Looking for titillating summer reading? Interested in stories about espionage, murder, power and ill-begotten wealth? Then I have just the thing for you to take to the beach: The report of the British Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.
Released last week, the report focuses on “Russian Hostile State Activity.” It begins on a nostalgic note: “The dissolution of the USSR was a time of hope in the West. Western thinking was, if not to integrate Russia fully, at least to ensure that it became a partner. By the mid-2000s, it was clear that this had not been successful.”
Nothing provided more clarity than the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. A lieutenant colonel in Russia’s FSB, successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB, Litvinenko was granted asylum in the United Kingdom in 2000. He became a journalist, consultant to British intelligence and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him, among other things, of ordering the October 2006 murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
The following month, a dose of polonium 210 was mixed into the tea he was served in a London hotel.It took 10 years before a public inquiry concluded that his murder had been carried out by FSB operatives, and was “probably” approved by Mr. Putin.
Other Russian defectors and dissidents, 14 according to an estimate cited in the report, have been murdered on British soil. There also have been bungled attempts, most infamously the 2018 use of chemical weapons to poison former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. That led to the expulsion of 153 Russian intelligence officers and diplomats from 29 countries.
The parliamentary report notes efforts over the years “to repair relations” between Russia and Western countries,” including President Obama’s ballyhooed “reset.” It further notes that “none has had any impact on Russian intent, and therefore on the security threat that Russia poses.”
Russia’s economy is smaller than those of Italy or Brazil, but it “heavily resources its intelligence services and armed forces, which are disproportionately large and powerful.” Russia appears to believe that “any actions it can take which damage the West” are in its national interest.
“There is also a sense that Russia believes that an undemocratic ‘might is right’ world order plays to its strengths, which leads it to seek to undermine the Rules Based International Order — whilst nonetheless benefitting from its membership of international political and economic institutions.”
Among Russia’s objectives, the report continues, are “to be seen as a resurgent ‘great power’ — in particular, dominating the countries of the former USSR — and to ensure that the privileged position of its leadership clique is not damaged.”
Russia pursues these goals by spreading disinformation, illicitly funding foreign political parties and organizations, using “malicious cyber activity” to influence the democratic elections of other countries, disrupting “electoral mechanics,” and carrying out “hack and leak” attacks on election campaigns.
Has Russia succeeded in changing any election results? Apparently not, but its meddling discredits democratic governance and deepens divisions within democratic countries. The report points out: “When people start to say ‘You don’t know what to believe’ or ‘They’re all as bad as each other,’ the disinformers are winning.”
The report also spotlights oligarchs — politically well-connected Russians who became filthy rich by appropriating resources formerly in the possession of the Soviet state.
Britain “has been viewed as a particularly favourable destination for Russian oligarchs and their money,” the parliamentary committee found, “and few questions — if any — were asked about the provenance of this considerable wealth.”
As a result, oligarchs have been able to establish “ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat.’ The money was also invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment — PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process.”
Oligarchs with “very close links to Putin” have become prominent both within Britain’s business community and its “social scene.”
“This level of integration — in ‘Londongrad’ in particular — means that any measures now being taken by the Government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation.”
Worse: “A large private security industry has developed in the U.K. to service the needs of the Russian elite, in which British companies protect the oligarchs and their families, seek kompromat [compromising information] on competitors, and on occasion help launder money through offshore shell companies and fabricate ‘due diligence’ reports, while lawyers provide litigation support.”
And get this: “It is notable that a number of Members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state.”
The report concludes that, until recently, the British government “badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response it required.”
I think there’s also a larger lesson here. In Britain, the United States and the West in general, there has been — and there remains — a tendency to believe that those who rule Russia, China and Iran will mellow and moderate over time; that economic incentives can persuade them that cooperation is preferable to confrontation; that clever diplomacy will open their eyes to the benefits of playing by the rules.
It is comforting to believe that the arc of history bends toward liberal democracy. But the evidence suggests that Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Ali Khamenei believe the arc of history bends the way strong men bend it. They believe they are strong men. They believe Western leaders are not. If they’re correct, this story may not end well.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.