the RUSSIA REPORTPuts Johnson on the Spot
With its calls for an inquiry into Russian interference in Brexit, Peter Jukes reports on why the Prime Minister wanted to suppress the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report and what it reveals about Putin’s ongoing war on the West
It had long been speculated that there was something so damaging in the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into Russia influence that Boris Johnson and his Vote Leave Conservative Government succeeded in suppressing it for nine months.
Now we now what that is and why the Prime Minister was trying to stop its publication right to the last minute by removing the whip from the newly-elected ISC chair Julian Lewis.
Forget the spin last week about Jeremy Corbyn benefitting from Russian hacking in the last election, or claims that this report would focus on interference in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. All these attempts from Johnson’s colleagues in the press to look for useful idiots in the Kremlin’s plan to disrupt British democracy forgot the biggest – the Prime Minister himself.
With much of the detail buried in secret annexes – partly to protect tradecraft and sources, but also to protect sensitivities around the US President Donald Trump (Putin’s biggest asset is not named once in this report) – the overall picture is one of the UK being penetrated by Russian hackers and a “muddy nexus” of criminal gangs and spies, its citizens being killed by Russian nuclear weapons and nerve agents, while the country’s security services were asleep at the wheel and its political classes entranced by a vortex of Russian dirty money and billionaire oligarchs.
Londongrad: Co-Opted by Greed
The report is blunt about the corruption of the UK through the influx of wealthy Russian oligarchs from the late 1990s onwards.
“There are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth,” the report explains.
It traces this lax attitude back to previous administrations which emphasised the economic benefits of the “opening up of the UK to Russian investment… to the extent that the UK now faces a threat from Russia within its own borders”.
Though the report does not name these “Russians with very close links to Putin” any reading of the works of Byline Times, Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People or Luke Harding’s Shadow State will reveal who they are.
Now departed, sanctioned or awaiting extradition to the US, former big players in the UK political and commercial scene include Roman Abramovich, Oleg Deripaska and Dmytro Firtash. Others, apparently independent of Putin a decade ago, now apparently support his more belligerent stand since the Ukrainian Maidan independence movement and the annexation of the Crimea in 2014.
These include figures close to the Prime Minister such as Alexander Temerko, who said he plotted with Johnson when he was Foreign Secretary on how to bring down Theresa May; and the former London KGB officer who owns the Evening Standard and the Independent, Alexander Lebedev. Boris Johnson regularly partied at Lebedev’s properties in the UK and Italy and met him soon after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018.
Like the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee report on disinformation and fake news last year, the ISC recommends a British equivalent to the US Foreign Agent Registration (FARA) Act, to flush out potential intermediaries working on behalf of foreign powers. But it concedes that this would only be “damage limitation” because the infusion of dirty Russian money into British life is already so toxic and vast.
The report states:
“A large private security industry has developed in the UK to service the needs of the Russian elite, in which British companies protect the oligarchs and their families, seek kompromat on competitors, and on occasion help launder money through offshore shell companies and fabricate ‘due diligence’ reports, while lawyers provide litigation support.”
Most of the domestic wealth of Russia is held overseas by a handful of oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin. As the money laundering capital of the world, London has been the main recipient of this dark money stolen from the Russian people.
Just two known cases – the Moldovan Laundromat scheme and the Deutsche Bank ‘mirror trades’ scam – saw £20 billion poured into the UK through shell companies and LLPs in the past decade alone, effectively corrupting large swathes of the service industries which process them and, of course, buying undue political influence.
The Missing Brexit Threat Assessment
It has taken Parliament more than 14 years to recognise the true nature of the Russian President’s regime.
With the KGB-trained Putin now ensconced for life, conducting wars in Ukraine and Syria, and funding far-right parties across Europe to destabilise any institutions that can challenge his interests, this is – as the report makes clear in its remarks on MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – a deadly oversight.
The lethal nature of the threat from the Kremlin should have been obvious with the assassination of Alexander Livtinenko in 2006. A former colleague of Putin’s in the Russian security service, the FSB, Litvinenko had become a British citizen and was exposing Kremlin links to crime syndicates based in Spain when he was assassinated using a lethal and rare isotope of Polonium manufactured in a Russian state facility.
The attempted murder of the Skripals with the Novichok nerve agent two years ago was the culmination of a murderous campaign which led to up to 14 suspicious deaths in the UK, as reported by Heidi Blake and Buzzfeed News. The report contains a redacted comment on this.
But why has it taken so long? And why did Boris Johnson try to suppress this report? One can only conclude that, on several scores, it was embarrassing to him and those close to him.
Apart from the Lebedev and Temerko connections, Johnson had a wealth of other contacts with wealthy Russian oligarchs as Mayor of London. In the past few years, the Conservative Party has been a major beneficiary of donations from Russian expatriates. Meanwhile, several senior Brexit-supporting businessmen such as Jim Mellon and the Chandler brothers made extensive fortunes in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and some senior parliamentary figures, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, still have major investments there now.
Johnson’s controversial chief advisor Dominic Cummings spent three years in Russia in the late 1990s, and his brother-in-law Jack Wakefield was a director of Firtash’s foundation until a US grand jury indicted Firtash for corruption.
Both the Conservative Party and Nigel Farage’s UKIP were targeted by two alleged Russian spies, Sergei Nalobin and Alexander Udod. Nalobin met Johnson and senior Conservative Brexiters. Udod met Leave.EU founder Arron Banks at a UKIP conference and invited him to, what turned out to be, multiple visits to the Russian Embassy in the run-up to the EU Referendum where lucrative diamond and gold deals were discussed.
The Russian Ambassador at the time, Alexander Yakovenko, returned to Moscow last year to be awarded the Alexander Nevsky Order of Merit from Putin. He is reported to have told colleagues: “We have crushed the British to the ground. They are on their knees and will not rise for a very long time.”
Of course, all these connections could be innocent, and given the Kremlin’s penchant for disinformation, the claims of disruption have a destabilising effect if true or not. But the only answer to the high public concern about these suspicions is a clear and unambiguous investigation.
The report implicitly blames the May and Johnson Governments for failing to provide that. Comparing Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit vote to US investigations into meddling in the election of Donald Trump that same year, the ISC concludes “that the UK Intelligence Community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum”.
But will Boris Johnson allow that? Is he afraid that it would expose that he and his Vote Leave colleagues were beneficiaries of Russian interference? Are there other, more venal connections of cash or kompromat, which could embarrass senior figures? Is the current Government scared of what details Russia might hold on it? Or just scared that it might appear that it had? This is the conundrum of information operations and the Kremlin’s strategy of opacity and threat.
Until the British authorities address the dark money and opaque interests transparently and publicly through a proper inquiry, Putin will have already won.