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Tue 20 October 2020
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Sarah Hurst reports on how every major party, with the exception of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, has changed their stance on Kremlin intervention

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By delaying the publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee of parliament’s “Russia report”, Prime Minister Boris Johnson only heightened interest in its contents and in questions about Kremlin interference in our democracy. The Prime Minister refused to allow the report to come out during last November’s general election campaign and subsequently attempted to install his own tame MP Chris Grayling as chairman of the committee. This ended disastrously with Julian Lewis being voted in as chairman and Johnson removing the Conservative whip from him in retaliation.


The Conservative Reaction: Arise Lord Lebedev

After the nomination for a peerage last week of Evgeny Lebedev, the wealthy Russian owner of the Evening Standard, Johnson’s attendance at Lebedev’s party in Italy in April 2018, when he was Foreign Secretary, raises questions over his judgement and the possibility that the Russians could gather material to blackmail him: the kompromat about which his father Stanley even wrote a novel by that name. The Conservative Party also accepts large donations from Russian exiles who are now British citizens. 

In response to questions from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer about the Russia report in parliament on 22 July, Johnson boasted about his record expelling Russian diplomats after the poisoning of the Skripals in March 2018, and was disparaging about the report’s conclusion that the UK Government deliberately refused to investigate possible Kremlin interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

“This is about pressure from the Islingtonian Remainers who have seized on this report to try to give the impression that Russia, that Russian interference was somehow responsible for Brexit!” he said. “The people of this country didn’t vote to leave the EU because of pressure from Russia or Russian interference, they voted because they wanted to take back control of our money, of our trade policy, of our laws,” he added. 

The Russia report also said that London (often nicknamed Londongrad) “welcomes oligarchs with open arms” and that some members of the House of Lords have business connections with Russia. Prominent among them is the Conservatives’ Greg Barker, who has taken a leave of absence from the Lords while serving as executive chairman of Russia’s En+ group. He is credited for successfully lobbying to remove US sanctions from the energy and metals company after President Putin-linked oligarch Oleg Deripaska gave up his controlling stake in it. 

Johnson’s opponents are constantly left wondering whether he is following some devious plan concocted by his advisor Dominic Cummings, if he’s a useful idiot of the Kremlin, or just hopelessly incompetent.


Labour’s Reversal over Russia

At the time of the Salisbury poisonings, the Labour Party’s stance on Russia was very different from what it is now. Then-leader Jeremy Corbyn was reluctant to blame Russia for the attack, and had written in the Morning Star in 2014 that “NATO belligerence” was to blame for the annexation of Crimea.

In a speech in January this year party leadership contender Lisa Nandy, who is now the Shadow Foreign Secretary, rebuked Corbyn, saying, “Russia is a regime that discriminates against LGBT people, that demonises Muslims and other minorities and suppresses basic rights, that used chemical weapons on the streets of the UK and murdered a homeless person. It was totally wrong that our response to this was to cast doubt on what happened and call only for dialogue. We stood with the Russian government, and not with the people it oppresses, who suffer poverty and discrimination. We failed the test of solidarity.”

The line that Corbyn took on Russia is common among other prominent people on the left, including journalist John Pilger – who wrote in the Guardian in 2014 that the West was backing neo-Nazis in Ukraine – and Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, who told Afshin Rattansi on RT on 24 June that Russia didn’t invade Ukraine and that White Helmets rescues in Syria were “scripted” – a line straight out of Russian propaganda. In a previous RT interview Waters told Attansi, “I’m happy to say I get a lot of my news from RT.” Both Corbyn and Waters are strongly critical of Israel and have been accused of anti-Semitism. 

In April last year Labour member of the House of Lords Jeremy Beecham wrote to the Guardian in response to Waters’ call for a boycott of Israel, asking, “Has Roger Waters ever conferred on Guardian readers the benefit of his views on the government of Syria, where 500,000 citizens have been killed and 10 million displaced?” Lord Beecham, 75, thinks some on the left romanticise the 1917 Russian Revolution and overlook what happened in the 1930s under Stalin, he told me in a phone conversation. 

