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SWEENEY INVESTIGATES: What Changed to Make Evgeny Lebedev No Longer a Security Risk?

John Sweeney investigates the Russian newspaper proprietor who parties with the Prime Minister and the change in security clearance that enabled his ennoblement

Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lebedev. ‘Hunt the Banker’ by Alexander Lebedev. Photo: Amazon

SWEENEY INVESTIGATESWhat Changed To Make Evgeny Lebedev No Longer a Security Risk?

John Sweeney investigates the Russian newspaper proprietor who parties with the Prime Minister and the change in security clearance that enabled his ennoblement

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Is Evgeny “Lord” Lebedev – newly ennobled by Prime Minister Boris Johnson – a potential security risk? Lebedev’s father, Alexander, was the senior KGB spy in London in 1988 and, to this day, is a pro-Kremlin oligarch with interests in Russia. He is a noted supporter of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his illegal annexation of Crimea. 

The question is a fair one given that no one can simply ‘retire’ from the KGB and that father and son – like President Donald Trump – never openly criticise Putin. Socially, the Lebedevs – who own the Independent and Evening Standard newspapers – work as a unit. Evgeny threw Johnson’s victory party after last December’s General Election, which also happened to be his father’s 60th birthday party. 

So is Evgeny a potential security risk? “Yes,” says a former MI6 officer. “Yes,” says an emeritus professor of Russian. “Yes,” said the Special Branch this spring.

But in June that advice, filtered through the Cabinet Office, changed to “no” and the black spot against the wannabe Lord Lebedev vanished. 

Vetting used to be overseen by the Ministry of Defence. It has now been brought inside the Cabinet Office, where the writs of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings run free. 

A source close to the security protocols around Whitehall vetting told Byline Times: “The first response to the vetting question from the Lords’ Appointments Commission was that there was a concern and that Evgeny Lebedev could be a potential security risk. Suddenly in June the Special Branch changed their tune.”

It is understood that the House of Lords Appointments Commission – billed as ‘independent’ – was troubled by this dramatic change and awaited the long-delayed publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia Report. It caused the Commission yet more unease.

“The extent to which Russian expatriates are using their access to UK businesses and politicians to exert influence in the UK is ***: it is widely recognised that Russian intelligence and business are completely intertwined,” the report noted. “The Government must ***, take the necessary measures to counter the threat and challenge the impunity of Putin-linked elites.”

The asterisks were used to mask security-sensitive details. After the House of Lords Appointments Commission read the report, it is understood that it wrote to the Prime Minister signalling its unease about the plan to ennoble a son of a former KGB officer.

Downing Street pressed ahead and Lebedev’s lordship was announced.

The new lord socked it to his critics in the Mail on Sunday. He wrote: “So, to all those who sneer at my Russian background, I say this: Is it not remarkable that the son of a KGB agent and a first-generation immigrant to this country has become such an assimilated and contributing member of British society? What a success for our system. Don’t you think?”

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Hunt the Banker

But others disagree with Lebedev’s assessment of his elevation.

Donald Rayfield, emeritus professor of Russian at London University and the author of several books including the bestseller Stalin and His Hangmen, told Byline Times: “Is Evgeny Lebedev a potential security risk? Yes. Especially because of the role of his father who goes back and forth to Russia. Remember it’s very difficult to retire from the KGB. They don’t have a procedure for that.” 

Evgeny Lebedev makes a big point out of not having met Putin – but Rayfield doesn’t believe this invalidates the question.

“You don’t have to meet the man to be in his clutches,” he added. “Twenty years ago the British authorities would not have given Evgeny Lebedev residency let alone a place in the House of Lords. Evgeny makes much of his ownership of the Independent but it occasionally veers into the territory of Russia Today [now RT], suggesting that Putin is not our enemy. Look at the work of Mary Dejevsky.” 

In January this year, Dejevsky wrote an article in the Independent headlined: ‘The idea that Putin wants to wield supreme power from behind the throne is questionable’. In it, she observed that “evidence for Putin’s supposedly fabulous, ill-gotten gains is flimsy to say the least”.

A Whitehall source told Byline Times: “The Prime Minister made it very clear that Evgeny was going to be made a lord” 

Sarah Sands and Amol Rajan are two other important cheerleaders for Evgeny Lebedev in the media. Once his editors at the Evening Standard and the Independent respectively, both moved on to work at the BBC. Sands has recently stepped down from the editorship of the Today programme, with Rajan remaining the corporation’s media editor. While at the Standard Sands said Lebedev’s “taste is exquisite”. Rajan, at the Independent, said “he has a terrifyingly good memory and, as someone who works for him, he can be terrifyingly sharp”.  

To my knowledge, no major BBC outlet has broadcast anything critical of the Lebedevs’ relationship with the Kremlin.

