openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Boris Johnson’s government failing to protect UK from Russia’s 'active threat'

The government’s defence review, published this week, is a reminder of its shocking inaction to protect UK democracy from Putin's Russia

Layla Moran
19 March 2021, 4.13pm
A UK government last year described Russian influence in the UK as ‘the new normal’
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ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Live News

The first duty of any government is to keep our country safe.

The UK’s Russia report, published by the Intelligence and Security Committee last July, and the way ministers responded to it, made clear that this Conservative government is failing badly in that duty.

The government’s own Integrated Review, published this week, called Russia an “active threat”. The comments, made in the biggest review of foreign and defence policy since the end of the Cold War, remind us of just how pressing this issue is. This weekend at our Spring Conference, the Liberal Democrats will be urging the Government to address it urgently.

The threat to the UK from Vladimir Putin’s Russia is beyond doubt. The Russia report, when it was eventually released last summer by prime minister Boris Johnson – after months of delay and a futile attempt to put the hapless former transport secretary, Chris Grayling, in charge of the committee – put it best.

“Russia’s cyber capability,” it said , “when combined with its willingness to deploy it in a malicious capacity, is a matter of grave concern, and poses an immediate and urgent threat to our national security.”

The UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations.

It continued: “The UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations.

“Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business, sports and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth.

“It is clear,” the committee concluded, “that Russia currently poses a significant threat to the UK on a number of fronts.”

It was a damning analysis from a highly respected cross-party parliamentary committee, based on assessments from our intelligence and security services.

But the government swept the report under the carpet and left our democracy vulnerable to the threat of big money, from figures close to the Kremlin, influencing our politics. It rejected the committee’s explicit call for an urgent investigation into potential Russian interference in the EU referendum – within an hour of the report being published.

And there’s no sign of the legislation to establish a public register of overseas owners of UK property – something the Liberal Democrats have been calling for for years, and something the Conservatives have been promising since 2016.

Putin’s assault on democracy at home and abroad shows no signs of abating

The government needs to make protecting our democratic process a national security priority. One step would be to create a minister with clear responsibility for protecting our democracy.

Instead, the government is busy forcing First Past the Post on even more of our elections and imposing draconian ID laws that civil rights groups have warned will disproportionately suppress people from poorer and ethnic minority backgrounds from voting.

Britain is 'clearly a target' for disinformation campaigns, according to the Russia report, and now more than ever we should be focused on safeguarding our democracy at all levels.

Putin’s assault on democracy at home and abroad shows no signs of abating. This week US intelligence officials reported that Russia had attempted to interfere in the November US elections by disseminating “misleading or unsubstantiated allegations” against Joe Biden. Meanwhile in Russia, his own country, supporters of the poisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny were faced with the prospect of indefinite house arrest.

With democracy under such sustained attack in so many countries, the UK should be leading its defence, working with other countries to resist Putin and other authoritarian ‘strongmen’, imposing Magnitsky sanctions to weaken his influence and speaking out and standing up whenever and wherever democracy and human rights are threatened.

Not burying their heads in the sand because the issues are politically inconvenient or because it might put some Tory party donors off.


Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, and the party's spokesman for foreign affairs and international development.

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