Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Kremlin Contradictions
The MP’s recent comments on Ukraine and Brexit sit oddly with his stance on Russian aggression in 2014 – and with his firm’s investments in companies close to Putin’s regime, reports Tom Scott
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On Sunday, Jacob Rees-Mogg, under pressure from Sky News’ Sophie Ridge to provide an example of a Brexit benefit, claimed that Britain’s strong support for Ukraine would not have been possible while Britain was still a member of the European Union:
“Putin would probably have invaded Ukraine successfully if the UK had been bound in by the requirement of sincere cooperation and had had to follow a Franco-German line in dealing with Russia – which is what we did in 2014,” he maintained. He added that, had that been the case, “we would have had the mucky compromise that was delivered in 2014 when Russia invaded the Crimea”.
Leaving aside the preposterous nature of this claim, given that both the European Union itself and many individual EU countries have stepped up to support Ukraine with military equipment, financial aid and sanctions, this was a particularly jarring statement from Rees-Mogg, whose investment vehicle Somerset Capital Management was until recently heavily invested in a company closely connected to the Kremlin.
It also sits oddly with Rees-Mogg’s own position at the time Putin invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. Far from being a staunch proponent of stronger action in defence of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Rees-Mogg stated that the UK should be cautious about criticising Russia too strongly in the wake of the illegal invasion.
Interviewed in March 2014, Rees-Mogg was asked if people should be concerned that Putin might “hit back” over sanctions and that “matters might escalate”.
“I think we should be very concerned,” replied Rees-Mogg, gravely. Although he said that the invasion was “not how things ought to happen”, and that “the ability of powerful sovereign states to invade their neighbours without consequence has caused tension and problems and war over centuries,” he continued: “Having said that, we need to look at the limits of what we can do and there we seem to be highly constrained. And the question is are we going to go back to a Cold War situation?”
He did not mention the UK’s then membership of the EU as a constraint on the UK taking stronger action, nor did he mention any such action that the UK government could or should be taking. Instead, Rees-Mogg seemed more worried by the prospect of a deep freeze in relations between Russia and the West if the UK were to react more firmly.
He then went on to say: “I think the West has to be very careful in its criticisms of Russia, not to criticise it for things that we have done,” explaining that this was a reference to the Second Iraq War (Rees-Mogg is not on record as having opposed that war at the time).
It is not surprising that Rees-Mogg’s calls for stronger sanctions in the wake of Russian aggression were so conspicuous by their absence. His investment firm at that time was heavily invested in the Russian Federation, and these investments included a stake worth some £60 million in Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, which was and continues to be intimately connected with Putin’s regime.
Sberbank is very far from being a conventional bank as that might be understood in Western countries. Majority-owned by the Russian government, it has provided copious funding to Russia’s military-industrial complex. Its chair between 2010 and 2016 was Sergei Gorkov, a close protégé of Vladimir Putin who is sometimes described as “Putin’s banker”.
Gorkov is a graduate of Moscow’s Academy of the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, a background typical of senior Russian intelligence officers He also has connections to the Trump family, and in December 2016 met with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner (a meeting Kushner failed to declare). Kushner’s contacts with Gorkov and other senior Russian representatives during this period have attracted the attention of FBI officials investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and have still not been satisfactorily explained.
Not that any of this would have been likely to worry Rees-Mogg, who expressed his support for Trump both before and after the 2016 election, saying that he wished the unhinged demagogue and sexual predator “extremely well” and telling Andrew Neil that Trump was “broadly on the same side of the political argument as the Conservative Party is”.
The Bruges Group
Rees-Mogg is very far from being the only figure on the far right of the Conservative Party whose attitude to the Putin regime can be described as, at best, ambivalent. Indeed, in the case of the hard-Brexit Bruges Group – an organisation with which Rees-Mogg has a close and long-standing association – this has shaded into outright support for Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.
Since the early 2000s, the Bruges Group has been headed by Robert Oulds, a former Conservative councillor and general election candidate. Oulds’ political ambitions took a setback in 2005 when photos of him brandishing a variety of knives and guns were published in The Sun. He was suspended from the Conservative Party, which commented: “A shot like that, glamorising guns, we take very seriously.”
