British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab claimed that Russians meddled in last year’s election by “amplifying” leaked documents that revealed a potential post-Brexit trade deal with the US. No evidence was served with his claims.

“It is almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019 General Election through the online amplification of illicitly acquired and leaked Government documents,” Raab said on Thursday.

The documents in question sketched out several rounds of trade talks between British and American representatives, during which the US side supposedly pushed for access to the National Health Service for high-priced American pharmaceutical companies, and to lower health and safety standards in the British food industry. The papers were leaked in the runup to last December’s general election and disseminated on Reddit, a popular news aggregation and discussion site. 

Note that Raab didn’t accuse Russia of actually acquiring and leaking the documents, only blaming a vague group of “Russian actors” for their “online amplification.” What this likely means is that the British government is treating social media accounts who spread the documents as ‘Russian trolls’ – a nebulous group accused of everything from spreading racial division in the US to 5G conspiracy theories in Sweden.

Blaming Russia for domestic scandals is a well-thumbed chapter of the liberal establishment’s playbook. However, politicians like Raab are often backed up by an array of anti-Russia think tanks and media outlets. When the trade deal documents were first leaked, the Atlantic Council – a think-tank funded by NATO – got together with Graphika – an analytics firm funded by the US Department of Defense – to declare the leak a Russian operation. 

The Atlantic Council and Graphika concluded that the leak “resembles” another Russian influence operation, and therefore was the work of the Kremlin.

Raab offered little more evidence on Thursday, only saying he was “almost certain” of Russian involvement.

The foreign secretary’s statement comes ahead of the publication of a report by the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) into alleged Russian interference in UK politics, particularly the 2016 Brexit referendum. The report’s publication was blocked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson ahead of the 2019 election, yet Johnson said at the time that he had seen “no evidence of meddling.” Raab added on Thursday that “there is no evidence of a broad-spectrum Russian campaign against the General Election.”

Until the report codifies exactly what the British government thinks Moscow is up to, politicians are free to blame the Kremlin for whatever they want. Raab has done just that. Last month, the foreign secretary told Sky News that Russia “engaged systematically in misinformation and propaganda” about the coronavirus, again giving only his assertion as evidence.  

Within hours of Raab’s statement on Thursday, the British National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) said that a Russian hacking group was attempting to steal Covid-19 research and vaccine data from the UK. The NCSC blamed a group known as “Cozy Bear” – previously accused of hacking Democratic Party emails in the US – and tied the group to the Russian government. 

The 🇬🇧 stands with 🇺🇸 & 🇨🇦 against the reckless actions of Russia’s intelligence services, who we have exposed today for committing cyber attacks against those working on a #Covid19 vaccine – undermining vital 🌎 cooperation to defeat this pandemic

Whatever their veracity, Raab’s claims have given the government ammunition to push a punitive line on Russia. Shortly after accusing Moscow of a coronavirus propaganda campaign, London slapped human rights sanctions on 25 of Vladimir Putin’s “henchmen.” The move marked the first time the UK has diverged from the European Union’s sanctions regime, and apes the ‘Magnitsky Sanctions’ leveled on Russia by the US and Canada.

After delivering his latest accusation at Russia, Raab warned that “the government reserves the right to respond with appropriate measures in the future.” He added that London would hold the perpetrators of the alleged coronavirus cyberattack “to account.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry mocked Raab’s vague allegations. “The statement is so foggy and contradictory that it’s practically impossible to understand,” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters at a weekly briefing.

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