Has the Prime Minister Been Compromised by Russia?
John Sweeney delves into the ties between Boris Johnson and several Russian oligarchs
As Russian tanks are poised to roll into Ukraine, Britain’s sanctions package is one of the weakest out of the whole NATO alliance. Fears about the Russian secret state’s penetration of Boris Johnson’s Government and party are being broadcast loudly from people close to President Joseph Biden’s White House.
Johnson’s tough rhetoric on the Kremlin’s threats against Ukraine and Liz Truss’s promise of new laws targeting Moscow sound good, but if you follow the money, the Prime Minister should face scrutiny for the roubles he chooses to keep company with.
Six oligarchs who made their gold in the post-Soviet space and have been markedly opaque about Vladimir Putin have been markedly generous to the Conservative Party and/or Boris Johnson personally. They are, in alphabetical order: Vladimir Chernukhin and his wife Lubov, Viktor Fedetov, Alexander Lebedev and his son Lord Evgeny Lebedev, and Alexander Temerko. In plain English, they have all had snow on their boots.
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on the oligarchs’ part, but in the current global crisis the possibility of conflicts of interest for Britain’s ruling Conservative Party is of huge public concern.
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Alexander Temerko has long claimed to be a close friend of Boris Johnson’s and a major influence in his journey to Downing Street. Journalist Catherine Belton reported that Temerko said Johnson was persuaded to back Brexit in 2016 by a “group of eastern European businessmen” – and that makes Temerko a profoundly important figure in British politics.
Temerko was born in Soviet Ukraine and is the public face of Aquind; his near-silent partner is Russian-born Fedetov. Together they control the company, which hopes to build an under-sea connecting cable between Britain and France to supply French electricity to Britain, landing near Portsmouth.
Aquind, Temerko and Fedetov have used their deep pockets to keep the Conservative Party machinery well-greased. Temerko has personally donated £700,000 to the Conservative, with Aquind donating a further £700,000.
Electoral Commission records show that Temerko and UK entities linked to him have made donations to 11 individual MPs, including Brandon Lewis, the one-time chairman of the Conservative Party, and £6,000 to Rishi Sunak’s constituency office in Richmond, Yorkshire.
Temerko has helped to fund as many as 27 local branches of the Conservative Party and even paid £90,000 for a bronze bust of former Prime Minister David Cameron at a Conservative fundraising bash in 2013, now on show at the Carlton Club. He publicly backed the moderate, anti-Brexit wing of the Conservative party and has been vehemently anti-Putin. But that is not the whole story.
Temerko was close to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and for seven years was involved with Russia’s defence ministry and its agencies – running a state arms conglomerate. In the late 1990s, Temerko joined Yukos – a Russian oil giant – but fell from the Kremlin’s favour after Vladimir Putin ordered the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003.
Temerko fled to Britain in 2004, setting up shop in the north east, building a successful business. In 2015 he wrote an op-ed for the Guardian, calling for Britain to arm Ukraine. He was “familiar with the modus operandi of Putin and his clique,” he wrote. “Power is the only language they understand; anything else is a weakness to be exploited for as long as it prevails. A united and genuine show of resolve by the US and the EU to do whatever it takes to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity would stop the Kremlin in its tracks.”
So far, so wonderful.
But Temerko showed another facet of his personality when this month the Aquind inter-connector was vetoed by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng. The company intends to appeal but Temerko was enraged that Portsmouth MP Penny Mordaunt – a junior Trade Minister, former Defence Secretary under Theresa May and Royal Naval reservist – led local opposition to the Aquind interconnector.
Temerko called Mordaunt an “absolutely uncontrollable woman… She must be silent if she is a minister, if she wants to be an active politician she should resign”. The oligarch added that Mordaunt is: “the biggest threat to security for our country.”
Temerko seems to object to the idea that a government minister can also be a constituency MP who does not have to kow-tow before power or money. Nevertheless, Temerko’s web of contacts reach higher into British power than Penny Mordaunt.
In 2019, Belton wrote a piece for Reuters in which she reported on Temerko’s close contacts with Boris Johnson and high-ups in the Russian secret state. Belton wrote:
Temerko spoke warmly about his ‘friend’ Johnson, telling how the two men sometimes call each other ‘Sasha,’ the Russian diminutive for Alexander, which is Johnson’s real first name. He described how, at the beginning of Johnson’s tenure as Foreign Secretary from 2016 to 2018, they would often ‘plot’ late into the evening over a bottle of wine on the balcony of Johnson’s office at parliament in Westminster.
