The Evolution of Russia’s Influence Attempts in the UK

Russia’s strategic priorities for established international centers of power differ significantly from those that apply in countries within its cultural, geographic, or linguistic influence. What is more, different “permission sets” apply 1 — targeted military force cannot be used to back up psychological operations, for instance. In the United Kingdom, then, it is counterproductive to militarize Russia’s specific activities as forms of hybrid or informational “warfare.” This suits Russian interests by overplaying the state’s capabilities 2 and exaggerating the coherence and control underlying processes and outcomes. 3 Successful policy responses, by contrast, must address a fundamentally messier reality.

Russia’s main strategic priority for the U.K. can be summarized as cultivating an atmosphere conducive to increasing Russia’s influence there — whether in absolute or relative terms. The main pillars of the strategy for achieving this objective are: infiltrating networks of social, economic, and political influence; promoting the destabilization of norm and value hierarchies, including in ways that create sympathy for Russian alternatives; and ensuring targeted informational and narrative support for specific Russian foreign policy priorities. In pursuing these “influence attempts” in the U.K., Russian state actors have used both targeted tactics and opportunistic interventions, while independent actors pursuing their own interests have also produced incidental benefits for the Russian state.

1. Russia’s Political Influence Attempts in the UK

Throughout Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia’s approach to its activities in the U.K. has evolved in line with a broader strategic evolution combining foreign, military, and security policy; diplomacy; and informational/technical capabilities. From the promotion of positive representations of Russia to counter what was perceived as the West’s information manipulation, 4  effective representation of Russia evolved into a national security concern. 5 A more confrontational approach ultimately emerged, of conceptually and practically undermining key institutions, mirroring what Russian political and military elites perceived “competitor” states in the West to be doing. 6 The practical implementation of such approaches also became more flexible and delegative.

Despite being strategically pragmatic, this flexibility and delegation mean that Russia’s influence attempts in the U.K. suffer from an element of unpredictability due to a lack of direct control. These factors must be accounted for within policy responses to the three main forms of influence attempt: infiltrating networks of social, economic, and political influence; promoting the ongoing destabilization of norm and value hierarchies, including in ways that create sympathy for Russian alternatives; and providing targeted informational and narrative support for Russian foreign policy priorities.

1.1 Network Infiltration

The Kremlin’s strategy increasingly reflects the belief that efforts in the spheres of information, culture, and finance must be combined to successfully pursue foreign policy goals. 7

The U.K. offers many potential avenues for such combined efforts because its economic, cultural, political, and infrastructural networks have all been substantially infiltrated either by Russian state actors directly, or indirectly by self-interested actors who nonetheless may have informal or unofficial relationships with the Russian state.

Economic networks

Since the 1990s, the number of internationally mobile wealthy residents of Russian extraction with bases in London has grown steeply due to an investor visa scheme, favorable market and regulatory conditions, and the reputation of the U.K.’s judicial system. 8

Numerous business people with links to the Russian state have subsequently taken on the kind of cultural and media assets within the U.K. that can help to consolidate personal power and respectability, 9 including ownership stakes in Premier League soccer clubs and local and national media organizations. 10

Political networks

The unclear economic connections are concerning because the U.K. honors system enables economic and cultural assets to be easily converted into resources at the center of British political power, such as through appointments to the House of Lords. Numerous members of the U.K.’s House of Lords have business links to Russia, including positions on the boards of companies linked to the Russian state. 11

Evidence from across Europe has also shown the Russian state’s support for anti-European Union (EU) and nationalist political parties. 12

Central figures in the U.K.’s Leave.EU campaign met multiple times with the Russian ambassador to the U.K., denied receiving financial benefits, 13 but were investigated by the National Crime Agency due to unclarity over the sources of campaign finance. 14

Donors linked to Russia’s Ministries of Defence and Finance, and energy industry (though acting in the capacity of private individuals) have also gifted millions of pounds to the Conservative Party, securing access to top politicians. 15

Infrastructural networks

Russia benefits from well-developed cyber capabilities, which have been applied as part of a long-term program to accrue competitive advantage and shape opponents’ decision architecture. This includes infiltrating the networks that support Critical National Infrastructure (CNI), whether for espionage purposes or as a prelude to future attacks. 16 Several sectors of the U.K.’s CNI have been subject to such cyber intrusion. 17 Furthermore, during the investigation into the 2018 poisoning of former Russian-British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) were targeted by phishing attempts orchestrated by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. 18 Cyberattacks are not necessarily conducted directly, sometimes involving collaboration between the Russian state and organized crime. 19

