Peter Jukes tracks Putin’s long war against democracy and the West – and the Russian President’s allies in Britain’s pro-Brexit establishment

The outline of Vladimir Putin’s long war against the West has been brought into stark, almost apocalyptic relief by his brutal invasion of Ukraine, and his mass bombardment of Ukrainian civilians. The Kremlin’s plan to recreate a new Russian Empire has been noted for years in various think tanks and publications, though very few believed it.

Thanks to Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr we know this is partly due to a ‘Great Information War’, using the fifth battlespace of propaganda and non-linear lies to deceive and distract. But after FBI investigations, congressional intelligence reports and dozens of journalistic investigations, we have confirmation from the US Army itself that Brexit was the first step in Putin’s ‘information blitzkrieg’. 

But why has it taken so long to realise we were under attack? Why was there so little preparation for the biggest war in Europe in 77 years? And why did Britain do so little to counter it? The failure to do so will be seen as a bigger intelligence failure than 9/11. But was there more than wilful blindness in our (in)ability to see and predict the plans of the Kremlin? 

For an answer to that, we have to go back to 2017, and the revelations of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who was tasked to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election. But before we do so, it’s worth sketching out, in brief, Putin’s now obvious ambition to remove Britain from the EU and derail the transatlantic alliance at the heart of NATO. 


The Plot to Derail Britain

A useful starting point for Putin’s attack on the weak spots of British democracy is the appointment of Alexander Yakovenko to the role of Ambassador to the United Kingdom in January 2011. Three years earlier, Putin had stepped down to allow Dmytry Medvedev to replace him as President of Russia – an apparently smooth democratic succession based on a promise of modernisation and anti-corruption.

But Putin wasn’t gone for long. Yakovenko was appointed as Ambassador just as Putin was preparing his comeback. Putin’s re-election as President in 2012 was met by widespread protests in Russia. Now morphing into a dictator wanting life-long rule, Putin – whose KGB background made him look at all civil discontent as a foreign-inspired – saw this as an attempt to topple him by the incumbent US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was at this point that his plot to derail the transatlantic alliance began. 

In the summer of 2012, Sergey Nalobin, a senior diplomat, whose father was an FSB general and whose brother also worked for the Russian intelligence agency, hosted a party at the Russian Embassy establishing the Conservative Friends of Russia. For three years, as donations from Russian oligarchs increased, he befriended senior Conservatives and their contacts, and particularly those associated with what would become the official Vote Leave campaign to exit the EU, including Boris Johnson, John Whittingdale and Matthew Elliott. 

It was Ambassador Yakovenko himself who first made overtures to the burgeoning UK Independence Party. The Ambassador was photographed meeting Nigel Farage in the Russian Embassy 2013, after which Farage was regularly featured on state-sponsored RT (formerly Russia Today) not only as a studio guest, but also in the news segments that covered Farage’s speeches in the European Parliament. 

Two events soon spurred the Russian influence operation into combat mode. In 2014, the bloody Maidan revolution, ousting Viktor Yanukovych as Ukrainian President and derailing Putin’s plans to create a Eurasian Union to match the EU, marked the real beginning of the war in Ukraine.

Putin was now wedded to any strategy that would weaken both the transatlantic alliance and the European Union which opposed his land grab. He began funding Eurosceptic and far-right parties across Europe, in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. The Internet Research Agency, run by the oligarch who also funded Putin’s mercenary Wagner group army, began to spend $50 million a year supporting Donald Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton.    

Meanwhile, David Cameron’s promise to allow a referendum on EU membership during his successful 2015 election campaign presented an opportunity against the US’s major ally. Brexit would become a strategic blow against the EU, separating one of its most powerful economies from the rest of Europe.  

Another Russian Embassy official in London, Counsellor Alexander Udod, a familiar presence at British army and university functions celebrating wartime alliances with the Soviet Union, was tasked with infiltrating the other key Brexit player, UKIP.  

Udod approached two linchpins of the movement, Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore, at the 2015 UKIP conference in Doncaster, when they were planning their Leave.EU campaign. For the next year, from November 2015 through to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, there were multiple meetings with Leave.EU officials and Russian embassy staff, in which preferential access to state monopolies in Russian gold and diamond deals were discussed.

In retrospect, Nalobin and Udod represent a concerted and successful campaign to shape British politics using the wedge issue of Brexit. According to RT, Nalobin was expelled from Britain in 2015, though the Embassy claimed his diplomatic visa simply expired. There is little doubt about Udod’s real mission, however. He was expelled in 2018 after the Salisbury poisonings of a former Russian spy and his daughter. 

