Unmasking the Russia threat: A deep dive into wider influence 

April 26, 2024


Russia threat

The UK’s vigilance is under the microscope as the Russia threat to UK looms, a reality underscored by a long-standing history entwined with fluctuations of camaraderie and dispute since 1553, writes Philip Ingram MBE.

With a backdrop of espionage, use of radiological substances (Polonium 210 to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko) and chemical weapons (Novichok in an attempt to assassinate Sergei Skripal) on the streets of the UK and the recent scrutiny of political encroachment, the relationship dynamic between Russia and the UK continues wain. 

 The UK hosts Russian minorities and oligarchs whose interactions with British society raise flags about the depth of Russian political influence in various sectors, including the press and House of Lords.

The contours of Russian power exertions in the UK and the UKs efforts to counter them are complex and numerous.   

 Russia has targeted the UK and Europe using comprehensive disinformation campaigns attempting to exploit perceived divisions.

An example is how they blamed the Royal Navy for the destruction of the Nord stream 2 Gas pipeline thinking Europe would blame a post Brexit UK for higher energy prices.  

The Russians have a doctrine when engaging of маскировка (maskirovka), literally masking. 

This was defined in the International Dictionary of Intelligence from 1990 as the Russian military intelligence (GRU) term for deception and we see this employed in many scenarios by Russia in everything it does.  Literally it is the use of disinformation to sew doubt and we see its use creeping into all parts of our society. 

At every opportunity, whether it be a minor issue or major political debate, you can guarantee there is some form of Russian involvement.

They are experts at sowing division and then doing everything possible to act as a catalyst to magnify that division as much as possible.

The aim is collective disruption, so lots of little issues will prove in many cases more disruptive than one big issue.

It’s been alleged that Russian bots on social media have been magnifying the debate around the Princess of Wales’s health; division over the border in Northern Ireland and the Windsor agreement is being enhanced almost certainly through Russian backed campaigns. 

 Cyber operations are another tool in Russia’s arsenal, with DDoS attacks and network probing aimed at influencing European policy.

High-profile targets have been political figures, institutions, and non-government actors across Germany, Lithuania, Norway, France, and Montenegro.

Ukraine’s power grid has also suffered from such attacks, highlighting the vulnerability of critical infrastructure. 

 Lisa Forte of Red Goat Security in her foreword to the book “Understanding the Cyber Attacker Mindset” by Sarah Armstrong-Smith, said about cyber–Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) and in particular Russian OCGs targeting the UK and elsewhere, “these OCGs function in a manner resembling any legitimate business. They have job roles that mirror corporate structures, they have salaries and holiday pay!”

What is interesting about these OCGs is that they are used by State actors to carry out activities on behalf of the state targeting businesses, critical infrastructure and more. 

Whilst cyber continues to play an active part in Russia’s war with Ukraine their national cyber capabilities, sometimes with franchised help from Cyber OCGs or Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) continue to try and disrupt.

Their targets are industries helping with Ukraine, research institutes, Critical National Infrastructure and government.

During the COVID pandemic Oxford University came under attack as Russia tried to steal the research behind the Oxford / Astra Zeneca vaccine so they could try and claim they had invented it first. 

 Money is at the centre of much of their activity with direct and indirect funding supporting more extreme political parties and influencers across Europe and the UK in an attempt to ensure more pro-Russian leaders such as Victor Orban in Hungary.

The financial institutions of the City of London are central to this as suggested by Juliette Ferguson when she described the relationship in her article “Londongrad: a city’s addiction to Russian oligarchs and easy money” for Investigate Europe. 

The impact of Russian money on the UK economy has been significant.

Investments from Russian citizens have contributed to the growth of various sectors, including real estate, sports, media, and arts.

Premier League football clubs, such as Chelsea and Arsenal, have attracted Russian owners who have injected substantial capital into these clubs.

The acquisition of cultural institutions like Tate by Russian benefactors, namely Viktor Vekselberg and Peter Aven, has provided vital support for the arts. 

 The Waterstones bookstore chain also experienced the influence of Russian money. Alexander Mamut’s investment of £100 million in Waterstones in 2011 saved the struggling chain from collapse, allowing it to turn a profit in 2016.

Mamut’s intervention proved instrumental in revitalising the company and securing its future. 

 London’s position as a global financial hub made it an attractive destination for Russian investors.

Controversies surrounding Russian money in London began to surface when Transparency International identified at least £1.5 billion worth of UK property owned by wealthy Russians linked to financial crime or the Kremlin.

The lack of checks on the origin of money and the use of shell companies to obscure ownership raised concerns about money laundering. These issues prompted calls for tighter regulations and transparency. 

Russia’s goals 

Russia’s strategic objectives in the UK and Europe are multifaceted, focusing on regime security, regional dominance, and international status.

Key goals include weakening NATO and the EU, driving wedges between member states, and undermining trust in Western institutions.

These long-term influence activities span political, security, military, economic, energy, and technological spheres.

These efforts aim to secure Russian interests, weaken Western alliances, and assert Russia’s global power status. 

 To meet these objectives Russia relies heavily on its intelligence agencies, the FSB, GRU and SVR to carry out traditional espionage activities.

It looks for weak spots to exploit and areas of political division to influence and that is why it is no accident that the second largest Russian Embassy in the EU is in Dublin.  

 I recently told the Irish National broadcaster RTE and National Security News, “Russian activity is aimed at accessing EU correspondence, targeting US tech firms operating in the South, and infiltrating UK companies in Northern Ireland and on the mainland of GB.”

Russia recognises a ‘neutral’ nation with no counterintelligence service as a soft underbelly to be exploited. 

The Russian intelligence services are very active across the UK including London and not just from an intelligence gathering perspective but also from an influence perspective.

Traditional methods of ‘spying’ such as honeytraps and gaining other forms of kompromat (compromising material, able to be used for blackmail purposes) are rife.

Blackmailing for influence or buying influence (which leads to Kompromat as once they have you it’s difficult to escape) are commonplace. 

The security industry has and is being actively targeted. 

The Russian threat is real, very real and is targeting all aspects of our society.

It is something we need to be aware of and vigilant about. Ken McCallum the Director General of MI5 said of the threat “MI5 is making the biggest shifts in a generation.

We are facing adversaries who have massive scale and are not squeamish about the tactics they deploy. The West is in a contest in which our security, values and democratic institutions are at stake.”  

MI5, the Security Service, since the attack on Sergei Skripal, has restarted its counter-intelligence efforts but is playing catch up to try and get a handle on a threat that never went away after the Cold War. 

The security industry is as much at the frontline of protecting us from espionage as it is from terrorism or criminality. As an industry we must remain vigilant.  

This article was originally published in the April Edition of Security Journal United Kingdom. To read your FREE digital edition, click here.

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