LONDON — A long-awaited report published Tuesday on Russian influence in British politics criticized 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.
The report’s authors 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 said.
While the report from the parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee 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 recognize the existence of the threat" even after evidence emerged of Russian interference in the U.S. elections and the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.
“As a result, the government did not take action to protect the U.K.’s process in 2016," the report said.
The report says Russia sees Britain as one of its top intelligence targets in the West. It said Russian influence in the U.K. 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 U.K. business, political and social scene — in ‘Londongrad’ in particular," it said.
Speaking before the report was released, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday 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.
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 Oct. 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 Dec. 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 — previously published the results of its own inquiry into disinformation and “fake news,” which called on election regulators and law enforcement to investigate reports that a British businessman with links to Russia donated 8.4 million pounds ($10.6 million) to the Brexit campaign. The National Crime Agency said in September that it found no evidence of criminal
The intelligence committee report covers the full range of the Russian threat to the U.K., 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.
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.
Sylvia Hui And Danica Kirka, The Associated Press