Yakovenko was recalled to Moscow after Boris Johnson took over the leadership of the Conservative Party in the summer of 2019. He was awarded the Order of Alexander Nevsky medal by Vladimir Putin himself and made President of the Diplomatic Academy. According to Luke Harding in his book Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem, and Russia’s Remaking of the West, Yakovenko told a fellow diplomat: “We have crushed the British to the ground. They are on their knees, and they will not rise for a very long time.”

Given this clear campaign of espionage and infiltration, designed to cause destruction to Britain’s prestige and international effectiveness, why did the security services or the UK Government fail to counter it? And what was the role of Brexit and its senior figures in enabling the country’s self-sabotage? 


Johnson and the Oligarchs

The role of rich UK-based oligarchs, either out of fear or favour, acting on behalf of Putin as a proxy or backchannel, has become a major focus since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. London and the UK was the favoured hub for a rich Russian diaspora, with Soviet-born oligarchs such as Dmytro Firtash, Alexander Lebedev, Oleg Deripaska, Roman Abramovich, and Boris Berezovsky becoming key parts of the commercial, political and cultural scene, and the City of London a major investment and trading hub for Russian companies.

We now know more about the extensive funding of the Conservative Party by Russian oligarchs and their high-level access to politicians. Other senior business figures, who have funded either the Leave campaigns or Brexit think tanks, made their millions in Russia or have major investments there. But, to many, this didn’t seem abnormal. As the influential left-wing commentator Owen Jones once told me: Russian oligarchs had no more impact on Brexit than the non-domiciled media moguls who dominate our newspaper industry

Good point. Except, the owners of the Evening Standard and the Independent are both Russian oligarchs and media moguls, and they have influenced Johnson’s political career. The London daily, owned by Alexander Lebedev – a former KGB agent in Britain – and his son Evgeny, had an important role to play in promoting Boris Johnson during his time as Mayor. Johnson valued their contribution so highly that he elevated Evgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords as Baron of Hampton and Siberia (requiring Putin’s permission for the title), against security advice. 

But did they have any impact on his decision to back Putin’s Brexit plot? 

As reported by Catherine Belton, another Soviet-born oligarch and major Conservative donor, Alexander Temerko, claimed that Johnson was finally persuaded to back Brexit by a group of ‘eastern European businessmen’. Temerko refused to elaborate when questioned further by Belton, and there are numerous candidates who could be part of that group. But it certainly looks like the Lebedevs were involved.

According to the wife of Johnson’s fellow campaign figurehead, Michael Gove, Johnson made the final momentous decision to join the Leave campaign at a dinner with Evgeny Lebedev. And though the shock 2016 result did not lead to his assumption of the leadership of the Conservative Party, Johnson did – according to Temerko – spend much of his time as Foreign Secretary drinking wine with him and plotting to replace the new Prime Minister, Theresa May. 

Many Russian or Soviet-born oligarchs are rightly selective in their remarks about Putin. After the mysterious deaths of many Russian connected businessmen, let alone the use of radioactive material to kill Alexander Litvinenko or the use of a nerve agent on defector Sergei Skripal, they will probably remain that way.

In the current atmosphere, there is also the opposite danger: anyone with Russian connections will be to be deemed some kind of spy. Regardless of that, the onus for any explanation, and the public duty to respond to the failure to stop Putin’s plot against Britain, lies with the Government and senior ministers. 

Therefore, the huge public interest question is: how did then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson react to early revelations of Putin’s great information war?

All the evidence suggests that he engaged in a systematic cover-up.  

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Suppressing the Russia Story

I first became personally involved in this story in November 2017. The first Mueller indictment had landed, prosecuting Trump foreign policy aide George Papadopoulos for lying about meeting a purported ‘Russian agent’ in London who had ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton and her emails during the presidential campaign of 2016 – the supposed agent being a Maltese professor called Joseph Mifsud. Mifsud claimed to have connections with the Russian Ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko. 

A few weeks later, a source revealed to me that Mifsud had been planning to meet Boris Johnson for a dinner and to talk about Brexit. After protracted discussions with a Foreign Office spokesperson about whether the dinner had actually happened and whether the then Foreign Secretary had met with a person the FBI alleged was a Russian spy, I co-published the revelation with Carole Cadwalladr at the Observer on 4 November 2017. A week later, a picture emerged of Boris Johnson and Joseph Mifsud at a Conservative event in Reading.

Although information from MI6 and intelligence from GCHQ about Russian interference had already been passed on to US authorities at this point – and both those agencies nominally reported to the Foreign Secretary – Johnson told Labour MP Chris Bryant during a select committee hearing in early November 2017, a few weeks after meeting Mifsud, that he’d seen “not a sausage” of Russian interference in British politics.  