“They are just continuing a pattern of unthinking support of their perception of Russia, which is not what we should expect from a mature country. It’s pathetic, frankly,” Lord Beecham said. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is “an authoritarian regime which itself barely allows criticism,” he continued. He attributes the sympathies with Putin on the left to “naivety”. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair also thinks that the government should investigate possible Russian interference in the Brexit referendum, although he doesn’t believe it swayed the result. “I think it would be sensible to investigate what has happened, but really the most important thing is to create the capacity for the future to make sure that you know what’s going on in your democratic politics,” he told Sky News.


Liberal Democrat Cold War 

The Liberal Democrats, who strongly opposed Brexit, unsurprisingly agreed with the conclusions of the Russia report, saying in a statement, “The Conservatives have been found asleep at their post with their failure to conduct an assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The protection of our democracy should never come second to the Tories covering their embarrassing connections to Russian oligarchs before an election. Given what has come to light, Boris Johnson should think again about who his party takes money from and gives influence to.”

Former Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, who lost his seat last December, wrote in a blog post on 23 July:

“The UK Government and British people should do everything possible to support those in Russia committed to democracy and to foster good relations between our two great nations’ peoples by means of soft power, and cultural, scientific, and academic exchanges. But whilst the Russian government’s attitude remains ‘From Russia with Loathing’, and they authorise assassinations on British soil, repeatedly test our air and naval defences and sanction or coordinate widespread attempts at spreading disinformation, no such consensual relationship can exist between the UK Government and the Kremlin and ‘President for Life’ Putin. The Cold War is back.”


Scots Nationalists Won’t Fall for Putin

The Scottish National Party (SNP) Scottish nationalists have their own Putin problem: he may be supporting their campaign for Scottish independence against their will.

The Russia report noted that the Kremlin had tried to cast doubt on the validity of the September 2014 referendum that was won by the “No” side. Former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who led the “Yes” campaign, provoked outrage when he announced the launch of his own show on RT in November 2017. Ofcom ruled in 2018 that Salmond had breached broadcasting rules by reading out tweets sent in by members of the programme’s crew. 

“There is nothing left-wing or progressive at all about leaving the whole discussion on defence to the right.” 

Stewart McDonald MP

“The Scottish independence movement and the values I and my party stand for I don’t think could be further removed from the kind of values that Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime stand for,” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon commented on the Russia report. She warned that the UK should not be complacent about the risk of Russian interference.

SNP MP Stewart McDonald, who is one of the party’s most outspoken critics of Russia, agrees that Scottish independence would not be what Putin is hoping for. “Scotland would be a small liberal democracy within The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the EU and other institutions,” he told me in a Zoom conversation. 

The way to disassociate the renewed post-Brexit independence campaign from the Kremlin is “to assert our values,” McDonald said. “Our own view of the world and Scotland’s place in it, which is in direct opposition to what Putin would want. We warn our own party about the realities of being seen to be aligned to RT or Sputnik. They are not our friends. I’ve always said to our party members, don’t be tricked.” Alex Salmond’s decision to work for RT represented “a deep lapse in judgement,” McDonald said. On the other hand, people are often surprised when they see how low RT’s viewing figures are, he added. He doesn’t think that RT or Russia’s Sputnik news outlet, which has a base in Edinburgh, are very influential. 

McDonald is the SNP’s defence spokesman and developed an interest in Ukraine after visiting the country at the invitation of the ambassador three years ago. He and other SNP members took an overnight train to eastern Ukraine. “We got to see the destruction that had happened as a result of the war. The coke plant in Avdiivka despite being heavily shelled remarkably was still running and producing,” he said. “The cliché is that it’s Europe’s forgotten war. As an issue in British politics it doesn’t get the attention that it deserves.”

McDonald believes that the UK should support Ukraine in its struggle against Russia, and has even been awarded Ukraine’s Order of Merit for his efforts. “The UK has been asleep at the wheel as far as the many facets to the Russia threat goes,” he told me. “There is nothing left-wing or progressive at all about leaving the whole discussion on defence to the right.” 

This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu (www.journalismfund.eu).


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