What is the Westminster Russia Forum?
Stephen Komarnyckyj on the pro-Kremlin group linked to the Conservative Party – and what it says about Britain.
The Britain of July 2012 now seems as remote as the moon.
I had watched the Olympic Flame carried through Barnsley and sensed a mood of national optimism, bubbly as freshly opened Champagne. But, what was also clear was that Britain had no vision for its future. Winston Churchill popped out of Big Ben during the Olympic Games closing ceremony because Britain was fixated on its past.
Meanwhile, Russian oligarchs, whose children studied at Eton, cruised through London’s Knightsbridge in Bentleys. They purchased country houses and grumbled about the British builders they hired to repair their crumbling Jacobean stonework. Pound signs flashed up in the eyes of estate agents.
It was in this climate of naivety and greed, that the Westminster Russia Forum (WRF) was born.
what the papers don’t say
The group began life as the Conservative Friends of Russia (CFoR) in August 2012. Its founder Richard Royal, a communication’s specialist for Ladbrokes, persuaded former Conservative cabinet minister Malcolm Rifkind to join. It was launched at a bash in the Russian Embassy’s grounds which was organised by Sergey Nalobin – a diplomat suspected of being a Russian agent.
However, the PR skills Royal honed by persuading punters to blow their pay packets in a turf accountants proved unequal to the task of managing a Kremlin front. He published a vitriolic attack on Labour MP Chris Bryant, a staunch Kremlin critic, with the post accompanied by a photo of Bryant in his underpants, taken from a gay dating site. Rifkind resigned from the group in disgust just three months later and the CFoR fully imploded another month on.
However, the Russian oligarchs basking in the UK’s relaxed approach to taxation needed someone to smooch the Conservatives and so CFoR was reincarnated as the Westminster Russia Forum.
Royal’s legacy continued to haunt the revamped CFoR. Its team included advertising men such as Steven Lacey, who has helped IKEA flog flat pack furniture to Brits, and now tried to use the WRF to polish Moscow’s image for the masses. He was hampered by his appalling naivety about Russia. His partner at the now defunct Push London agency, Leo Archutowski, might have been able to help. Victor Archutowski, Leo’s father, may have been considered for recruitment by the Polish KGB in the Cold War, but was never approached because he was politically unsuitable, according to Polish intelligence archives. However, Lacey, by contrast, was a willing supporter of Russian propaganda.
In March 2015, he booked a London pub, Walkers of Whitehall, to hold a fundraiser for Graham Phillips, a Russia Today (now RT) journalist. Phillips was a sex blogger before he became a propagandist and a possible FSB asset. The pub became aware of his reputation and cancelled the event. Its Twitter account was attacked by Russian trolls and had to be deleted.
Lacey mistakenly believed that improving Russia’s image was similar to persuading punters to buy a bookcase called Billy. He was a driving force of the WRF until late 2018, but has since disappeared from the group’s website.
The WRF cannot be dismissed as the Kremlin’s answer to the plucky volunteers of Walmington-on-Sea. It’s true that the organisation has failed to attract senior figures in the Conservative party after the “underpantsgate” episode of 2012. It has, however, engaged Edward Lucas, a prominent critic of the Kremlin, in its events thereby adding credence to an organisation that is really a Kremlin front posing as a think tank.
Its annual conference is attended by hundreds of British and Russian representatives from business and Nicholas Cobb, its current chair, runs a PR firm specialising in Eurasian energy companies.
The nature of subversion has changed since the Cold War era when Polish spooks were planning to recruit Archutowski senior. Russia now uses non-intelligence means to manipulate politics and populations in countries it wishes to subdue.
Tinfoil hat-type theorists are promoted to sow confusion. Transnational business ties are developed to weaken national political institutions. Western companies are happy to develop Russia’s energy infrastructure while Idlib and the Donbas burn. Multiple actors and methods ranging from social media to hired politicians and journalists to cultural events are employed to manipulate popular opinion.
The WRF seems marginal, but it is part of a picture in which Russian diplomat Sergey Nalobin claims to be a “good friend” of Boris Johnson and Russian trolls pose as staunch British Brexit-loving patriots.
The UK elite’s fixation with the past and its greed have been cleverly exploited by Putin’s regime. Yet, Russia’s efforts here might ultimately be self defeating as it has infiltrated a party which now stands at the brink of destruction.