Rajan, however, used his position at the BBC in 2017 to write a puff piece about Evgeny Lebedev’s stewardship of the Independent, downplaying staff fears that a good chunk of the newspaper had been sold to a Saudi prince, Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel. The prince’s supporters proclaim his independence but his exact relationship with the Saudi tyranny is not clear. Unease about Saudi involvement in British newspapers heightened after the state-sanctioned murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The change in ownership of the Independent was questioned and went to the desk of the then Culture Secretary Nicky (now Baroness) Morgan. In 2019, she said it was “concerning” that its publishers, Independent Digital News and Media Limited (IDNM) and Lebedev Holdings Ltd (LHL), had failed fully to clarify the ultimate beneficial owner of the shares – but nodded the deal through anyway.

Rajan did not probe the interesting bit of the story: that the Lebedevs are down on their luck and that is why they had to sell a chunk of their beloved newspaper. If one follows the money, a bleak picture of the Lebedevs’ finances emerges.

‘Hunt the Banker’ by Alexander Lebedev. Photo: Amazon

After his stint at the KGB, Alexander Lebedev bought the National Reserve Bank in Russia and his net worth was estimated at $3 billion in 2008. But then one of his newspapers ran a story about Putin dating a ballerina when he was still officially married and the sky fell in. His bank was hollowed out and shares were sold at knockdown rates.

Alexander Lebedev is no longer considered a billionaire and his tome about his bad luck, Hunt The Banker, is a contender for one of the most boring books ever written. It recounts his struggles at his bank and how shadowy forces stole from him. On the book’s front cover is a photo of him and Putin, all smiles. Inside, there is nowt on Putin. Not a word. 

To ram home his fealty to the Master of the Kremlin, in 2017 he threw a media bash at his hotel complex in Alushta, Crimea “to correct a impression of Crimea put out by a biased Western media”.

Vetted by Cummings and Gove

The picture flaunted by the Lebedevs is that they are new, liberal Russians. Back home, they own a chunk of Novaya Gazeta, the last decent paper in Russia; in Britain they own liberal newspapers, the Independent and the Evening Standard. They pose as standing apart from the Kremlin.

But, on critical examination, the old man is a Kremlin sycophant and his son is never openly critical. 

One former MI6 officer told Byline Times: “Financially, Lebedev Senior is in a tight spot. He’s gone from being a wild critic of Putin to a craven supporter. His business lost a lot of money. The son is not a substantial figure. So is Evgeny a potential security risk? Definitely.”

Spooking the Spooks: Media Complicity and Security Concerns over Lebedev and Johnson

Evgeny Lebedev’s number one fan is, of course, the Prime Minister. A repeat guest at his Palazzo Terranova in Umbria, a Whitehall source told Byline Times: “The Prime Minister made it very clear that Evgeny was going to be made a lord.” 

Last year, Evgeny Lebedev wrote in the Mail On Sunday: “Various papers produced Stalinist lists of ‘enemies of the people’; influential Russians in the UK who, it is implied, advance the Kremlin’s agenda… I am proud to be a friend of Boris Johnson, who like most of my friends has visited me in Umbria. And I hate to disappoint, but nothing happens there that produces ‘kompromat’.”

We only have the word of the son of a former KGB colonel on that.

Both openDemocracy and The Guardian have reported that Johnson, when Foreign Secretary, dumped his Metropolitan Police protection officers to go on the razzle at Evgeny Lebedev’s palazzo.

Is it possible that Johnson might have been a victim of sex kompromat? It is. The former MI6 officer said: “Boris Johnson is compromised. No one believes he went to the palazzo just to sip orange juice.”

For openDemocracy, Jim Cusick reported that, in November 2018, Evgeny Lebedev’s dog – a white Borzoi called Vladimir – died in mysterious circumstances. “Lebedev,” Cusick wrote, “has told associates that he believes the dog was poisoned and that it was a message from Moscow.” 

Who killed Evgeny Lebedev’s dog and why is another good question. Is it possible that the secret Russian state wanted to send Evgeny a message? It is. 

Byline Times contacted the Lebedevs and Lord Paul Bew, the chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, but received no reply.

The Cabinet Office told Byline Times that Downing Street would provide a response. Downing Street made no reply on the record. It is understood that Downing Street believes that John Bew, the son of Lord Paul who works in the Cabinet Office, had no role in the recent peerages.

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The decision by Special Branch to change its mind about Evgeny Lebedev being a security risk in June is extraordinary. Vetting used to be overseen by the Ministry of Defence. It has now been brought inside the Cabinet Office – where the writs of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings run free. 

The former MI6 officer told Byline Times: “On his own word, Dominic Cummings should not have been cleared by the vetting system. He himself has said that the airline venture he was involved with in Russia in the 1990s attracted the attention of the KGB. So is he on file at the Russian Ministry of the Interior? Unless he can assure the vetters that the Russians have got nothing on him, he should not be security cleared. And yet this man is going on a tour of Britain’s secret estate: Hereford, the intelligence services.” 

Asked for a reaction on Dominic Cummings enjoying such power at the centre of Whitehall, the former MI6 officer simply said: “I am scared.” 

The KGB deny any wrongdoing.

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