Russian influence in UK politics and business has become a “new normal”, a long-awaited intelligence report said.
Successive UK governments have welcomed oligarchs from Russia – some with close ties to Vladimir Putin – “with open arms”, said the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report.
The ISC also said there was credible “commentary” that Russia tried to influence the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
The report said Britain was one of Russia’s “top targets” in the West when it came to practices such as disinformation and cyber attacks, as well using the City of London to launder illicit money.
It added that politicians and leaders in the UK “took their eye off the ball” when it came to countering the security threat posed by the Kremlin.
The so-called Russia Report’s release was controversially blocked shortly before last year’s general election.
The committee said they did not have enough information to conclude whether or not Russian state actors sought to interfere in the 2016 Brexit vote.
It has called for the UK intelligence community to produce an assessment on whether the Kremlin did interfere in the referendum and to publish an unclassified summary.
The ISC said: “Even if the conclusion of any such assessment were that there was minimal interference, this would nonetheless represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the UK’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe.”
ISC member and SNP MP Stewart Hosie said “no one in government knew” if Russia sought to influence the Brexit vote and “actively avoided any effort” to investigate the matter.
He added: “There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a ten-foot pole.”
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab previously said it is “almost certain” that Russian agents sought to interfere in December’s general election.
But in a lengthy response to the Russia Report, Downing Street said it had seen no evidence of interference in the Brexit vote.
It denied it had underestimated the threat and said Russia remains a “top national security priority” for the UK Government.
The ISC report said the UK, particularly London, had accepted wealthy Russian oligarchs into high society and “few questions if any were asked about the provenance of this considerable wealth”.
The City of London – the UK’s key financial district – has provided these influential figures with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London “laundromat”, and connections at the highest levels of UK business and politics, it added.
This 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”.
The ISC said: “Russian influence in the UK is the new normal.
“There are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth.”
The heavily-redacted report noted that there had been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum but it would be “difficult – if not impossible” to assess whether any such attempts had been successful.
However, this is because the UK Government had made no effort to find out, it said.
The committee accused successive Westminster administrations of being “slow to recognise the existence of the threat”.
The ISC said it was a priority to “mitigate the risk, and ensure that, where hostile activity is uncovered, the proper tools exist to tackle it at source and to challenge the impunity of Putin-linked elites”.
The ISC noted that “a number of members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies” and these relationships should be “carefully scrutinised” given the potential for Moscow to exploit them.
The committee said: “It has been clear for some time that Russia under Putin has moved from potential partner to established threat, fundamentally unwilling to adhere to international law – the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 were stark indicators of this.
“We therefore question whether the government took its eye off the ball because of its focus on counter-terrorism: it was the opinion of the committee that until recently the government had badly under-estimated the response required to the Russian threat – and is still playing catch-up.”
The ISC suggested that the prospect of interference in domestic political processes by the Russians was viewed as a “hot potato” which none of the intelligence agencies wanted to grasp.
The report said: “Open source studies have pointed to the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, and the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’ as evidence of Russian attempts to influence the process.
“We have sought to establish whether there is secret intelligence which supported or built on these studies.
“In response to our request for written evidence at the outset of the inquiry, MI5 initially provided just six lines of text.”
In a 20-page response to the report, the UK Government rejected the call for an assessment of alleged Russian activity during the Brexit referendum.
It said: “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU Referendum.”
The government also denied the suggestion it had “badly underestimated” the Russian threat.
A spokesman said: “The government has long recognised there is an enduring and significant threat posed by Russia to the UK and its allies, including conventional military capabilities, disinformation, illicit finance, influence operations, and cyber-attacks.
“As such, Russia remains a top national security priority for the government.”