The Russia Report – tell us something we didn’t XXX know 

24 July 2020

DRD Partner Duncan Fulton looks at the Intelligence and Security Committee’s long awaited Russia Report, and asks – was the anticipation worth it? 

Time has taken on unusual properties during lockdown, but the 17 months that have elapsed since the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) completed its Russia Inquiry have felt like a lifetime. Maybe that’s why when the public version of the report (itself heavily redacted, with more XXXs than a Primark sale) finally dropped this week, it felt unsatisfactory all round. Like those Russian dolls, once the layers of expectation are peeled away what you’re left with is underwhelming, only smaller. 

With the shenanigans around publication and No10’s last minute and desperate attempt to install Chris Grayling (yes that one) as Chair of the newly constituted ISC, this had all the hall-marks of a proper Westminster pot-boiler. But where was the “smoking gun” that proved Russia bought Brexit, that some had promised? Where was the list of Tory donors underwritten by the Kremlin that many hoped was in there? Where was the puppet hand of Putin in our electoral process? Did we even look? 

What we got instead was a picture of the persistent, widespread and malign “whole-of-state” efforts of Russia to exert influence in the UK. From disinformation campaigns to cyberattacks and organised crime, through to espionage and assassination. The facts, in many ways, are even more extraordinary than the conspiracy.  

If the ISC didn’t give us much evidence of a conspiracy it did, though, pretty strongly imply a cock up. The allegation, more strongly expressed in the press conference and off the record briefings than in the report itself, was that we had taken our eye off and badly underestimated the threat from Russia. Whether because we were blinded by the bling and billions ex-pat Russians brought to London or because of a strategic miscalculation of our ability to draw Putin’s Russia into the rules based international order; the ISC hedged its bets even if the SNP’s Stewart Hosie did not.  

In a report notable for what it did not say, the sections on Russian influence in “Londongrad”, the “completely intertwined” nature of Russian intelligence and business, and the network of professional “reputation launderers” were the most explicit. Herein lies the political and practical problem for the government. Russian money has bought citizenship, football clubs, newspapers and seemingly much of Belgravia – Russian influence is established and will be very difficult to root out, not least for a Tory party that has appeared so willing to court it. 

The ISC argues that UK policy towards Russia was too slow to recognise and react to the growing threat it posed, that we continued to try and embrace them as potential partners  when the evidence (the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned by radioactive isotope in London in 2006, the invasion of the Crimea in 2014, Salisbury poisonings? etc) – showed that they remained enduring foes.  

Perhaps a more legitimate charge that can be laid against successive UK governments, is that they have overestimated the UK’s ability to influence the geopolitical weather. The national security machinery has long been alive to the threat from Russia; what has failed is collective Western efforts to change Putin’s course. 

Russia is playing a long game of influence. The UK trumpets its “soft-power” hoping that over decades the allure of Shakespeare, the Beckhams, Oxbridge and the younger royals will inexorably lead to the triumph of Liberal Democracy. Russia has rather more focused goalsa far more exotic repertoire and is prepared for the long haul.  

The Intelligence Services call this “strategic patience”  a reflection of both the time it takes to develop assets with genuine access or influence and the courage to commit resource in the face of other perhaps more pressing priorities. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) once used to take pride in its ability to play to the slower rhythms of foreign affairs, but strategic choices have to be made. Difficult ones. When the extent and immediacy of the threat from Islamist terrorism was recognised post 9/11 and later post 7/7, the FCO and Agencies were criticised for not having enough Arabists. With the Cold-War ‘won’, priorities, rightly, shifted. Counter-terrorism became the overwhelming focus.  

In a world in which the threat picture is ever changing, a world of hard and sophisticated intelligence targets, difficult languages and huge cultural challenges, what can be quickly turned off and reprioritised cannot simply be turned back on again. China poses a similar problemjuggling the strategic with the imminent in a world of finite resources is the key intelligence and foreign policy dilemma of any nation. A very similar inquiry into Chinese influence will likely follow in the not too distant future, with a very similar set of conclusions about the efficacy of UK strategy, and the prioritisation of intelligence and national security effort.  

If there was no smoking gun, the ISC did give us a “hot potato”: its description of the reluctance of any one Department or Agency to take a lead on the protection of our democratic processes. Chillingly, the report reveals that rather than being the responsibility of MI5 or the Home Office, that task currently falls to the Department of Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and their elite branch, the Electoral Commission.   

For all of its omissions, some of those ‘XXXs’ are potentially poloniumlaced for the Tories: what the report did not confirm, it did not deny. The farce around publication made it look like they had something to hide. The uncomfortable proximity of wealthy Russians (many of whom are newly minted British citizens) with senior Tories will continue to be a thorn in their side. The bluecollar Tory transformation in the last general election showed that they had (even temporarily) canned the tag of the party of the rich. If the label sticks that they are now the party of rich Russians, it will harm the prospects of keeping these new voters on board. 

Labour under Comrade Corbyn was on the weakest possible ground on Russia. He did, lest we forget, initially refuse to condemn Russia for the Salisbury poisonings, suggesting instead they be allowed to test their own chemical weapon to prove their own innocence. But as Keir Starmer declared in PMQs on Wednesday, “Labour is under new management” and is now in a position to score some political points. With the Tory party still seduced by Russian money, it shows how in the past few years Putin has been able to find useful idiots at both ends of the political spectrum.