However, while information on the efficacy of such activities in the U.K. is classified, cyber operations do not deliver outcomes in isolation. Since around 2016, Russian state actors have increasingly employed cyberattacks not to disrupt CNI, but to promote destabilization of democratic norms and values — mirroring what they see as the hostile practices of Western states. 20

Members of the military wear protective clothing as work continues on the home of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, Wiltshire. The property is to be dismantled, with the roof completely removed by military teams in the wake of the Novichok attack as decontamination work continues.
Members of the military wear protective clothing as work continues on the home of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, Wiltshire. The property is to be dismantled, with the roof completely removed by military teams in the wake of the Novichok attack as decontamination work continues.

1.2 Norm and Value Destabilization

Western states have witnessed declining consensus around norm and value hierarchies since at least the 1990s, 21 and Russian state actors have actively supported this destabilization in the U.K. Founded in 2005, Russia’s culturally focused international broadcaster, Russia Today, was transformed after the August 2008 Russo-Georgian war to produce more combative outputs that fulfilled the Kremlin’s (2008) stated security objective of effective overseas representation, including through reporting Russian domestic state television’s most extreme claim of an attempted “genocide” in Georgia. 22

The network’s 2009 rebrand as RT encouraged viewers to “question more” what they were being told about world events.

Bolstered in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea with the 2014 establishment of London-based RTUK and by Edinburgh and London branches of the new Sputnik international newswire and multimedia broadcaster, RT has provided enthusiastic support for Eurosceptic and nationalist movements in the U.K. Much of its content alleges the inequities and inadequacies of the European project; 23 the former Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, fronts his own TV show; the U.K.’s highest-profile Eurosceptic, Nigel Farage, has been a frequent speaker; and rising support for Eurosceptic parties was emphasized prior to the 2019 European Parliament elections.

Cyber operations have also been employed to this end, including in the publication of thousands of Brexit-related tweets by several hundred (later suspended) accounts linked to the St. Petersburg, Russia-based troll farm, Internet Research Agency (IRA). 24

RT has also promoted extreme libertarian takes on the U.K.’s coronavirus response, challenging calls for collective action. 25

The increased use of so-called hack-and-leak operations during international election campaigns has been a significant development over the past five or six years. These involve obtaining information and documentation sensitive to political parties via unsanctioned access, then leaking and amplifying them online. 26 The U.K. government concluded that Russia-linked actors almost certainly attempted to interfere in the U.K.’s 2019 general election in this way, but their impact (if any) remains unclear pending an ongoing criminal investigation. 27 Leaked content generally undermines both social values and the legitimacy of establishment institutions, which may be exacerbated by the strategic insertion of counterfeit documents.

As in the case of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the amplification of hacked content tends to take place via complex networks. Some of these (e.g., partisan online message boards) may have no connection to the Russian state and be pursuing their own interests in amplifying such stories. Others (e.g., bot and troll activity) may be the subject of clandestine state coordination, but be limited in their effectiveness by financially motivated mutual amplification. 28 Some actors, like RT and Sputnik, have direct and open links to the Russian state. Their activities have been described in a general sense as “sowing doubt in Western media reporting (including information available to policy-makers).” 29 The amplification of hacked content is one means to attempt this.

A recent U.K. example concerns a 2018 cyberattack on the Integrity Initiative counter-disinformation program of the U.K.-based Institute for Statecraft. Funding and participant data (genuine and falsified) were released, then reported on by political bloggers, including some regularly featured on Russia’s international broadcasters. 30 RT and Sputnik presented the initiative as a U.K. government-funded “anti-Russia crusade” 31 and an “information warfare effort run by British military intelligence specialists.” 32

The hacked data were used to weave a story representing the U.K. government as the hypocritical perpetrator of exactly the kind of influence attempts of which it accuses Russia. This is consistent with both outlets’ tendency to question dominant Western narratives about issues of international contestation, the sources and evidence upon which they are based, and the broader scope of purported Western norms and values.

