By: Patrick Sawer / the Telegraph.co.uk
Whitehall officials have for the first time acknowledged that Russia is waging a “campaign” of propaganda and unconventional warfare against Britain.
According to senior figures in Government, Moscow is to blame for concerted attempts to undermine the UK through fake espionage, misinformation, cyber attacks and fake news.
It is understood that intelligence officers and senior civil servants across government voiced their concern about the growing scale of the Russian threat during a high-level meeting at the Cabinet Office two months ago.
A source with knowledge of the meeting told The Times: “There was an agreement on the need to do more across Whitehall to understand and assess and formulate options on how to respond to Russian activities.”
The Prime Minister is set to chair a National Security Council session within weeks to examine Russian actions towards Britain and its allies and discuss possible responses.
It is thought the operations mounted by Moscow agents against Britain are part of a broader drive by the Putin regime to destabilise the West.
Only this week, US intelligence officials disclosed that President Putin was personally involved in a Russian-led hacking campaign to influence the outcome of the American election and assist Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
President Obama yesterday promised to take retaliatory action against Moscow, saying: “We need to take action and we will at a time and place of our own choosing. Don’t do this stuff to us, because we can do this to you.”
Concerns have now been raised that British companies and institutions have been penetrated by Russian agents, including UK citizens.
It emerged last night that several academics at Cambridge University have stepped down from an intelligence forum over fears of Kremlin influence.
In a sign of how seriously the situation is regarded by Government figures, the head of the armed forces took the unusual step this week of calling for increased efforts to catch moles.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach said: “We … need to pay more attention to counterespionage and counterintelligence to protect our hard-won research, protect our industry and protect our competitive advantage.”
Sir Peach did not specify the nationality of the agents, but the number of Russian spies and “agents of influence” – such as British MPs wooed by the Russians – is thought to be higher than even during the Cold War.
It is understood that military intelligence officials are working more closely with MI5 on Russian issues, including the need to expose spies.
Examples of the new Russian offensive are thought to include state-run news outlets, such as RT and Sputnik; spreading propaganda to influence British audiences, in particular over key issues such as Brexit and the Scottish independence referendum.
They also include suspected cyberattacks against British companies and infrastructure, and the deployment of Putin’s only aircraft carrier and a fleet of escort ships directly through the English Channel en route to join the bombing campaign in Syria last month.
An expert in Russian affairs and former adviser to the government told The Times: “They [Whitehall] have just woken up to Russia. They are embarrassed to admit it. They don’t really know what to do because the logic is we should increase our defence spending and we should create a cross-governmental strategy for defending ourselves against this.”
The Prime Minister is facing calls from security experts to set up a “war cabinet” to respond to Russia’s activities.
Last year, Putin set up a national defence centre, run by military officers, to bring together hybrid weapons of media, economics, politics, cyber and dirty tricks to ensure all activity is carried out in pursuit of an agreed goal, such as the collapse of the European Union and Nato.