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Russia threat to UK national security: report

Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, says the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament’s report on Russia. The committee of MPs and lords heard from witnesses including ministers and security services officials; and Lynne Owens, Director-General of the National Crime Agency (NCA).

The report, released at the same time as the Committee’s annual report, covers cyber; disinformation and influence; and Russian expatriates; and the UK’s response.

As for links of the Russian elite to the UK, the report spoke of ‘trying to shut the stable door’, touching on business, the House of Lords, political parties, and charities. Some of the report was redacted or classified, such as vulnerability of former Russian intelligence officers, given the attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March 2018 in Salisbury.

The Committee said that Russians with very close links to Putin are well integrated into the UK business, political and social scene – in ‘Londongrad’ in particular. “Yet few, if any, questions have been asked regarding the provenance of their considerable wealth and this ‘open door’ approach provided ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through the London ‘laundromat’. It is not just the oligarchs either – the arrival of Russian money has resulted in a growth industry of ‘enablers’: lawyers, accountants, and estate agents have all played a role, wittingly or unwittingly, and formed a “buffer” of Westerners who are de facto agents of the Russian state.”

As for cyber, the Committee described Russia as ‘a highly capable cyber actor, employing organised crime groups to supplement its cyber skills’. The Committee said: “Russia carries out malicious cyber activity to assert itself aggressively – for example, attempting to interfere in other countries’ elections. It has also undertaken cyber pre-positioning on other countries’ Critical National Infrastructure.” Given the immediate threat to UK national security, the Committee raised concerns there is no clear coordination of the numerous organisations across the UK intelligence community working on the issue.

The Committee is making four more inquiries: on national security issues relating to China; right wing terrorism; Northern Ireland-Related terrorism; and GCHQ procurement.

Comments

Professor Mark Galeotti (University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies) on the UCL website discusses the ways Russia seeks to divide and destabilise Western democracies like the UK, arguing that we must learn how to adapt and respond to their methods.

Tom Keatinge, the Director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Whitehall-based think-tank RUSI, wrote that the ‘illicit finance challenge faced by the UK and highlighted in the recent parliamentary report into Russian operations threatens to be overwhelming. Urgent and radical action is required.’ More on the RUSI website.

For Labour, Nick Thomas-Symonds, Shadow Home Secretary, said the report exposed deep systemic failings in Government approach to security. “This report outlines the scale of the shortcomings of the Government’s response to maintaining our National Security in the face of what is clearly a growing and significant threat from Russia.”

Dr Duncan Hodges, Senior Lecturer in Cyberspace Operations at Cranfield University, said: “This is a forceful report and while it has no major surprises in the detail, it does clearly frame the Russian threat to the UK. It demonstrates that the threat from Russia is significant and here to stay.

“Russia has learnt that cyber is a powerful tool for their approach to international relations using it alongside more traditional statecraft. This cyber capability is used indiscriminately and recklessly by a state with a significant risk appetite. Where Russia are particular effective is by using all means at their disposal, including criminal actions, to pursue their goals effectively linking their cyber activities, their financial and political influence and their traditional intelligence activities. This has put Russia ahead of the game and is, partly, why their actions have been so effective.

He noted the fragmented UK approach to cyber, and multiple departments having responsibility; more concerning, he added was ‘the lack of appetite to counter disinformation and political influence with the report describing it as a ‘hot potato’’.

“The calls from the UK intelligence community for new legislation are striking and it is not surprising that the Official Secrets Act which is now over 30 years old is no longer fit for purpose against this form of activity. It will be interesting to see whether the Government heed the calls from senior intelligence officials who clearly believe they do not have the legislative tools to do the job.”

On cyber, intrusions into critical infrastructure, information operations designed to influence public opinion and attempts to steal government secrets; these types of Russian operations have consistently pushed the boundaries of political interference, said Benjamin Read, Senior Manager for Cyber Espionage Analysis of Mandiant Threat Intelligence at cyber firm FireEye. “The cyber activities detailed here are consistent with what Mandiant Threat Intelligence has observed Russia doing in the UK and elsewhere. These cyber activities are used by Russian cyber espionage groups such as APT28, Sandworm Team and others to gather information and exert Russian influence in multiple countries.”

Joseph Carson, Chief Security Scientist at Thycotic, said: “No one country can win a cyberwar alone and this means it is critical to have international cooperation to defend and respond offensively to aggressive cyberattacks. The UK must adopt a cyber defence league similar to what Estonia introduced after the 2007 cyberattacks and CV19 which involved Cyber Volunteers helping defend the Healthcare services during COVID-19.”

And Sam Curry, Chief Security Officer at Cybereason, said: “In the end, we should assume involvement by foreign parties in a digital society in any form of governance: and elections and public opinion are both the strength and the Achilles heel of democracy. In the words of Winston Churchill “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms.” We should expect election interference and be looking for it and building resilience to it in all pluralist democracies. Democracy demands constant cyber vigilance no less than civic literacy and a willingness to defend constitutions and the rule of law. We have a cadence to democracy, and for the US we are about to hit a crescendo with the biggest of all targets, a Presidential election.

“It would behoove all countries to watch how elections unfold everywhere to learn the tactics, techniques and procedures of the adversaries because they learn and grow from every election and so should we. Take the politics with a grain of salt and assume it’s happening. Prepare to defend against that, and worst case you’re wrong and nothing happens. The reverse has some truly frightening implications because it will be the equivalent of abdicating the right of the people to choose a government by letting a foreign, hostile power do so instead.”


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