Wednesday 20 November 2019 4:42 am

Keep calm, and don’t get carried away by lurid rumours about the Russia report

Alan Mendoza is executive director of the Henry Jackson Society.

One of the great mysteries of this election campaign to date has been why an unpublished report should be the cause of great and sustained political hysteria. 

This document has been cited by numerous sources as of pivotal significance to national security. Even Hillary Clinton — remember her? — has popped up to opine solemnly that it is “inexplicable and shameful” that the British government has apparently suppressed its publication before a General Election.

The report in question is the investigation into alleged Russian influence in British democracy conducted by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) prior to parliament’s dissolution. The report was finalised in March and was waiting for government clearance to be published when the election was called.  

But the government failed to provide approval before parliament rose. It has stated that it ran out of time to conclude the customary checking process. 

While the report will certainly be published, this can now only take place after the election. This has led to suggestions that the delay is deliberate, and that the government has something to hide that it would rather keep from British voters.

Lurid theories abound. It has been claimed that the Tory party is under the influence of a cabal of Kremlin-backing donors, that the Brexit referendum was “stolen” through Russian disinformation, or that social media fake news swung the outcome of the 2017 election.

As with many good conspiracies, the building blocks for these wild conclusions are true. 

A number of individuals of Russian origin have made donations to the Tory party. But these have all been legal and public, and those concerned include prominent critics of the Kremlin as well as those who might have more friendly links. 

We also already know that Russian disinformation and fake news, particularly through social media, has been a feature of elections in a number of western countries in recent years, most notably the US, as demonstrated through the Mueller report’s findings. 

But investigations by companies like Facebook have shown that Russian action in the UK has had limited impact. The Kremlin certainly has an interest in trying to sow dissent within western societies, but the conclusion thus far has been that it has been less successful than it would have us believe.

None of this is to say that the report will not prove to be of great interest. But seasoned observers of Russian behaviour are aware that it is highly unlikely to contain anything genuinely revelatory. 

Russian interference is sadly now a given in our public life. The ways and means that Russian influence is attempted are known to the intelligence services, as are the ways that these can be combated. The general public may learn further specifics, but we are already well aware that what may appear innocent social media accounts can be part of a Russian bot factory.

The smart money is less that the report contains any particular criticism of our current government, and more about the actions of President Trump, seeing as one of its key witnesses was Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who authored the original dossier alleging Russian kompromat on the US President. We shall, of course, have to wait to find out.

One aspect of the current witch-hunt does, however, particularly stick in the craw. The loudest criticism of all has come from the Labour party. But if there was ever to be a dream result for the Russians from a British electoral perspective, it would surely be the elevation to Prime Minister of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Corbyn, let us not forget, spent much of his political career prior to the end of the Cold War blaming the west for having created the imperialist and militarist conditions for conflict.  His friendships over the years with a variety of terrorist groups engaged in subversion of democracies, ranging from the IRA to Hamas and Hezbollah, have been extensively documented. 

He has been a lifelong supporter of nuclear disarmament and voted against renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent in 2016. He has stated that he would not use Trident should the UK be attacked. 

Perhaps most damningly of all, when a Novichok nerve agent was used in the Salisbury poisonings of Sergei and Yuliya Skripal, it was Corbyn who trod a lonely path demanding more evidence before he could reach a definitive conclusion about the obvious culpability of the Putin regime, to the disgust of many of his Labour colleagues.

In the league table of Putin-friendly administrations, the Kremlin could hope for little better than having a long-term Russian appeaser in charge of UK foreign policy.

The reality is that those of us truly concerned about Russian influence in the UK have all the tools at our disposal to fight against it already. It would be far better to spend time and political capital pushing for measures like restricting the flow of Russian dirty money to the City of London and beefing up the provisions and application of the Magnitsky Act, rather than arguing over a sideshow like the ISC report. 

We know what the Kremlin would rather us do. Let’s not give Mr Putin that satisfaction. 

The views expressed here are those of the author personally.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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