Did Russia Influence Brexit?

Contributor: Rachel Ellehuus

According to the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, the UK government does not know and—incredibly—did not try to find out.

This was the question at the heart of the long-awaited “Russia Report,” the 9-month delayed, 55-page assessment of Russia’s malign interference in UK politics. Produced by an independent committee of nine members of parliament from several political parties, including the ruling Conservatives, the report became highly controversial because Boris Johnson’s government tried to block its publication. 

The report is damning. It says that the government, along with its intelligence and security services, “underestimated the response required to the Russian threat and are still playing catch up.” It asserts that “Russian influence in the UK is the new normal […] the UK is clearly a target for Russian disinformation.” 

If Russia did have a role in tipping the 2016 Brexit referendum, the report asserts that it was not through direct involvement in the voting process, which, in the United Kingdom, is done entirely with paper and considered very hard to corrupt. 

But the report leaves open the possibility that Moscow-based information operations, especially through social media and Russian state-funded broadcasters like Sputnik and RT—and backed up by targeted support to influential voices within UK politics—may well have been a significant factor. 

Crucially, the UK Government is accused of making a deliberate effort not to find out how Russian influence may have affected the June 2016 vote. This is all the more incredulous because the government admits there was Russian interference in the 2014 Scottish referendum, declaring it the first time that Russia directly interfered in a Western election. The government also admits that Russia interfered in the December 2019 general election. This information makes the lack of preparedness for 2016 (and 2019) and lack of response all the more stunning. The report rightly calls for a thorough inquiry; the UK government has so far rejected the call.

The report also draws an unfavorable comparison between the United Kingdom and the United States on their investigative responses to Russian meddling. It says Downing Street did not take action to protect the United Kingdom’s process in 2016, and goes on: “The committee has not been provided with any post-referendum assessment - in stark contrast to the US response to reports of interference in the 2016 presidential election.” The report goes on to call for a British equivalent of the Mueller investigation.

As Guardian Journalist and Russia expert Luke Harding said at a CSIS event discussing Russian influence in the United Kingdom (marking the release of a new CSIS report on this topic), the UK administration appears to be “in denial” about Russian influence because it questions the legitimacy of both the government and its agenda, which stem from the 2016 referendum. 

As well as election interference and disinformation operations, the report cites a range of other ways in which Russia is engaging with the United Kingdom, some of which have a potential to be malign. Many of these focus on money and especially property in London, which remains a popular investment for oligarchs with a historic connection to President Putin. The report says some of their “illicit finance has been recycled through the London ‘laundromat’”, and comments on their connections to "political figures” (including potential violations of campaign financing). It also notes that “[t]his has led to a growth industry of ‘enablers’ including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who are – wittingly or unwittingly – de facto agents of the Russian state.”

So, did Russia ultimately shape the outcome of the Brexit referendum? Given that the result was exceptionally close, and that if just one in fifty voters had felt differently when they entered the polling booth on June 23, 2016, the result would have been different, the Kremlin operation could well have tipped the balance. But so could so many other things, in a butterfly-effect conundrum of sorts: the lackluster ‘Remain’ campaign bogged down by a disunited opposition, a government that miscalculated the risks, the pro-Brexit British media, and a lack of transparency into the Leave campaign, which the media failed to hold to account for the (now proven untrue) claims they made during the campaign. The government’s response (or lack thereof) must now come under the same scrutiny.

Because Russian influence operations thrive on divided audiences, the very close result of the referendum could well have been influenced by any or all of these factors. The government’s refusal to prepare then and to investigate now shows it is not prepared to handle the truth—and only the Kremlin benefits.

Donatienne Ruy
Director, Executive Education and Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy, and Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program