1.3 Informational and Narrative Support for Specific Foreign Policy Priorities

Norm destabilization is a general approach to forging influence abroad, but specific foreign policy priorities also receive targeted support as they arise. The recalibration of Russia’s international messaging (via RT’s rebrand) prompted by the 2008 Russo-Georgian war was echoed following the 2014 military operations in the Donbas and Crimea, with RTUK and Sputnik launched the same year. Sputnik’s slogan, “telling the untold,” is coherent with Russia’s intention for RT, of breaking “the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on … global information streams.” 33 Both outlets amplified the Russian political elite’s contradictory narratives and denials around Crimea and the Donbas.

The aftermath of the 2018 Skripal poisonings shows how specific foreign policy priorities have been supported in the U.K. Both RT and Sputnik reported the case by quoting a range of Russian and British official sources, including mainstream media outlets, police, healthcare responders, and politicians. 34 This reporting charted real-world developments, but the interpretation of these developments relied heavily upon alternative commentators and analysts who did not routinely feature elsewhere, and whose expertise may not be widely acknowledged.

This “parallel commentariat” articulated “competing and often contradictory” narratives of the case, 35 which served Russia’s strategic interests by calling into question the reliability of Western political and media institutions and Russia’s culpability. This approach capitalized on low public trust in established political and media institutions, and the inherent uncertainties around the classified investigation. 36

Previous assessments of RT by the U.K. media regulator, Ofcom, revealed that the network’s broadcasting compliance is comparable to similar broadcasters, but that breaches (including significant ones) are mostly associated with programming about Russia’s foreign policy. 37

Correspondingly, the post-Skripal poisonings period saw Ofcom announce multiple investigations into problematic programming, after which RT immediately moderated its reporting. 38 Ofcom ultimately ruled that seven of RT’s programs had not maintained due impartiality or an adequate range of perspectives on this controversial matter and issued a substantial fine. 39

A more engaged practice than this kind of selective representation, disinformation refers to the deliberate propagation of “false, incomplete, or misleading” information which is intended to “fuel confusion” and undermine the basis for rational debate. 12

The most egregious recent cases of its relevance in the U.K. also relate to the Salisbury poisonings. As this fast-moving and controversial news story developed, Russian politicians, ministries, and embassy social media accounts made many provocative claims. They were swiftly reported by U.K. mainstream media as well as by Sputnik and RT due to their inherent newsworthiness.

However, some statements were lies — as with Putin’s claim that the suspects named in the Salisbury attack had been found and identified in Russia as private citizens. RT, Sputnik, and their counterparts in the British mainstream media 40reported his claim, contributing — even inadvertently — to the spread of Russia’s strategic disinformation, despite meeting expected standards of journalistic integrity. As with “hack-and-leak,” disinformation amplification relies on circulation and interaction among multiple sources, within an overall environment of rapid-access information overload.

2. UK’s Responses

The U.K.’s 2010 National Security Strategy was written in a context in which non-state threats appeared to have taken over as the primary security concerns, and so identified “no major state threat” 41 despite citing cyberattacks in the top tier of priority risks. 19 By the revision of the document in 2015, however, the resurgence of state-based threats was clear. The document included a small section dedicated to Russia, which had “become more aggressive, authoritarian and nationalist, increasingly defining itself in opposition to the West.” 42 The strategy stressed the importance of international cooperation, with an understandable focus on the role of NATO in mitigating overseas military threats, including through a Readiness Action Plan, and investment, joint task forces, and air policing missions intended as deterrence measures.

While the “hybrid tactics and media manipulation” of the Crimea annexation were explicitly referenced, 19 Russia was not given any substantive attention in the discussion of overseas influence attempts in the U.K. Here the key focus was on cyber activities generally. A five-year, £1.9-billion program was announced to improve the U.K.’s cybersecurity capabilities commitment by increasing the U.K.’s defensive capability, deterring potential attacks, developing cyber defense technologies, and collaborating internationally. 19

The collaborative focus was placed on the EU (as well as the United States) for the establishment of effective coordinated sanctions regimes for both financial and cyber transgressions, with a push for intelligence sharing and collaborative preemption in these areas. Beyond this, the government’s lack of strategic foresight on the political extent of Russian influence attempts has been reflected in somewhat patchy responses across the target areas outlined below, and was subsequently criticized. 27

2.1 Network Infiltration

Economic networks

The national security threat posed by the potential for Kremlin-connected individuals to base corrupt assets in London was outlined by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons in 2018, following which a Serious and Organised Crime (SOC) Group was set up within the Home Office. The committee advocated expanding sanctions to regime-connected individuals, while clearly linking sanctions relief to specific actions, 43 and sanctions expansion was subsequently facilitated in several ways. The Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act (2018) allows for sanctions in the interest of national and international peace and security, and to further the U.K. government’s foreign policy objectives. Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs) were introduced in 2018 to compel targets to reveal the sources of their wealth and are usually combined with asset freezes.

