From Russia with Love Part 1

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on August 6 2020.

Russian Connections

Britain has been shocked by Boris Johnson’s decision to award a peerage to Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the London Evening Standard. His father was a KGB agent. Two Beards (as Private Eye calls him) used to date former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell and has a reputation for throwing decadent parties. The day after his landslide election victory, Boris Johnson and his girlfriend Carrie Symonds dropped into a lavish Christmas party in London hosted by the Lebedevs. What this means is that the Russian-born billionaire son of a former KGB agent has been appointed unelected to the heart of British democracy.

I was amused to see Dayan Jayatilleka’s warning about the authoritarian tendencies of the current Sri Lankan government. When he was our ambassador to Moscow, it often seemed that he was a freelance journalist spending his days on Facebook working for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, rather than a servant of the Sri Lankan motherland. I had many “discussions” with Dayan in which he made it clear that he had no problem with the authoritarian tendencies of Putin. He was insouciant about Putin’s responsibility for the deaths of Alexander Litvinenko and Dawn Sturgess. He sang the praises of those doughty socialists, Jeremy Corbyn and George Galloway, who were not shy about taking the roubles of Russia Today. Dayan thought Brexit was a good idea as did Putin.

ISC

The parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), a cross-party committee of MPs and peers, oversees the work of Britain’s main intelligence agencies, MI6, MI5 and GCHQ. The ISC’s long-awaited report on the UK’s preparedness for Russian interference in British elections was finally issued on 21 July. The report is the result of 18 months’ work involving evidence taken from the UK’s spy agencies and independent experts. The work was overseen by the then ISC chairman, Dominic Grieve a former Conservative Attorney General who was expelled from the party by prime minister Boris Johnson because of his stance on Brexit.

 

Delay

 

Home Secretary Priti Patel had the gall face to say that the report was out-of-date. This was because the government had been sitting on it. The report was actually completed in March 2019. Dominic Grieve said the report had been sent to Downing Street on 17 October 2019 and was ready for publication once it had been signed off, a process that usually takes about ten days. After the general election in December 2019, it took a long time for the ISC to meet. Thirty cross-party MPs crossly wrote to the prime minister in June 2020 urging the reconstitution of the committee, saying the refusal to publish the report raised serious questions about the “transparency and integrity” of the democratic process.

 

Intelligence and Grayling

 

When the ISC was finally reconstituted, the government got itself into a frightful mess by trying to rig the election of a chairman. Johnson put forward a committee with a built-in Tory majority. In an effort to engineer a Conservative majority on the ISC, the government removed Robin Janvrin, a crossbench peer. The hapless and hopeless Christopher Grayling was imposed as ISC chairman. Established in 1994, the ISC usually chooses as chairperson a senior MP of the ruling party. The chairman has normally been someone who commands respect. The post has been held by former foreign secretaries Margaret Beckett and Malcolm Rifkind and former defence secretary Tom King. Much hilarity was generated by the juxtaposition of the words “intelligence” and “Grayling”. The prime minister’s choice as chairman was nicknamed “failing Grayling” after a string of mishaps when he was justice and transport secretary. In a dramatic coup, Labour and Scottish Nationalist members of the ISC out-maneuvered the government and appointed experienced Conservative backbencher Julian Lewis (who was a loyal Brexiteer) as chairman. One wag commented: “Shooting fish in a barrel is supposed to be easy. It seems one of these fish shot back”. In a fit of pique, Johnson immediately expelled Lewis from the party. Lewis’s first action as chairman was to release the long-suppressed report.

Lights on, Nobody Home

Although the report investigated suspicions that Russia had interfered in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence and the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the EU, it did not draw conclusions about whether those efforts succeeded. The report raises a fundamental question: “Who is protecting the country’s democratic system?” “No one is,” was the resounding reply. The authors say they could not judge the effectiveness of the Russian influence campaign because the government had failed to even be alert to the threat despite years of mounting evidence. The authors were disappointed with the security services themselves as well as with the government. When they asked for written evidence from MI5 about possible interference in the Brexit referendum, the agency “initially provided just six lines of text”.

Committee members noted that publicly available studies showed “the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories” on the Russia Today and Sputnik TV channels at the time of the EU referendum and “the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’” on Twitter, as evidence of Russian attempts to influence the process. There is plenty of evidence of Russian interference in Luke Harding’s book Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West, which I will write about in Part 2.

Murders Most Foul

In November 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer and critic of the Kremlin, who had been granted asylum in Britain, was killed in central London by the radioactive poison polonium-210. A British inquiry concluded that his killing “was probably approved” by President Putin. The murdered man’s widow, Marina Litvinenko, said she was “very pleased” by the ISC report, and its mention of Russian oligarchs making political donations.

In 2018, Sergei Skripal, another former Russian spy, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, were found seriously ill on a bench in Salisbury, England, after being poisoned with novichok. In collateral damage, Dawn Sturgess, fell ill within 15 minutes of handling a perfume bottle found by her partner and died on 8 July.

Oligarchs and Gangsters

A Private Eye Special Report by Richard Brooks called Looting with Putin goes into great detail about how ‘respectable’ professionals assist in legitimizing shady crooks and oligarchs who want to set themselves up in London. A parliamentary committee concluded that “the use of London as a base for the corrupt assets of Kremlin-connected individuals is now clearly linked to a wider Russian strategy and has implications for our national security”. Brooks concludes: “This could only have happened because many with serious responsibilities for the rule of law and the proper use of money saw no barrier to pursuing their own riches. The system had thus enabled corrupt leaders and their placemen to loot their countries and reinforce their unsavoury regimes.” Despite the ‘hostile environment’ on immigration strategy initiated by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, the government makes it easy for Russians with untold riches to get visas and set up in London.

 

Dirty Money

 

The ISC report says: “Several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organisations in the UK, having donated to political parties”. Critics of the prime minister say he has been compromised by donations to his Conservative Party from wealthy Russian donors. “It is notable that a number of members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state,” according to the report. “These relationships should be carefully scrutinized, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them.”

 

Boris Johnson is still trying at Prime Minister’s Question Time to divert attention from his own failings by smearing the Labour Party because of former leader Jeremy Corbyn’s association with the broadcaster Russia Today. Current leader Keir Starmer was able to point out that as Director of Public Prosecutions he took action against Russian criminality and gave his professional support as a QC to Mrs Litvinenko. He thought perhaps the prime minister had not noticed that ‘the Labour Party is under new management”.

 

Back in 2018, Business Insider reported evidence of links between Russian agents and “a very senior member of the Conservative government” had emerged. Bloggers unearthed a tweet sent by suspected Russian agent Sergey Nalobin, picturing him standing alongside what he described as his “good friend”, the then foreign secretary Boris Johnson. Marina Litvinenko said General Nalobin was her husband’s boss in the 1990s when Litvinenko was an FSB agent. Another photo emerged of Johnson meeting with Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese academic with alleged high-level links to the Putin regime.

More recently, it has been revealed that six members of Johnson’s Cabinet including Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Business Secretary Alok Sharma, as well as eight junior ministers, have received donations either personally or through their constituency parties from individuals or companies linked to Russia.

 

We must not forget that 17 million people voted to leave the EU and that was down to pent-up frustration rather than Russian manipulation. Nevertheless, there was manipulation and Brexit did suit Putin’s strategy of driving wedges in the EU and NATO. As Paul Waugh of Huffington Post wrote: “Hostile state interference is hostile state interference, even when it’s about politics and democracy…Where does all this leave the very thing that was supposed to be the ambition of the Brexit referendum: greater UK sovereignty?” Taking back control?