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Laundering the Lebedevs

How Boris Johnson ushered a ‘former’ KGB agent and his son into the British establishment – while most of the media looked the other way

Evgeny and Alexander Lebedev and Boris Johnson. Photomontage: PA/Alamy

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The story of Boris Johnson’s long and tangled relationship with a ‘former’ KGB agent and his party-loving media mogul son has all the hallmarks of a great tabloid tale. 

In any other circumstances you might expect that allegations of Russian espionage and ‘x-rated’ events attended by senior UK politicians and celebrities in a luxurious Italian villa would receive blanket coverage in the British press.

Yet this story, which is detailed in a new Channel 4 Dispatches documentary – due to be broadcast tonight – has with a few exceptions been all but ignored by Fleet Street.

When it comes to the extraordinary tale of how a long-time agent of the Russian state and his son gained the confidence and patronage of the Prime Minister, the established press has appeared determined to look the other way.

So what is really going on? And what are the big questions that remain about Johnson’s troubling involvement with the Lebedevs?

The Lebedev Letters

As Byline Times has previously reported, the story of Boris Johnson’s long relationship with the Lebedev family goes back to his first term as London Mayor.

Back then, the deeply ambitious Johnson was in need of new media allies and he found a more than willing one in the form of Evgeny Lebedev, who had just taken control of London’s only daily newspaper, the Evening Standard, with the help of his father.

Correspondence and documents obtained by this newspaper from that period shows the relationship quickly blossoming. The two men were regularly meeting for lunches and dinners. Before long, Johnson began accepting free trips to Evgeny Lebedev’s Umbrian villa.

Excerpt from Boris Johnson’s ‘Gift and Hospitality’ register as London Mayor

Johnson’s visits to the Lebedevs’ Italian villas continued once he re-entered national politics.

In 2018, when he was Foreign Secretary, he left a Nato summit at which world leaders agreed it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal on British soil – to attend one such party in Italy.

At that event, for which Johnson had ditched his personal security detail and accompanying officials, reports suggest that there were attempts to arrange an unmonitored phone call between Johnson and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The call reportedly never happened due to Johnson oversleeping.

The Lebedevs have since sought to distance themselves from Moscow, following Putin’s full invasion of Ukraine. However, analysis of Evgeny Lebedev’s own articles and tweets from the early years of his relationship with Johnson paints quite a different picture.

In one article published in his other news outlet, The Independent, in 2015, Evgeny Lebedev wrote that “Britain must make Vladimir Putin an ally”.

Boasting about his “senior” Russian connections, he wrote: “I have no doubt, based on conversations with senior figures in Moscow, that the Kremlin wants to make an ally rather than an enemy of Britain… I also believe that it is in Britain’s best interest… to work constructively with Moscow.”

Interestingly, Johnson appeared highly receptive to this argument. Just weeks after Lebedev wrote this article, Johnson wrote a remarkably similar piece for the Daily Telegraph in which he argued that Britain must “deal with the devil” and work with Putin.

Evgeny Lebedev also mirrored the Kremlin line when it came to the question of the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London, suggesting in one 2013 tweet, that he may instead have been “murdered by MI6”.

“Certainly more to it than the generally accepted Putin link,” Lebedev wrote.

He also took a distinctly understanding position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

In one piece written in 2014, Lebedev sought to defend Putin’s actions, writing that Russia had reason to act following the ousting of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

“Those who overthrow governments have their faults too,” Lebedev wrote, adding – in words that mimic those being used by Putin to justify his current invasion of Ukraine – that “it is not surprising that the far-right elements of this Ukrainian revolution will worry Russians, and that must worry their President”.

Johnson later took a similar line, blaming the European Union for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in comments which led to him being branded a “Putin apologist”. Days later, he doubled-down, comparing the EU to Adolf Hitler in terms which could have easily been made by Putin himself.

Evgeny Lebedev continued to be an influential figure on Boris Johnson’s politics throughout this period. 

In 2016, when the then departing London Mayor was considering whether to back the Brexit campaign, he reportedly made his final decision during a dinner with Michael Gove and Lebedev, according to one fellow attendee at the meal.

Throughout this time, Johnson dismissed warnings about Russian interference in UK democracy and repeatedly sought to suppress and delay the publication of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee report into the matter.

Allegations of Russia’s support for Brexit were also strongly denied by Lebedev, with the Evening Standard owner describing them as “idiotic”.

Arise Lord Lebedev

Lord of the castle Evgeny Lebedev with Wolf Boris in his master bedroom with canopy bed. Source: Martyn Lawrence Bullard

The new Channel 4 documentary on Boris Johnson’s relationship with the Lebedevs reveals further details of how the former Prime Minister forced through a peerage for Evgeny Lebedev – despite repeated warnings that doing so could be national security risk.

According to the documentary, Johnson was visited by two MI5 officers in 2020, who urged him not to appoint the party-loving son of a former KGB agent to the House of Lords. 

Correspondence also seen by Tortoise reveals that the chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission – which vets nominations to the second chamber – advised him that the security services had “highlighted significant potential risks” in appointing Lebedev, due to his “familial links, and the potential vulnerability of any information obtained by the nominee from his association with UK officials or Government”.

The UK security services were not the only ones concerned about the Lebedevs. According to the documentary, the family’s two Italian villas – which Johnson visited for what have been described as parties where “anything goes” – were monitored by the Italian security services due to a belief they were being used for “espionage purposes”.

