Russian meddling in Brexit fact checked: Did Putin really fund the referendum?

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Macron says that the EU is ‘stronger’ following Brexit

Citing a declassified review released by the US State Department, an anonymous high-ranking official said hundreds of millions of dollars had flowed to political actors in over two dozen countries. The official added that Russia will likely increase its backdoor political financing efforts as it attempts to subvert the sanctions imposed following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. And, as the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ICS) concluded Britain was a prime target of Russia, the scope of Russian influence in the Brexit referendum is once again in the spotlight. 

The US State Department has alleged Russia covertly transferred more than $300million (£260million) to politicians and political parties sympathetic to Moscow’s agenda since 2014.

According to an anonymous senior member of the Biden administration who spoke via phone, Putin was spending vast sums “in an attempt to manipulate democracies from the inside.”

He added: “It is an effort to chip away at the ability of people around the world to choose the governments that they see best fit to represent them, to represent their interests, and to represent their values.”

Although the review does not name individual targets, the official said it identified more than 24 countries across four continents that were affected.

The administration official said: “We are clear that it is ongoing, it is pervasive, it is global.”

Vladimir Putin and Parliament

The Russian state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on political influence since 2014 (Image: GETTY)

Nigel Farage backing Brexit

Nigel Farage was instrumental in the Leave campaign (Image: GETTY)

The revelation reignites fears that Russian money may have swayed the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum.

The ISC report into Russian interference in British politics published in 2020 described the UK as one of Russia’s “top targets” as it was “seen as central to the Western anti-Russian lobby”.

According to the official, the US intelligence community is holding confidential briefings with select countries due to the sensitivity of the data – the UK likely among them.

On Wednesday, Caroline Lucas, a Green Party MP who has been leading the charge for a more thorough and transparent investigation into Russia’s involvement in Brexit, said: “As Putin wages war on Ukraine, he’s been waging another war on democracies around the world, including our own. This latest US State intelligence simply proves what we already knew from the Intelligence & Security Committee’s Russia report – that there is credible evidence of Russian meddling in UK election processes.

“Liz Truss needs to deliver what Boris Johnson stubbornly refused to – an independent and comprehensive investigation into Russian interference in our elections, including the 2016 Brexit referendum. Our democracy is at stake, and it must be protected at all costs.”

READ MORE: Putin spent £260m on influencing politicians

Putin and Kremlin advisors

The Kremlin has consistently denied allegations of meddling while accusing the US of doing so (Image: GETTY)

Published on July 21 2020, the ISC’s Russia report stated Russian influence in the UK was “the new normal”.

Heavily redacted and long-delayed, the report concluded insufficient attention was paid to Russian infiltration in British politics and public life, and that the Government did not know and did not seek to find out the degree to which Russia impacted the Brexit referendum result.

The report said that despite evidence of Russian meddling in elections in the US and France, as well as in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the Government “belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose in this area.”

The committee could not definitively say whether the Kremlin had successfully caused Brexit, but the revelation of the true scale of Russian money spent on political manipulation campaigns puts the question back on the table.

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Brexit timeline

A timeline of how Brexit unfolded (Image: EXPRESS)

According to research by communications agency 89up published in 2018, Kremlin-owned broadcasters RT and Sputnik published 261 media articles on the Brexit referendum with a strong anti-EU sentiment in the run-up to the vote in 2016.

The study claims the social reach of these pro-Brexit pieces, with 134 million potential impressions, dwarfed that of the official Vote Leave and Leave.EU websites, with 33 million and 11 million potential impressions respectively.

Alongside influencing opinions on social media, in the cable relaying the findings of the US intelligence community on Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken detailed other methods of Russian interference – including expensive gifts and donations to favoured causes, and moving funds through shell companies and think tanks.

The anonymous administration source said the Kremlin used Brussels as a hub for foundations and other organisations in order to back far-right candidates across Europe.

As confirmed in the Russia report, the UK is particularly vulnerable in this regard given how welcoming the country has been to Russian investment and the Russian elite. 

In February, anti-corruption organisation Transparency International estimated that £1.5billion of UK property had been bought by Russians accused of corruption or links to the Kremlin since 2016, including £430million worth of assets in the City of Westminster alone.

In a statement following the release of the report, the committee said: “Successive governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London laundromat and connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures”

In the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, there has been renewed pressure to clamp down on Russian money and influence in the UK.

After launching an investigation into RT on impartiality grounds in February, communications regulator Ofcom revoked the Russian state broadcaster’s UK licence.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is reportedly briefing target countries on Russian meddling (Image: GETTY)

In late March, a cross-party coalition of MPs and peers launched legal action against the UK Government in the European Court of Human Rights over its refusal to order an inquiry into the findings of the Russia report.

The group claimed the Government is in breach of Article 3 of the first protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, which calls for “free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people”.

Among those bringing the action was Ms Lucas, who said in a statement: “We now have no other option than to take our case to the European Court of Human Rights, in order to try to force the government to undertake a full investigation into the evidence, or else we jeopardise the free and fair elections we hold dear and allow Putin to believe that, once again, he can get away with hostile state interference in our democratic processes.”

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