Nicola Sturgeon has accused the UK Government of “negligence” in the face of Russian interference after a report highlighted links to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
The first minister said Boris Johnson and his ministers “should be taking greater steps to find out” whether Russia attempted to influence the outcome of UK votes.
An investigation by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) discovered “credible” commentary suggesting Russia undertook “influence campaigns” in relation to the independence vote.
According to the report, theories about irregularities in the conduct of the referendum were “widely pushed by Russian state media”, in what was described as “potentially the first post-Soviet Russian interference in a Western democratic process”.
Downing Street has rejected calls for a full investigation into whether the 2016 Brexit vote was also influenced by foreign actors, stating it had seen “no evidence of successful interference”.
But members of the ISC claimed officials had “actively avoided” looking for evidence and suggested Government departments had treated the problem as a “hot potato”, with no one getting a grip on the issue.
Speaking at her daily coronavirus briefing today, Ms Sturgeon said the ISC report had been “kept hidden from the public for months” and “seems to be very explicit” that the UK Government had not “bothered” to look into the Brexit vote.
The SNP leader warned against complacency when it comes to the possibility of Russian interference but said conclusions should not be drawn from the “three lines or thereabouts” on the independence ballot in the report.
She said it appeared the committee had found no evidence of interference in the Brexit referendum “because the UK Government hasn’t looked for it”.
“I hope that this report leads to a much more rigorous approach and to the UK Government taking these threats to our democratic processes much more seriously than they appear to have been doing so far,” Ms Sturgeon said.
Asked whether she personally believed Russia had interfered in the 2014 referendum, Ms Sturgeon said she only knew what she had read in the report but the UK Government should be doing more to find out.
Both the Scottish Conservatives and Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray have called for an inquiry to establish the extent of Russian involvement in the vote.
But Ms Sturgeon said this would be a matter for the UK Government, as the intelligence and security services are reserved to Westminster.
Scottish Conservative constitution spokesman Murdo Fraser highlighted the involvement of former SNP first minister Alex Salmond with the Russian state-controlled news channel RT.
A number of party figures have made appearances on his talk show since it began airing in 2017 and it is produced by another former SNP MP, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh.
Mr Fraser said: “People will be very suspicious that the Yes campaign’s most dominant figure ended up on the Russian payroll after losing the referendum.
“And over many years, SNP figures have been more than happy to indulge questionable Russian media operations.
“It’s clear much work is to be done by both the Scottish and UK Governments to ensure future interference is stamped out.”
At a press conference to launch the report earlier in the day, SNP MP Stewart Hosie was asked if there were concerns about the involvement of Scottish political figures such as Mr Salmond, who we were told was “unavailable for comment”.
Mr Hosie said the report focused on Russian channels which were “able to very quickly get out the Russian state version of events” but stressed it was “not a criticism of any individual programme maker, or commentator, or presenter”.