World View: Russian influence in Britain is deeply embedded
Too late to untangle Kremlin web woven around London in last two decades
The British establishment failed to grasp the nature of Russia’s transformation under Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky
Negligence. Greed. Fear of damaging relationships. Over-stretched spy agencies. A simple lack of curiosity.
These were among the reasons that successive British governments took their eye off the ball as the threat from Russia’s influence operations grew steadily over the past two decades, according to the long-delayed report of the British parliament’s security and intelligence committee.
It found that the intelligence agencies consistently ignored the threat of Russian interference. Because much of that meddling took place in public, through the spreading of disinformation, the spies did not regard it as a priority and baulked at anything that might get them involved in domestic politics.
Nor did the politicians want to know: London did not find any evidence of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum because nobody in the security services was told to look for it. Meanwhile, as “Londongrad” opened its arms unquestioningly to the cash that flowed its way from Russia, Moscow built up a network of influence that reached the highest levels of British business and politics.
Yet perhaps the most fundamental reason for the failures chronicled in the report was a broader failure of the British establishment to grasp the nature of Russia’s transformation under Vladimir Putin. A basic misjudgment of the regime itself was at the root of London’s inability to recognise the Kremlin’s aims and methods.
Failure of West
That misreading of Russia under Putin reflected a wider failure of the West through much of Putin’s two decades in power. In Putin’s People, her forensic new book on the Russian president and the system over which he has presided, the journalist Catherine Belton argues that the West looked at Putin and saw what it wanted to see.
What it saw was not an ex-KGB colonel whose entourage believed the Cold War had never ended but a vigorous free-market liberal who could build on the democratic reforms of the Yeltsin era while restoring economic order after the chaos that had marked the years after the Soviet collapse.
The West took encouragement from the fact that Putin had been hand-picked for the presidency by Boris Yeltsin and his reformist allies, and from his political apprenticeship under Anatoly Sobchak, the liberal St Petersburg mayor for whom Putin worked as an adviser in the 1990s.
Years of inaction, of turning a blind eye, means the damage cannot simply be undone
Initially, Putin seemed to justify those hopes. His first moves as president were a series of liberal reforms that delighted investors. He also sought rapprochement with the West, building a close relationship with US president George W Bush and even allowing the US access to military bases in Central Asia from which it could attack targets in Afghanistan. But this was short-lived, Belton argues, and “the early days of Putin’s presidency now seem an era of wishful thinking and great naivety”.
She cites former allies of Putin saying he felt he got nothing in return for such gestures. Meanwhile, the veneer of liberal economics hid a “strong undertow” aimed at strengthening the state’s control. Belton describes a steady accretion of power and money that would eventually result in a small political elite controlling much of the national economy as well as the country’s politics, the judiciary and the media, all forced to submit to the authoritarian will of the new regime.
Still the West believed relations could be repaired, and convinced itself (as it later would about China) that as incomes and access to the West grew, Russian citizens would demand more political rights. Barack Obama sought a “reset” with Moscow. Western capitals briefly saw Dmitri Medvedev, who replaced Putin as president from 2008-2012, as a moderniser they could do business with. In 2011, David Cameron travelled to Moscow saying he hoped to rebuild the fraying bilateral relationship.
Through its war in Ukraine, its intervention in Syria and its annexation of Crimea, Russia would exhibit a huge appetite for risk. What British intelligence appears to have missed, according to this week’s report, was that when that risk appetite met low-cost “active measures” such as disinformation, the result was a sustained attempt to undermine the democratic system.
The US largely missed what was under way until the hacking of the Democratic National Committee suggested a large-scale attempt at electoral interference. Just last week, the British government said it believed Russian hackers had tried to interfere in last year’s general election.
But years of inaction, of turning a blind eye, means the damage cannot simply be undone. As the British report makes clear, London’s no-questions-asked embrace of Russian oligarchs not only created mechanisms by which illicit money could be recycled through the city’s “laundromat” but produced networks of Russian influence that extended deep into the country’s social, political and business life.
Supporting this is an “industry of enablers” – lawyers, accountants, estate agents and PR professionals – who, wittingly or unwittingly, play a role in the extension of Russian state influence. Now, the report concedes, those networks are so well-established that they cannot be untangled.