In 2020, the U.K. government announced a sanctions regime for human rights abuses (a U.K. Magnitsky Act). 44 There have been proposals to strengthen the powers of Companies House, the U.K.’s registrar of companies, and the law governing Limited Partnerships, while various registers have been created to record the overseas political interests of those entering the U.K. corporate, property, or government procurement arenas. 45 Despite the potential of this rapid succession of measures, their effectiveness is limited to safeguarding against future infiltration of economic networks. They will barely impact individuals with long-established financial interests in the U.K., of which even those of dubious origin now appear entirely legitimate.

Political networks

The publication in July 2020 of the Russia report by the U.K. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee raised concerns about how far Russian expatriates’ economic infiltration could develop into political infiltration. The report advocates legislative measures to mitigate this threat. 19 The committee proposed stricter measures for declaring financial payments within the House of Lords (akin to those in force in the House of Commons), but the government’s response referred to the Lords’ existing Code of Conduct, passing responsibility to their Conduct Committee. 46

The Russia report also proposed establishing a Foreign Agents Registration Act, similar to that in place in the United States. Such a register might be one viable means to record where those with longstanding financial interests in the U.K. are politically compromised, and research is currently underway into comparable registration schemes to identify whether and how such a system could be put in place in the U.K. 19

In 2019, the Defending Democracy program was established to combine expertise from various government departments, security and intelligence agencies, and civil society in order to protect the U.K.’s democratic processes from interference, strengthen the integrity of elections, encourage and facilitate democratic participation, and promote fact-based discourse. 19 It produced proposals for a digital imprints scheme to ensure transparency around the producers of election materials. 19

These measures are, however, compromised by a reluctance to learn from the past. Despite the Intelligence and Security Committee (2020) and the Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) (2019) recommending an investigation into potential Russian influence on the EU referendum (Brexit), the government responded that “a retrospective assessment … is not necessary” 19 because no evidence has been seen of “successful interference in the EU Referendum.” 19 A cross-party group of members of Parliament is suing the government over its inaction, arguing that no evidence of interference has been found because “the government appeared not to have sought evidence.” 47

Infrastructural networks

Following the defense-and-deterrence approach and collaborative activity championed in the U.K.’s 2016 Cyber Security Strategy, a new National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) was established to link up existing operations across GCHQ’s information security arm, Communications-Electronic Security Group (CESG); the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI); CERT-U.K. (Computer Emergency Response Team); and the Centre for Cyber Assessment (CCA). 48

The U.K. and its allies have collaboratively named and shamed the GRU for various recent cyber activities, including those of hacker group APT28 (2018), the NotPetya attack (2018), and an attack on Georgia (2020). 49

Deterrence capabilities were further boosted with the introduction in 2019 of a new cyber sanctions regime in the U.K. and EU, 19 though it is too early to reliably ascertain its impact. Finally, the Law Commission is currently reviewing the Official Secrets Act with a view to better legislating for unsanctioned cyber access. 19

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) welcomes the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to Downing Street , London, ahead of a meeting to sign a strategic partnership deal with the president in the face of Russia's "destabilising behaviour" towards the country. PA via REUTERS
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) welcomes the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to Downing Street, London, ahead of a meeting to sign a strategic partnership deal with the president in the face of Russia’s “destabilizing behavior” towards the country. PA via REUTERS

2.2 Norm and Value Destabilization

The detection, deterrence, and defense components of the new cyber defense strategy are likely also to work well to combat hack-and-leak operations. As previously noted, however, it is the amplification of such information that gives it the power to destabilize societal norms and values by drawing into question the legitimacy of key social institutions, the ideals they are based upon, and the extent to which they truly reflect such ideals. Multiple departments and agencies have, therefore, worked to counter the spread of harmful content in the on- and offline media environment. Initiatives specifically aimed toward biased narratives and disinformation are discussed in the subsequent section, but there are several that aim generally to mitigate the features of this environment that facilitate norm destabilization.