Don’t miss a story

A report prepared by Italian intelligence agencies for the then Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also threw doubt on Alexander Lebedev’s claims to be a “former” KGB agent, saying that his claimed resignation from Russia’s secret service was “considered by many to be unclear”, with suggestions that he continued to retain the “favour and friendship” of Putin himself.

Despite such warning signs, Johnson pushed ahead with the appointment after reportedly lobbying the security services to change their advice against it.

An extraordinary attempt by UK government officials to ask the late Queen to intervene and block the peerage also failed, with Buckingham Palace unwilling to risk a row with Downing Street.

Attempts to find out exactly why the security services were so keen to block the appointment have been met by repeated stonewalling from Johnson.

As Byline Times reported at the time, a vote by MPs last year compelling Johnson to release details of the advice he received from MI5 about Lebedev was blocked by Johnson on “national security” grounds.

In a statement to the programme-makers, Evgeny Lebedev denied any suggestion that he was ever involved in an espionage operation on behalf of Russia, adding that “this allegation bears the hallmarks of anti-Russian racist harassment”.

Johnson also defended Evgeny Lebedev, with his spokesman saying that Lebedev had “extensively criticised the Russian regime” and described the programme as part of a “tiresome and xenophobic campaign” against him.

Yet, despite these denials, questions about the Lebedevs continue to persist.

As Byline Times has previously reported, while the family has recently sought to distance themselves from the Putin regime, there is some evidence from recent years of a closer relationship.

Indeed, when Johnson first nominated Evgeny Lebedev for a peerage in 2020, it was enthusiastically welcomed by Russia itself, with its Embassy describing him as someone who has “much contributed to strengthening Russian-British relations”. It also agreed to a request for Lebedev to take the title “Baron Lebedev of Kingston upon Thames and of Moscow in the Russian Federation”. The latter part of the title was later altered to Siberia.


The Johnson-Lebedev Letters: A Back-Channel to Vladimir Putin?

Letters exclusively obtained by Byline Times, between Boris Johnson and Evgeny Lebedev, shed new light on how the son of a Russian oligarch and former KGB officer built such a close relationship with Britain’s Prime Minister

Sanctioned Behaviour

The story of Johnson’s successful laundering of the Lebedevs becomes even more serious when the allegations against Evgeny Lebedev’s father Alexander are considered.

As Byline Times reported at the time, Lebedev was last year sanctioned by the Canadian Government as an alleged “key member of President Putin’s inner circle”.

According to the Dispatches documentary, Canada’s decision to sanction Lebedev senior was made partly on the basis of the UK’s own intelligence. Yet despite this, Johnson refused to follow suit, with his spokesman telling Byline Times that the UK had taken a “different judgement” to its Five Eyes ally.

The UK’s refusal to move against Lebedev has continued under his successors, with Rishi Sunak also refusing to place sanctions on him – despite Ukraine itself adding him to its own sanctions list as a “person directly or indirectly controlled by residents of a foreign state or acting in their interests”.

As this newspaper reported last year, these refusals have allowed Lebedev to cut his financial ties to the UK. Companies House records show that, two days after Canada announced it would be sanctioning him, Lebedev ceased to be a director of Independent Print Limited. The company is connected to The Independent, which is partly owned by Evgeny Lebedev.

Records seen by Byline Times also show that, within days, Alexander Lebedev had cut his connections to the Lebedev Foundation charity, which was then struck-off the register.

Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner told Byline Times at the time that the Government was being “too slow and too soft” to target Lebedev and others linked to Putin.

“The Conservatives have been too slow and too soft in issuing sanctions to those with links to Putin”, she said. “Following UK ministers’ repeated refusal to follow Canada’s lead in sanctioning Alexander Lebedev, it now appears this former KGB agent and longstanding acquaintance of Boris Johnson is being allowed to move his cash with impunity before ministers of the crown take any action.

“This looks like yet another case of this Prime Minister bending the rules to protect his friends.”


Kremlin Welcomed Evgeny Lebedev Peerage

Sam Bright reveals how the Russian Ambassador to the UK claimed the owner of the Independent and Evening Standard had “much contributed to strengthening Russian-British relations”

‘Dog Doesn’t Eat Dog’ 

Despite all these mounting questions about Boris Johnson’s relationship with the Lebedevs, few media outlets appear even interested in asking them. With the exception of a handful of outlets, including this newspaper, Johnson’s relationship with the Lebedevs has been barely covered by the established British press.

At a press briefing with the Prime Minister’s spokesman this week following the latest revelations, not a single question was asked about them. Only one newspaper, the Guardian, led with the story on its front page.

The cause of this apparent reluctance to cover the issue is unclear. However, it may at least partly stem from the successful embedding of the Lebedevs into the British media and political establishment – with help from Johnson.

The family’s now partial ownership of two major newspapers, plus their strong social connections to other leading editors and journalists, some of whom have attended the family’s lavish parties in both Italy and London, may well have limited Fleet Street’s appetite for the story. 

Long referred to as the home of the ‘London Laundromat’ for Russian money, the UK also appears to have been adept at laundering reputations too. Indeed, when it comes to the British media’s interest in the Lebedevs and their long and extraordinary relationship with Boris Johnson, the old Fleet Street adage that ‘dog doesn’t eat dog’ has never felt truer.

But despite this reluctance, questions about how a family like the Lebedevs have been able to enjoy such strong patronage from senior British politicians, including the former Prime Minister himself, are unlikely to go away any time soon.

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