The UK government "actively avoided" looking into possible Russian interference in the landmark 2016 Brexit referendum.
That was the claim of one of the authors of a long-awaited report — published on Tuesday — into Moscow's influence on British politics.
Scottish MP Stewart Hosie, a member of the UK parliament's influential Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), said it was "astonishing" the government had not looked into the possibility of interference, adding Downing Street had "actively avoided" doing so "because they did not want to know."
The ISC report said it was "difficult to prove" allegations that Russia sought to influence the referendum. But, it added, it was clear the government “was slow to recognise the existence of the threat" even after evidence emerged of Russian interference in US presidential elections and the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.
Hosie said that Russia had tried to cast doubts on the veracity of the result of the referendum on Scottish secession in a bid to primarily undermine the UK in the eyes of the Russian populace.
"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 10-foot pole," said Hosie.
"This is in stark contrast to the US response to reported interference in the 2016 presidential election.
"There should have been an assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and there must now be one, and the public must be told the results of that assessment."
The authors concluded that "serious questions needed to be asked” why ministers didn’t look into the issue.
The report also cited the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and the annexation of Crimea cited as "stark indicators" of Russia's lack of adherence to international law.
MP Kevan Jones, speaking about whether possible Russian interference in the Scottish referendum was a warning for the UK government, said: "All the evidence was there to see for the Scottish referendum. Short of having a van outside Downing Street with a billboard on it about what was going on what more does the government need?
"The report draws comparisons with the US [where investigations into Russian interference were carried out] but here that decision was not taken."
On the government not investigating the threat Russia posed, he added: "Democracy is a very precious thing and we need to do what we can to protect it. This government has not done that and we're not dealing with an adversary that isn't going to go away soon."
Watch in full: ISC holds press conference after the release of Russia report
Jones also criticised the prime minister for not publishing the report sooner, adding that the government had spent the past week trying to discredit it.
Julian Lewis, the committee chairman, used his closing remarks to slam the government's actions around the publishing of the report.
He said there had been "unprecedented delay and dislocation" and called for MPs to be able to discuss the report in parliament.
The findings of the delayed probe were delivered on Tuesday after staving off what many observers saw as a last-minute effort to once again stall the report, which was originally submitted to PM Boris Johnson on October 17.
The government initially said the report couldn’t be published until it was reviewed for national security issues, which postponed its release until after the general election in December last year. Further holdups were caused by delays in appointing new members to the Intelligence and Security Committee.
Finally, Johnson named five Conservative MPs to the nine-person panel in the hope his handpicked candidate would be chosen as chairman and block the report. The gambit failed when a renegade Conservative was chosen to head the committee with backing from opposition parties.
"Completely self-defeating act that bears the hallmark of a government so arrogant it really believes it is above scrutiny,” Lisa Nandy, the opposition Labour Party’s spokeswoman on foreign affairs, tweeted. “What is in the Russia report that Johnson doesn’t want to see the light of day?”
Labour has accused the government of failing to publish the report because it would lead to further questions about links between Russia and the pro-Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum on European Union membership, which Johnson helped lead.
Addressing reporters at a press conference, committee members Jones and Hosie called for an inquiry into the matter as a next step for the UK government, as well as a reform of how members of the House of Lords declare their income.
Speaking before the report was released, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that Russia “never interfered in electoral processes in any country in the world”.
“Not in the United States, not in Britain, not in any other country. We don’t do that ourselves and we don’t tolerate when other countries try to interfere with our political affairs,” Peskov said.