Following extensive investigations into the potential harms of the online environment, DCMS stated that it could not “stress highly enough the importance of greater public understanding of digital information—its use, scale, importance, and influence.” 50 The department pushed for digital literacy to be incorporated as a pillar of primary education, to be funded by a levy on social media companies.

The current U.K. system already supports digital literacy objectives, which are one of the statutory duties of the media regulator, Ofcom, 19 and form part of the roles of the Information Commissioner’s Office, the Electoral Commission, and the Advertising Standards Authority. While all four regulators have written separately about their roles in this arena, DCMS has recommended that the government ensure greater collaboration between them. 19

Steps set out in proposals for an Online Harms framework (see further details below) included the publication of a media literacy strategy that facilitates critical engagement with online content. 51 Media literacy alone is unlikely to solve this problem, however, since it privileges individual responsibilities over structural safeguards. 52

It is, therefore, notable that the government further committed that recommendations made in 2019 by the independent Cairncross Review 53 into the sustainability of high-quality journalism in the U.K. would inform its wider work on digital regulation. This included working toward new codes of conduct that redefine the relationships between news publishers and online platforms. 54

2.3 Informational and Narrative Support for Specific Foreign Policy Priorities

Given Ofcom’s relative success at regulating misleading or unduly partial media coverage, 55 the main concern around RT comes in the norm destabilization category. Despite concerns about the viral spread of some of its more biased content, there are questions over whether (and how) it can change news consumers’ perceptions, 56 while the network skillfully spins criticisms into a selling point. This makes the continued transparent application of regulatory measures more strategically advisable than overtly political special treatment.

Further, targeted action has been taken to combat state-backed disinformation in the U.K., given disparities between different social networks’ actions to stem state-led influence efforts. Stressing that social media companies had a “responsibility to comply with the law and not to facilitate illegal activity,” 57 DCMS noted a disjuncture between Facebook’s ostensible commitment to transparency and its financial disincentives to effectively audit the sources of its advertising revenue. 19 It advocated increased government pressure, backed by financial penalties, to bring all platforms into line. 19

These recommendations fed into the proposed regulations of the Online Harms framework (under Ofcom’s remit). In its December 2020 full response to the consultation on these proposals, the U.K. government set out the guiding principles for an Online Safety Bill, due to be ready later in 2021, which will impose on social media companies a duty of care regarding their users, while promoting a process-based, rather than content-focused, approach to addressing online harms. 58 DCMS also established a cross-Whitehall Counter-Disinformation Unit (CDU), connecting the counter-disinformation activities of DCMS, the Home Office, the FCO, and the Cabinet Office. 59 An assessment of these measures’ efficacy can, however, only come in the fullness of time.

3. Conclusion

Russia’s “influence attempts” in the U.K. are primarily aimed at creating favorable conditions to increase its influence thereby infiltrating networks of social, economic, and political influence; undermining dominant norm and value hierarchies (opening space for Russian alternatives); and providing targeted informational and narrative support for Russian foreign policy priorities.

Russia’s approach to such activities has become increasingly flexible, capitalizing opportunistically on evolving social divisions and institutional failings. It has also become increasingly delegative, with the Russian state accruing incidental benefits from self-motivated independent actors not under its control.

This messy reality is hugely challenging for the U.K. to counter but has only recently been reflected in U.K. policy responses. Despite the U.K. government acknowledging the “enduring and significant threat posed by Russia to the U.K. and its allies, including conventional military capabilities, disinformation, illicit finance, influence operations, and cyber-attacks,” 19 key response areas have suffered from a lack of strategic foresight: economic sanctions, money laundering, and unexplained wealth regimes have been implemented only very recently, and while welcome going forward, cannot combat preexisting network infiltration.

There has been a political reticence to investigate interference in the EU referendum, or to impose stricter regulation of political donations and interests. While cyber safeguards are moving in a promising direction despite constant technological developments, media safeguards are still being worked out through the U.K.’s legislative processes: foreign agent registration, amendments to the Official Secrets Act, and an Online Safety Bill remain pending. Russia’s “influence attempts” will continue to take advantage of such opportunities.

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