One of those plots was, according to Belton, the removal of Theresa May as Prime Minister to make way for a hard Brexit. If so, this suggests a curious anomaly, that Temerko’s public utterances on Brexit and his actions behind the Westminster arras may have been awry.
Belton reported a senior Conservative Party member confirmed that Temerko was “very much behind the attempt” to oust May. The party member declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Aside from his friendship with Boris ‘Sasha’ Johnson, Temerko’s other pals give pause for thought. One such is, according to Belton, Nikolai Patrushev, the hawkish head of Russia’s Security Council and former long-time head of the FSB security service.
On Patrushev’s watch, as Putin’s number one secret policeman, critics such as Anna Politkovskaya, Natasha Estemirova and Boris Nemtsov were assassinated. Who ordered the hits is not known. Also on his watch, Britons on Putin’s hate list such as ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko and ex-GRU spy Sergei Skripal were poisoned by polonium-210 and Novichok respectively. You can’t buy either in a shop.
According to Belton, Temerko calls Patrushev a “decent family man.”
After Reuters published its story, Temerko lawyers wrote to the news agency saying the article was “inaccurate” and “defamatory”. In a statement, Reuters said: “We stand by our story”.
Temerko’s partner in Aquind is Viktor Fedotov. The Pandora Papers, a leak of 11 million offshore files, provided fresh insights into his business success. BBC Panorama discovered documents revealing Fedotov as a secret owner of a company called VNIIST that benefitted from an alleged $4 billion fraud in Russia. His lawyers said “there is no evidence whatsoever” that he behaved improperly.
Aquind’s relationship with the Conservative Party is both funny and peculiar. Lord Callanan is the Business Minister responsible for corporate responsibility – effectively for keeping British business clean. He is a former director of Aquind. In a statement, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has previously said that Lord Callanan has recused himself from any government decisions relating to Aquind.
A Conservative Party spokesman said donations are properly and transparently declared and the party “perform compliance checks in line with the… legislation and requirements enacted by the last Labour Government… Fundraising is a legitimate part of the democratic process. Government policy is in no way influenced by the donations the party receives“ and that the party is “motivated by the priorities of the British public, acting in the national interest”.
Lawyers for Aquind and Temerko said their donations were “entirely lawful, properly declared and have not been made in return for any special treatment”. They said there was “no evidence that funds were embezzled” from Transneft.
Fedotov “denies any allegation of wrongdoing” and says that he “has never had any interest in British politics and has operated in an open and transparent manner throughout the course of his career”.
After the Pandora Papers leak, Aquind issued a statement showing its respect for the rough and tumble of free speech in a democracy – or not, as the case may be.
“Aquind will not stand silently and accept slander based on xenophobia and the principles of guilt by association. It will safeguard its reputation as a transparent company with a proposal for a project that will wholly benefit the people of the UK. Aquind is now considering all options available, including taking legal action against the media involved,” its statement read.
Lubov Chernukhin is almost certainly the biggest female donor in modern British political history.
Since 2012, she has given the Conservatives £2 million, including paying through the nose for two tennis matches with Boris Johnson, once in 2014 when he was Mayor of London and in 2020 when he was Prime Minister.
This tsunami of cash means that she qualifies for a secret society where ultra-generous Tory donors are allowed privileged access to the Prime Minister, senior ministers and advisors. Lubov also hangs out with senior female Conservative politicians, including Liz Truss.
But the Pandora Papers revealed how her husband, Russian oligarch Vladimir, keeps his money offshore, suggesting that the true source of that £2 million funding for the Conservative Party is opaque, to put it mildly.
The Guardian reported a 2018 civil case against a fellow tycoon in which Mr Chernukhin acknowledged it has been his “modus operandi” to disguise his commercial interests. He spoke of using “fronts”, “camouflage”, and “silent participation” in specific commercial deals, adding: “I want to be invisible”.
A former deputy finance minister during Vladimir Putin’s first term of office, Mr Chernukhin left Russia in the early 2000s and made a home in Britain. Boris Johnson said of him in 2015 that there was no suggestion that he was a Putin crony. But the Pandora Papers leak shows that he has maintained active business interests in Russia until very recently. The consensus among Kremlin-watchers is that no-one can do big business in Russia without expressing fealty to Vladimir Putin.
The wealth of the Chernukhins is eye-watering. They have their own private jet registered in the Isle of Man, paid for by offshore entities. Between 2011 and 2014, yacht hire alone cost them £11 million. They own a £30 million town house overlooking Regent’s Park and a £10 million country house in Oxfordshire.
