Jonathan McHugh  illustration of Camilla Cavendish column ‘The UK must take Russian meddling more seriously’
© Jonathan McHugh 2020

The writer is a senior fellow at Harvard University and advises the UK Department of Health and Social Care

The casual, tawdry approach of the British establishment to Russian money and interference has been lurking at the corner of the eye for years. A rip-roaring art market; inflated property prices; the “London laundromat” is operating on spin cycle, cleaning oligarchs’ cash and reputations. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been spinning his web of disinformation. Treating him as a Bond villain, bound eventually to trip and stumble into the shark pool, has been naive.

Like legendary Hollywood baddies, the Kremlin’s precise impact is elusive. It is hard to believe the Russians influenced outcome of the Brexit vote, since so many Leave voters were older and had never heard of Twitter. But the UK parliament’s Russia report this week forcefully points out that the Russian state is a highly capable cyber actor with links to organised crime and an agenda to subvert democracies to which Britain has turned a blind eye.

You would expect the UK government and security services to have been rattled by the Mueller report’s evidence about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, and by signs of similar meddling in the 2017 French presidential election. Yet when MPs on the intelligence and security committee asked MI5 if Russia had tried to interfere in UK votes, the initial response was limited to six lines of text which showed that it didn’t really know, because it hadn’t really asked.

I have sympathy for the security services. With limited resources they have focused more on counter-terrorism than Russian mischief. They are also reluctant, for the best of reasons, to get involved in the workings of democracy. But ultimately, national security depends on ensuring the integrity of the political system.

Successive governments have comforted themselves that, despite the risks involved in postal votes, Britain’s paper-based system of voting reduces the risk of fraud. But they need to wise up to the potential influence of bots on opinion and avoid moves towards electronic voting.

Despite its economic troubles, modern Russia is a serious adversary, precisely because it sees foreign policy as a zero-sum game. It draws on Soviet propaganda techniques which aimed to persuade foreigners to act in the USSR’s interest without realising they had done so. Today’s version is to flood multiple channels at high volume, to give the impression of a clamour from what appear to be ordinary citizens.

This “astroturfing” is aimed less at changing individual minds than at making useful idiots of those who imagine they are in touch with grassroots opinion. It is hard to combat, since it takes less time to make up facts than to verify them. A Rand corporation report in 2016 recommended turning the Russian “fire hose of falsehood” back on the Kremlin, by publicising the ways in which it seeks to manipulate, rather than trying to refute each specific manipulation.

It can be hard to disentangle unexplained wealth from the organised crime depicted by Misha Glenny in his book McMafia. He described the process of enrichment which took place in the chaotic post-Soviet privatisations as “quite simply the grandest larceny in history”.

The parliamentary report suggests that a wealthy Russian elite has built its own influence and that of the Kremlin in Britain, creating a supine ecology of lawyers, accountants and PR folk. This elite, it claims, has extended its reach into the establishment. Many MPs have ties to Russia, and some Tory donors are Russians with alleged links to the Kremlin.

A stronger armoury is needed to root out wrongdoers while protecting the innocent. Since 2018 the National Crime Agency has been able to use unexplained wealth orders to freeze assets. But it needs more heft against challenges from well-funded, legally astute individuals. Under Britain’s version of the 2012 US Magnitsky Act, Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, this month imposed travel bans and froze the assets of suspected human rights abusers.

Mr Raab spent eight years pushing to get these sanctions on to the statute book. But critics say his list of names needs to be longer if it is to target Putin cronies effectively. The path to UK citizenship for wealthy foreign citizens, which enables them to make large political donations, also needs scrutiny.

Still it would be wrong to taint every Russian émigré with suspicion. While the 2008 Tier 1 investor visa has enabled wealthy citizens of many countries to jump the queue towards citizenship, some perhaps bringing illicit wealth, other arrivals are refugees from oppressive regimes. Alexander Litvinenko was no friend of the Kremlin, as demonstrated by his deadly poisoning, and neither were the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who survived the attempts made on their lives. 

The poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury may have increased the public’s tendency to view the Russian mafia as engaged in a mixture of slapstick and obscure vendetta. But it is vital to keep promises made after that attack to clamp down on the role of Britain’s overseas territories in “laundering” illicit wealth. The Official Secrets Act must be updated. We need, too, a US-style Foreign Agents Registration Act to require those working for a foreign power to register or be deported.

Moscow meddling is not a joke. It is merely a foretaste of what is to come from other state actors, which also seek to bully and subvert our political and financial systems. It’s time to look McMafia in the face.

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