And here begins another more damning twist in the cover-up saga. On the day after Johnson’s “not a sausage” remark at the select committee, former Chief Whip Gavin Williamson was appointed Defence Secretary to replace Michael Fallon. In evidence heard in the Royal Courts of Justice in the libel trial of Arron Banks versus Carole Cadwalladr earlier this year, the new Defence Secretary was very well aware of Russian interference in UK elections.

According to Cadwalladr’s sworn testimony, it was Williamson who contacted Richard Tice, the co-chair of the Leave.EU campaign, in November 2017 with warnings about the connections between Russia and his former co-chair Arron Banks.

Alarm about this prompted Tice’s now partner, journalist Isabel Oakeshott, to go back over the material she had accumulated the previous year for her book on the Leave.EU campaign – Bad Boys of Brexit: Tales of Mischief, Mayhem and Guerrilla Warfare in the EU Referendum Campaign. In doing so, she discovered the cache of emails that I and Carole Cadwalladr published six months later in the Observer. In an indemnity deal with The Sunday Times dated 17 November in which she handed over a dossier to the Murdoch Sunday paper, Oakeshott said: “I am in no doubt Banks and Wigmore have been acting as agents of influence for the Russian state”.

I got to know about these emails a few months later. People were scared of the implications for their own security as well as UK democracy. I was told that Oakeshott was sitting on them for her new book with Lord Michael Ashcroft – White Flag? An Examination of the UK’s Defence Capability – to be published that summer. I was also told that the security services were concerned, to the extent that they were keeping people under surveillance for their own protection. But as the weeks dragged by, and more Russian interference operations in the US were revealed, nothing was happening here. When I questioned why the emails weren’t being published, I was told: “we don’t want to derail Brexit”. 

In 2018, after the Novichok attack in Salisbury, Theresa May finally called out Russian interference in British politics. Williamson was sacked from his Defence role in May 2019 after an inquiry into a leak from a top-level National Security Council meeting.

But Boris Johnson was so impressed by Williamson that he was appointed as campaign manager when Johnson ran successfully for the Conservative leadership a few months later. Williamson was appointed to the Cabinet as Education Secretary, and though his tenure there was so disastrous that he was removed in a reshuffle, last week he was awarded a knighthood by Boris Johnson. 


The Great Brexit Kompromat

Putin has been in a violent kinetic war with Ukraine since 2014, and launched a more subtle but just as effective hybrid war with the UK, US and Europe since at least then, using online operations, subversion, character assassination and sometimes murder.

All the historic documents show that many in the intelligence community knew this. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport produced a report, ‘Disinformation and Fake News’, which confirmed those suspicions in 2019. Despite the Prime Minister’s attempts to suppress its publication for many months, the ‘Russia Report’ by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee also confirmed it. And still nobody did anything about it. 

The Russia Report also noted, starkly, that none of Britain’s intelligence agencies had been tasked to look at, let alone protect us from, Putin’s Information Blitzkrieg. Any National Crime Agency and Metropolitan Police investigations have been granted limited remits. Meanwhile, the current Government is planning to remove the autonomy and powers of the Electoral Commission.

At the very time when our defences should have been raised, they have been deliberately dropped. Why?

From their current positions in firm support of Ukraine, it’s clear that most of the current Conservative Government is not pro-Putin, no matter how many roubles he has placed in their campaign coffers through proxies. Some no doubt are compromised personally and financially by the prospect of embarrassing revelations from the Russian security services. But as the sad story above makes clear: Brexit was the great kompromat

So many in the political-media class put Britain’s hard exit from the EU above all else, that they were willing to ignore another enemy advancing in their waters. They wanted to own Brexit for themselves, disregarding foreign interference and, like shipwrecked mariners, were still clinging to the rocks that wrecked them. They had created their ultimate villain – the European Union – and Putin’s form of strong-man authoritarianism, replete with ‘anti-woke’ values of family, macho masculinity, and hints of white racial superiority, may have chimed more closely with their own political predilections. 

Meanwhile, for at least five years, Vladimir Putin has been given a free hand to launch a war in Europe with little opposition, amid signals from the British establishment that he could only have taken as compliance and surrender. We waved a white flag. And though we are currently arming the Ukrainians with anti-tank missiles, and promising strong sanctions (which are always behind the rest), we effectively abandoned them during their eight-year-long struggle to hold back the dark Putinist tide of state terror and violence. And now they are paying the price for our appeasement. 

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