC, as evidenced by the Report. These arms of RGOV are allowed to spread information in the UK. RT broadcasts under licence having a Glasgow office: Alex Salmond hosts a weekly show; George Galloway, once a Labour MP, also presents programmes. UK politicians appear on these programmes. Keir Starmer is calling for RT’s UK licence to be revoked. RT has been fined by Ofcom for serious and repeated breaches of impartiality rules. RT’s response was that Ofcom’s decisions were a “disproportionate interference with RT’s right to freedom of expression”- that an arm of RGOV can call in aid freedom of speech smacks of more than a hint of irony.
Bots and trolls established by RGOV, it is said, disrupt and confuse UK social media. There is hacking and leaking. It is alleged that RGOV interfered in various European elections, though it is not strongly argued that they have had material influence. Some put that down to the fact that the UK, for example, has a paper voting system, not digital. As regards the Brexit referendum, certain people demand an investigation of Russian interference, though there is no real appetite widely to spend effort on such a pointless exercise. Even Tony Blair, when asked if that was worthwhile on SKY TV, replied that, though so anti-Brexit, he has more interest in the future and showed no enthusiasm for such a look back. UKGOV has established a Defending Democracy Programme, but there is little evidence of its proactivity and achievements. The ISC clearly believes that the UK should be actively countering Russian influence in the media and electoral processes. One problem seems to be a lack of ownership of the role within UKGOV organisations, and a lack of appetite for perhaps a perceived thankless task. UKGOV perhaps needs to specify responsibility for prevention of foreign interference in democracy.
MANY INITIATIVES – AND COMMITEES AND DEDICATED UNITS
The Report gives a strong impression of a plethora of plans and strategies, bodies, committees and groups involved in combating Hostile State Activity, particularly by Russia and China. However, the Report suggests that, in recent years at least, the work of MI5 on this front has taken a back seat to its focus on terrorism, quite understandably. It’s a question of use of limited resource, especially when UKGOV was building relationships in hope with hostile states. The eye, ISC is clear, has been off the Hostile State Activity ball and needs re-focusing. But when it comes to security and intelligence gathering and using, there are numerous independent arms with their own remits, for example:
- The Home Secretary oversees MI5
- The Foreign Secretary oversees the SIS and GCHQ
- The Defence Secretary oversees Defence Intelligence
- The National Security Strategy Implementation Group is covered by UKGOV Russian Unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
- The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster oversees the National Cyber Security Strategy and related Programme
- The National Crime Agency and separately the Police forces of the UK gather information and liaise internationally in their own domains.
There are other special security committees and country specific groups, such as the China Research Group. UKGOV argues that coordination works. Efficient cooperation and sharing seamlessly, not competing or covering the same territory twice, will be desirable. The Report does not suggest that the structures are wrong or failing. It is however clear that Russian State hostility to the UK needs tackling strongly and increased and well-coordinated activity is required.
WHAT SHOULD CHANGE?
The ISC considers that the Official Secrets Act is out of date. Yet in 2017 a Law Commission Consultation on this subject was set up – the result is still awaited: such Commissions for consultation and investigation are slow tools for dealing with fast moving and developing activity, especially where dynamic technology is involved, such as cyber-attacks. They are perhaps more suited for kicking into the long grass than resolving practical applications? A new Espionage Act may be on the cards. The Metropolitan Police is reported to favour stronger powers.
Other countries have already adopted laws requiring individuals in the relevant country who are acting on behalf of a foreign power, politically or quasi politically, to register as such, with a sanction for non-compliance of prison or extradition. For example, in the U.S. FARA requires such registration with the Department of Justice. The equivalent is likely to be adopted in the UK: and so, a PR agent for example, or a lawyer, representing a State or a state-owned company would have to register.
As regards wealthy oligarchs, even if there is suspicion around the source of wealth, it is proving difficult to challenge them for an explanation. Unexplained wealth orders, as indicated above, are hard to justify, as the origin goes back so long and presumably current wealth can be explained, if the laundromat works. Should the powers be strengthened in this respect?
As always where the improper activity of powerful states is concerned, international concerted cooperation is essential, to bring resources to bear and to provide meaningful sanction. For Russia, that was well illustrated by the Western world common reaction to the Salisbury Novichok murders and attempts at murder sponsored by RGOV (see Sherbhert STATE-SPONSORED MURDER, AN OXFORD FIRST, RASHFORD SCORES AND HUMAN DECENCY PREVAILS.)
It is assumed that cyber attacks will grow; that spreading lies and misinformation will increase; that disruption will be a continuing Russian activity, until it changes policy towards the UK and demonstrates that by behaviour not assertion. The credibility of RGOV, as with the Chinese Communist Party, is shot. And Russia devotes massive resources to military and other aggressive activity (for example the reported recent testing of space weaponry), despite a struggling economy. The UK with Western allies will have to devote increasing resources towards intelligence, cyber and technology, as well as military forces, staying ahead, in order to counter the threat. This cost could be spread across allied nations if there is a high level of common interest and trust, but that level does not yet seem to exist. In the meantime the UK will be spread thin in attempting as it must to counter the variety of challenging threats and attacks aimed at it by hostile states, including China and Russia, as well as states such as North Korea and Iran.
As the demands on resources are shouted from every corner – Covid, health generally, education, levelling up, bail outs of many a sector, as well as the ever-demanding benefits system, – it is unclear how any Government could satisfy demand. The challenge of prioritisation, which will lead to cries of dissatisfaction from any quarter not thrown enough cash, is enormous. Will the people cooperate?
It is easy for the rulers of the likes of China and Russia to spend precious resource on aggression where they will, as any popular complaint will be suppressed. Democracy, while the UK’s and the West’s greatest asset, may also be a major weakness when it comes to countering the threats, as Governments have to justify their allocation of resources to different priorities, with many popular causes making demands for more cash.