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The Real Trojan Horse: Beware Russians Bearing Gifts

As Russian troops reach Kyiv, state terror is rained on innocent civilians. Peter Jukes and Hardeep Matharu explore why the British Conservative Party has ignored Putin’s violent extremism in the mother of all intelligence failures 

Illustration of Russian President Vladimir Putin
Photo: zixia/Alamy

The Real Trojan HorseBeware Russians Bearing Gifts

As Russian troops reach Kyiv, state terror is rained on innocent civilians. Peter Jukes and Hardeep Matharu explore why the British Conservative Party has ignored Putin’s violent extremism in the mother of all intelligence failures 

It must have seemed like a good idea 20 years ago. The former Soviet Union had broken up. Russian state assets were being chaotically privatised, with millions of coupons handed out to the Russian people being hoovered up by smart young businessmen (and they were nearly all men). A new class of billionaires was born, running a raft of shiny new corporations.

Not only would the City of London act as clearing house for all those lucrative contracts and share issues, it would be a concierge to the Russian super-rich. They would fund our universities and museums. They would buy up our top-tier properties, football teams and politicians. Their children would attend our private schools and elite universities. We would convert the families of former communists into a new class of free-market entrepreneurs and philanthropists. 

And so Londongrad was born. So too was the first step of a widespread national kompromat. 

We didn’t check inside this gold matryoshka that had been wheeled through the gates of the city. We didn’t inspect the real sources of the wealth – exfiltrated from hijacked natural resources or direct from the public coffers of the Russian state – or do due diligence on the mafia or KGB connections of this new oligarch class who were anything but ‘free market’. 

But why would we? As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson wined and dined with these slavic super-rich and welcomed the hike in property prices. He even encouraged them to sue journalists in the London courts. The lawyers, the PR firms, the events managers, the lobbyists and consultants – everyone was making money. But we weren’t only laundering the dirty riches of Russian oligarchs, we were also importing their values. 

Even by 2008, as he invaded Georgia, Vladimir Putin was bringing his buccaneering oligarchs to heel, with mysterious deaths or imprisonment awaiting those who didn’t comply.  

In 2014, the mood took a darker turn. The Ukrainians had risen up to throw out their Russian proxy kleptocrat, Viktor Yanukovych. The Russian President, having returned to ensure two decades of continued power, had defied the post-war European order by annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine.

By this point, people should have realised there was something suspicious in this golden matryoshka that had landed in our city. 

Many did. In 2017, one of this article’s authors attended an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) hearing chaired by Labour MP Chris Bryant, where he and Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, along with the writer Peter Pomerantzev, outlined the real nature of Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy and its long-term agenda to undermine the rule of law, NATO and the European Union.

But the warnings fell on deaf ears. 

Instead, the Trojan horse was wheeled into the heart of the citadel, close to Conservative Party headquarters, where a riot of high-net worth dinners, political donations and lucrative job offers resulted.  

It started under David Cameron, but continued under Theresa May and accelerated under Boris Johnson.

Donors linked to Russia – some directly tied to Putin – were handed access to senior ministers in exchange for money. The Conservatives have accepted £2 million from Russia’s super-rich alone since Johnson became leader. And this is not to mention the direct intervention of the Russian Embassy, through numerous meetings with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign group, in the Brexit referendum

After the APPG in Parliament in 2017, a senior Conservative who well understood Putin’s malign intent responded to the question of why the Conservative Party was not making more of Russian interference in British politics with the answer: “You’ll make it about Brexit. Don’t make this a way of derailing Brexit.”

The Second Kompromat

And so the second political kompromat was born. 

The role of Russian interference was played down, even by those who opposed Putin, because it might have compromised Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. In terms of the Homeric myth and the siege of Troy, this is akin to the moment the Greeks hidden in the wooden horse were allowed to walk back through the city and open the gates to the invaders. 

The influx of Russian cash, access and influence has only increased in the past five years since that session in Parliament.

Valiant attempts to sound the warning, such as the Intelligence and Security Committee’s 2019 Russia Report, were suppressed, with Boris Johnson going through elaborate and unprecedented manoeuvres to prevent its publication. 

The report found that “Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’ and 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… This level of integration – in ‘Londongrad’ in particular – means that any measures now being taken by the Government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation.” 