However, the incident proved no obstacle to his position at the Bruges Group, which under Oulds’ guidance assumed increasingly extreme positions on Europe.
The group has consistently lent support to Putin’s propaganda lines on Ukraine, perhaps seeing in Putin an ally with an attractively anti-EU agenda. In 2014 it produced a video in which Oulds claimed that “Brussels planned to swallow Ukraine whole” and Conservative MP John Redwood alleged that “the EU seems to be flexing its words in a way that Russia finds worrying and provokes Russia into flexing its military muscles.”
In 2016 the Sunday Times reported on a trip by Oulds to the “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, an area of Ukraine illegally invaded by Russian forces in 2014. The Bruges Group later released a video interview with the self-styled “foreign minister” of the breakaway territory, in which Oulds made no bones of his hostility to the legitimate government of Ukraine.
“Is there a moral responsibility on the Donetsk People’s Republic”, asked Oulds, “to expand its borders to, in a sense, liberate territory from the rule of Kiev, liberate those people that do not want to be dictated to by the current junta in charge in Kiev?” Oulds did not deny that his expenses for the trip had been paid by Russia.
Oulds also made frequent appearances on RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik, media outlets that functioned as an information weapon for Putin’s regime in its “information war against the whole Western world,” according to RT’s chief editor Margarita Simonyan. He was a most congenial guest, who could be relied on to produce views that mirrored those of the Kremlin.
None of this has deterred Rees-Mogg from cultivating a long and close relationship with the Bruges Group. In October 2017 it organised a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference with Rees-Mogg “and expert friends”, describing the old-Etonian financier as “one of the most outstanding characters and intellects in the Parliamentary Conservative Party”
Interviewed after the event, Oulds called for a change in the Tory leadership: “We need a new leader, a new prime minister, and they [the EU] will realise they can no longer push Britain around. Perhaps that new leader could be Boris – we know he’s interested. Other people may be interested in Jacob Rees-Mogg.”
Mogg has continued to address meetings of the Bruges Group. In January 2019, he was introduced by its then Chair, Barry Legg, as “a beacon of hope for those that believe in the maintenance of Conservative values and the timelessness of their benefits”, before going on to give a speech warning of the possible need to prorogue parliament in order to prevent the “betrayal” of Brexit.
Rees-Mogg’s efforts to obtain the hardest possible Brexit were also amplified by RT. In February 2018, for instance, it reported on him condemning an “infamous” alleged (but non-existent) plot between Jeremy Corbyn and the EU’s main negotiator, Michel Barnier. As Byline Times has reported, from 2017 Rees-Mogg’s Twitter account began to be boosted by large numbers of followers that appeared to be Kremlin-linked accounts.
None of this, of course, means that Rees-Mogg has a direct relationship with Putin’s regime. But he has been more than happy for his firm (from which he profits personally) to make large amounts of money from a bank that was very much a regime asset. Somerset Capital Management’s stake in Sberbank was held for several years after 2014, despite the bank being sanctioned in the wake of the annexation of Crimea, and was only finally disposed of at the end of 2021, shortly before Putin launched his full-scale war on Ukraine.
In March 2022, Somerset Capital Management announced that it would be disposing of its other Russian assets, which also included a stake of £5.7m in Novatek PJSC-GDR, a company chaired by Putin crony Leonid Mikhelson. But this is likely to have had more to do with the impact of sanctions on the profits of these companies than with any ethical considerations. And indeed, Sberbank has since posted a 84.8% slump in net profit for the January to November period of 2022.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has said that he now takes no part in investment decisions by the firm he founded in 2007. Whether its Russian assets have coloured his attitudes to Russia’s criminal aggression remains an open question. As with so much about Rees-Mogg, it’s hard to disentangle political and financial motives.
Rees-Mogg might well point to the fact that he himself has now been sanctioned by Russia, along with 287 other British MPs, as retaliation for the UK’s decision to sanction 386 members of the Duma (the lower house of Russia’s parliament).
But it is not too far-fetched to think that, at least in the years between 2014 and 2022, the Putin regime may have come to see Rees-Mogg himself and his Bruges Group associates as rather useful Russian assets.