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Downing Street said the PM is “absolutely” confident the result of the decisive 2016 poll was “fair” and there is “no evidence” of interference. Brexiteers said the findings of a long-awaited report on how much power the Kremlin wields showed claims Russia influenced the vote to Leave was a “hoax”. But the bombshell probe warned that Britain has “underestimated” the threat posed by Moscow for too long and is “’clearly a target for Russian disinformation”.
The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) found wealthy Russians linked to Vladimir Putin have weaved their way into all corners of the British establishment.
Oligarchs flocked to the UK after successive governments welcomed them and their money with “open arms”.
They used London as a “laundromat” for their illegal finance and fuelled a whole industry of lawyers and estate agents who enabled their activities, some knowingly.
The ISC said there were “credible” open source studies that suggested Russia tried to influence the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.
Committee member Kevan Jones admitted there was “no evidence” that Moscow attempted to influence the EU referendum but insisted it was only because the Government did not try to find out if it had.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman, however, insisted the PM believed the result of the 2016 was “fair”.
He added: “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum.
“Our intelligence and security agencies produce regular assessments of the threat posed by hostile state activities, including any potential interference in past or current UK democratic processes.”
The heavily redacted report was drawn up under the chairmanship of Remain-supporting Dominic Grieve.
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage said the findings come after “years of lies and smears” from Remain media and politicians.
“There is no evidence of Russian involvement with Leave.EU or me in the referendum,” he added.
“It was all a hoax – apologies are now required.”
Conservative Andrew Bridgen said: “For all but the most determined Remoaner, surely people must accept the referendum result and the several general elections since that show the UK public’s undiminished appetite to leave the European Union.
“There was disinformation, from the BBC, all the major political parties and the European Union of the dire consequences if the British people even dared to vote to leave the European Union.
“As history shows, none of it was true.”
Tory Peter Bone said: “There are still a few Remainer diehards that are still desperately trying to prove that Russia rigged the EU referendum.
“Nobody seriously thinks that the referendum was influenced by outside money or Russia.
“It didn’t happen, Leave won fair and square and the Remainers really have got a very bad case of sour grapes.”
The ISC said it did not try to assess the “impact” of Russia’s bid to influence the 2016 Brexit vote because it would be “difficult – if not impossible” to do so.
In a 20-page response, the Government rejected calls for an investigation now into whether into the 2016 poll.
It said: “Where new information emerges, the Government will always consider the most appropriate use of any intelligence it develops or receives, including whether it is appropriate to make this public.
“Given this long standing approach, a retrospective assessment of the EU Referendum is not necessary.”
The response also rejected claims ministers had “badly underestimated” the Russian threat.
“The Government has long recognised there is an enduring and significant threat posed by Russia to the UK and its allies, including conventional military capabilities, disinformation, illicit finance, influence operations, and cyber-attacks,” the official response to the report said.
“As such, Russia remains a top national security priority for the Government.”
The report found that Russian influence has become the “new normal” after they spent their way to the top of society.
Wealthy Russians decamped to England’s capital and created a “Londongrad” that fuelled its own industry of seemingly respectable services that would clean up dodgy money.
British security companies compete to find compromising material – kompromat – on rival oligarchs, it found.
The ISC also called for transparency measures to be significantly improved in the House of Lords after finding a number of peers have financial links to Russia that could be exploited by the Kremlin.
MPs also warned that Russia is a “sophisticated player” in the cyber sphere and has used its capabilities to target the UK’s government departments and national infrastructure.
Since 2014 Russia has carried out “malicious cyber activity in order to assert itself aggressively in a number of spheres”, the committee found.
It said the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has warned there is “Russian cyber intrusion” into the UK’s critical national infrastructure.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “We’ve been clear that Russia must desist from its attacks on the UK and our allies.
“We will be resolute in defending our country, our democracy and our values from such hostile state activity.”
Nicola Sturgeon said she has “no objection” to an inquiry being launched into Russian interference in the Scottish independence referendum.
The First Minister said: “If there’s to be an inquiry into that – and I would have no objections, to the contrary – it is for the UK Government to do.”
Here are the key findings from the Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russia.
Britain has become a hotbed of dirty money after successive governments welcomed oligarchs and their cash with “open arms”.
Wealthy allies of Vladimir Putin have connections “at the highest levels” of UK business and politics.
Russian influence has become the “new normal” and has provided Federation expats with the means of recycling illicit finance through the London “laundromat”.
It has fuelled a boom in lawyers, accountants and estate agent “enablers” who wittingly or unwittingly have become “de facto agents” of the Russian state.
Britain has become a “particularly favourable” destination for rich Russians and some with links to Moscow have donated to UK political parties.
An investor visa scheme that dates back to 1994 led to Russian money pouring into charities, cultural and political institutions with “few questions” about where the cash had come from.
The report said that money was also invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment, including PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions and they were “all willing beneficiaries of Russian money” which helped to improve reputations.
It added: “This level of integration – in ‘Londongrad’ in particular – means that any measures now being taken by the Government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation.”
House of Lords
Transparency must be urgently increased in the upper chamber over fears that peers with links to Russia could be exploited.
Businessman Bill Browder, a prominent Putin critic, handed over a list of names to the inquiry that he claims are taking money from Russia to do its bidding.
The ISC said it was “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.
It called for peers to register any individual payments over £100 from their interests outside parliament and warned their relationships should be carefully scrutinised “given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them”.
The committee did not name any peers in its report.
According to the members’ register of interests, peers with links to Russia include crossbencher Lord Skidelsky, who is a non-executive director of Russian oil refining company Russneft.
Conservative peer Lord Fairfax of Cameron is a director of Sovcomflot UK, which is affiliated to Russia’s largest shipping company, Sovcomflot.
Labour peer Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede has also declared he is a director of Russian oil and gas firm RNG Joint Stock Company.
Spy chiefs were reluctant to be dragged into any issues that looked political so the issue of Russian interference became a “hot potato”.
The ISC found “credible” non-classified information that suggested Russia tried to influence the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.
But it said there was no post-EU referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference and should have been.
MPs said new laws were needed to give the UK’s intelligence community the tools to tackle Russian spying, the laundering of dirty money and the people who enable it to happen.
That includes a revamp of the Official Secrets Act because it is not currently against the law to spy.
The report highlighted the blunders made by Russian agents in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in March 2018 and the attempted infiltration of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
But the ISC said while the episode showed that Moscow’s spies are not infallible “it would be foolhardy to think that they are any less dangerous because of these mistakes”.
Social media companies who fail to remove state-backed disinformation should be named and shamed by the government, the ISC said.
It said internet giants who do not take exploitation of their networks by hostile states seriously are “failing to play their part” and must be forced into action.
The report highlights a range of attempts by the Kremlin to interfere in overseas elections, including “hack and leak” operations during the 2016 US presidential election.
The committee said Russian spread of disinformation is “all in support of its underlying foreign policy objectives”.
Despite these threats, the UK’s paper-based voting and counting system is “largely sound” and makes “any significant interference difficult”.
But the UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation efforts and must step up its efforts to counter them, the ISC said.
“It is the social media companies who hold the key but are failing to play their part,” the report states.
The committee said that it was “surprisingly difficult” to establish who has responsibility for what during its investigation.
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