No damage limitation was done. 

The previous year, the recommendations of a landmark report on fake news and disinformation by a parliamentary committee led by Conservative MP Damian Collins were also ignored.

The Trojan horse was wheeled into the heart of the citadel, close to Conservative Party headquarters, where a riot of high-net worth dinners, political donations and lucrative job offers resulted

They recommended the UK equivalent of the US ‘Foreign Agents Registration Act’ to stop foreign money distorting domestic politics. Not only has this never been mooted in Parliament, the Johnson Government has actively sabotaged the proposal to toughen up the investigative and legal powers of the Electoral Commission by planning to disarm it. Recent amendments to prevent foreign donations have been shot down in parliamentary votes by the Conservative Party. 

For at least five years then, Britain has allowed Vladimir Putin a free hand to interfere in domestic politics. This cannot have but been a signal to him that the UK Government was compromised, and unlikely to intervene in his other ‘military-technical’ plans. 

For five years, as his air force, special forces and mercenaries honed their skills in places such as Syria and central Africa, Britain did nothing to extirpate his influence at home or abroad. And now the cost of that is becoming clear – paid in the blood of innocent Ukrainians and the biggest conflict in Europe since the last devastating world war. 

Selective Extremism

The inability to predict or pre-empt Vladimir Putin’s plans to redraw the map of Europe is one of the greatest foreign intelligence failures of recent times – on a par with the false claims that Saddam Hussein of Iraq had immediate access to weapons of mass destruction which justified the invasion of 2003.

But what of domestic intelligence?

Given the attacks of 9/11 in the US, the bombing of London in 2005, and a worldwide surge of Islamic extremist violence, it is understandable that there was a focus on ‘homegrown’ terrorism connected with the Muslim community. But an obsession with Islam, starting with Blair’s Labour Government introducing its ‘CONTEST’ counter-terrorism strategy – including Prevent – seems to have been at the expense of countering the growing threat from Putin and his proxies. 

Amid a wider culture of blatant Islamophobia aided and abetted by Britain’s right-wing press, in the years since, the focus on extremism in the name of Islam has continued – with the controversial Prevent strategy disproportionately targeting Muslims. It has not been successful. The leader of the 2017 terror attack in London Bridge and his brother were engaged with the scheme, as was the suspect in the 2021 killing of Conservative MP David Amess.

The Islamophobia at the core of the Government’s counter-extremism is the subject of a new podcast from Serial and the New York TimesThe Trojan Horse Affair – lifting the lid on the consequences of a fake letter alleging an extremist Islamic takeover of Birmingham schools in 2013. 

Although regarded as a hoax by authorities at the time, separate concerns raised about schools in the area led to the expansion of Prevent – with the then Education Secretary Michael Gove placing a duty on public sector workers to refer any concerning behaviour to the scheme. The result included one nursery raising concerns about a four-year-old who drew a “cooker bomb” that was actually a cucumber. 

At the same time as the narratives around the Trojan horse letter were preoccupying Britain’s national politicians and the media, Vladimir Putin was annexing Crimea and invading Donbas. 

Was this not a form of extremism? Or Putin’s previous actions in Moldova or Georgia? What about when 298 people were killed after flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine? Or when British citizen Dawn Sturgess died after spraying perfume containing a nerve agent Russia used against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury? Perhaps the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London was not extreme enough? Or Putin’s interference in America’s 2016 Presidential Election? Why was such a blind eye turned to the extremism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia? 

One answer seems to be the prejudice of the Conservative Party. Not only is Islamophobia rife and unpunished within the party, the obsession with Brexit and problems of the EU has blinded its leaders to real dangers. 

“If you want an example of EU foreign policy-making on the hoof and the EU’s pretensions to running a defence policy that have caused real trouble, look at what has happened in Ukraine,” Boris Johnson said two years after Donbas was invaded.

The deep ties between the ruling Conservative Party, Russian money, the City of London and oligarchy mean that any response by Johnson’s Government to the invasion of Ukraine is utterly compromised. It is too little, too late.

Vladimir Putin is an extremist. He has invaded a democratic country posing no threat. That Britain’s ruling clique allowed their own oligarchical sympathies and extreme tendencies to embolden a dictator is Britain’s real Trojan horse.

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