The Chernukhins’ lawyers told the Guardian that Mr Chernukhin had not accumulated any of his wealth in a corrupt manner. They added that none of the high court proceedings, nor the findings made in the case, which Chernukhin won, supported any suggestion of corruption by their client.
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Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev
Evgeny Lebedev, ennobled by Boris Johnson as Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia, has never given a penny to the Conservative Party; nor his father, Alexander, a former colonel in the KGB. What they have done is thrown a series of extraordinarily lavish parties and invited Johnson – when he was London Mayor, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister – to their homes in London and near Perugia in Italy.
What goes on at those parties so alarmed officials inside the Italian intelligence agency that an anonymous secret report was passed to the Italian Parliament’s oversight committee, calling them ‘red-light’ and raising the question whether old man Lebedev had indeed hung up his KGB boots.
The report was brought to light in a book, Oligarchi, by the La Stampa journalists Jacopo Iacoboni and Gianluca Paolucci. Iacoboni has previously clashed with the Russian regime, reporting security concerns about a Russian army chemical warfare unit helping Italy’s Lombardy region during the start of its COVID crisis.
General Igor Konashenkov of the Russian Ministry of Defence allegedly threatened the journalist that: “Qui fodit foveam, incidet in eam [he who digs a pit will fall into it]”.
Iacaboni asked Alexander Lebedev for a reply and did not get one. Byline Times separately put the security concerns arising from the report to Number 10, to Evgeny, Baron Siberia, and to Alexander Lebedev. We have received no reply.
The report sets out Alexander Lebedev’s career, his time working as a Russian spy for the KGB in London from 1988 for four years. Strikingly, it casts doubt on whether Lebedev senior has ever fully broken with the Russian secret state. The report’s unknown author writes that his resignation from the KGB was considered by many to be “not quite clear”, claiming that he continued to participate in the annual KGB meetings at the Kremlin.
Troubling, too, for those worried that Boris Johnson may pose a security threat to the office of the Prime Minister is a second allegation in the report – that Alexander Lebedev’s name was apparently linked to “espionage and interference” operations.
The report addresses the closeness between the former spy’s son, Evgeny – owner of the Evening Standard and The Independent – and the Prime Minister. It notes that Johnson made Evgeny Lebedev a member of Britain’s upper house in July 2020 but it wrongly gives his title as ‘Lord Moscow’, the correct one being ‘Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation’ – or Baron Siberia for short.
The Italian intelligence report goes on to say: “Rumour is that the friendship between Evgeny and Boris Johnson dates back to the time when Johnson was Mayor of London. During this period he allegedly met with Alexander Lebedev at a few parties organised by Evgeny at the Palazzo Terranova, located in Città di Castello, Perugia, and that made the news for their X-rated content”.
In 2019, Jim Cusick reported in openDemocracy that glamour model Katie Price had exposed her breasts to the then Foreign Secretary at a party at the Palazzo Terranova in 2016. Two years later, a visibly hungover Johnson was photographed by fellow passengers at Perugia airport. The absence of his protection officers was noted.
It is important to remember, firstly, that intelligence reports such as this are supposed to be secret and therefore may be less reliable than an official documents, written for the public domain. It may not be a true and accurate summary of events so to speak.
Secondly, the report is itself a summary of other work that has not, for whatever reason, emerged from the shadows.
Thirdly, errors such as the author mislabelling Baron Siberia suggest a lack of attention to detail.
That said, the silence from Number 10 and the Lebedevs is striking. The evidence is compelling that the Russian secret state has used weapons of mass destruction, the radioactive poison polonium-210 and the nerve agent Novichok, to kill British citizens. The idea that “X-rated” parties might be used to capture sex kompromat, a classic operation by the KGB and its successor agencies, may not be so far-fetched to be instantly discounted.
Recently, a Washington DC think tank close to the Biden administration, the Center for American Progress, said that “uprooting Kremlin-kinked oligarchs will be a challenge given the close ties between Russian money and the UK’s ruling Conservative Party, the press, and its real estate and financial industry”.
For the moment, though, the only person who can launch an exhaustive investigation into the Prime Minister and his parties is Boris Johnson.
Kompromat comes as mother’s milk to Vladimir Putin and it can come in many forms: personal, political, financial. As Britain’s failure to act effectively against dark Russian money becomes more stark by the day, the question for our allies and more and more of the British people is this: has our Prime Minister or the Conservative Party been compromised?