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Theresa May has launched her most strident attack on Russian electoral “meddling”, accusing Moscow of “seeking to weaponise information” by using state media to spread fake news.

The UK prime minister said Russia was engaged in “a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption”, including “meddling” in elections and “hacking the Danish ministry of defence and the [German] Bundestag”.

The comments mark a clear division with Donald Trump, who said on Saturday that he believed Vladimir Putin’s assurance that Russia had not interfered in the US president election. Mrs May initially sought a close alliance with Mr Trump but, following domestic criticism, has appeared more critical of the US president in recent months.

On Monday she accused Russia of “deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the west and undermine our institutions”.

“So I have a very simple message for Russia,” she told the annual Lord Mayor’s banquet in London. “We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed.”

The prime minister’s intervention comes at a time that opposition MPs are questioning whether Russia was involved in the Brexit vote. In one potential sign of covert operations, researchers at City University identified 13,500 Twitter “sock puppets” that posted predominately pro-Brexit messages before the referendum in June 2016, and disappeared from the site shortly afterwards. However, they did not say the bots were linked to Russia.

The Electoral Commission is also investigating whether Leave.EU, a pro-Brexit campaign group founded by insurance entrepreneur Arron Banks, funnelled foreign donations into the referendum. Leave.EU has rejected any Russian connection.

Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, has told MPs he has seen no evidence of Russian interference in the poll. He is due to visit Moscow in the coming months, although hopes for a breakthrough in bilateral relations are scant. Britain and Russia have been at odds over issues including the Russian annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Syria.

The prime minister pitched her words on Russia in the context of a future security partnership with the EU after Brexit. She said Russia was “chief among” those threatening to undermine the free societies, to which the UK and other EU member states were committed.

Her reference to Russian state media comes days after Alex Salmond, the former Scottish National party leader, announced he would be hosting a regular show on the Kremlin-funded broadcaster RT. Mr Salmond, who lost his seat in June’s general election, was criticised by members of his own party and opposition politicians, who said he was lending legitimacy to a biased organisation.

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