The Kremlin is not going to stop
Interview with Luke Harding, British author and journalist with the Guardian, on the West’s response to Russia’s actions. Interviewer: Adam Reichardt
ADAM REICHARDT: I want to start with the current situation in relations between Russia and the United Kingdom, specifically looking at your assessment of the response to the Skripal poisoning case. Do you think that the expulsion of the Russian diplomats, accused of being agents, is an adequate response? And how do you assess the West’s show of solidarity by also expelling a significant number of Russians from western states?
LUKE HARDING: I think Theresa May’s response is the first and easiest step to make. After the attacks on Litvenenko in 2006 and Sergei Skripal this year, the UK government now understands that Russian espionage operations are taking place in the UK. The other problem is the money. London, for a long time, has been used as a refuge or a deposit box for Russian cash and the British state has not done much about this. I think that there has been a feeling in Moscow that the Brits will never respond – especially after Litvinenko, when there was not really a response from the government. The Kremlin thought that it can act with impunity by wiping out critics like Litvinenko or even retired agents like Skripal. And, by bringing so much money to London, the Kremlin felt that they basically bought the right to perform these acts.
There were certainly some political calculations by David Cameron in the previous government, and perhaps in Theresa May’s government as well, that somehow the Russian money was good for London and good for the economy – especially with Brexit coming. I think that this attitude has now changed. First of all there is a new political willingness to actually confront these problems realistically and, secondly, there is a degree of solidarity that the Brits received from other countries – including Poland. I think it shows that in the western world, there is a universal feeling that enough is enough. Russia must be punished for its misbehaviour. It is not just the UK that has suffered, everybody has suffered from cyber-attacks, espionage or even active measures. Additionally, I believe that the Russian strategy of denying everything and creating a thousand conspiracy theories is becoming increasingly ineffective. People know the Kremlin playbook, and they no longer buy into it. While the idea that British agents killed Skripal for the government might get some traction in the UK, it does not resonate internationally and the consequences are that Russia has become very isolated.
You are closely familiar with the details of the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, you even wrote a book about it. Is the Skripal case any different? Why was there such a strong response now?
That is a good question. It is important to remember that when Theresa May was Home Secretary she turned down a plea by the widow of Litvinenko to open a public inquiry. In 2014, she cited the international landscape as one of the reasons why no inquiries were pursued. May’s decision was appealed in the high court which reversed the decision and an open a public inquiry was announced just days after the MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014.
What is different with the Skripal poisoning is that the government intelligence services are very confident that this nerve agent, which is a Novichok agent, indeed came from Russia. Another aspect is the general fatigue and exhaustion in the UK and elsewhere with Russia and its gamesmanship. However, if we look again at the response, 23 diplomats expelled might sound like a lot – but actually it is still a relatively minor step. And the government has to start getting serious about going after Russian money.
Exactly. If you look at the number of wealthy Russians that live in or own property in the UK, and particularly in London, is there anything the British government can do to put pressure on them? And another question is how much of those wealthy Russians in the UK are actually tied directly back to the Kremlin?
I recently was asked to compile evidence on this issue and discuss it with the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee. What I argued was that the politicians need to understand how these wealthy Russians work. In the UK we have Oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska and others who, among other things, have huge investments here and own football clubs. British policymakers need to understand that these men are not businessman like Sir Richard Branson, Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet. These oligarchs are essentially informal state functionaries. None of them have condemned what happened in Salisbury and we know from the Robert Mueller investigation in the US (into Donald Trump’s alleged ties with Russia – editor’s note) that people like Deripaska play an intermediary role between the Kremlin and the West.
They enjoy their fortunes as long as Vladimir Putin allows them to and they can instrumentalise their money for influencing elections, building a football stadium or for other purposes. And at the same time, Putin can pull that fortune away. So, the system in Russia is what I call a modern kleptocracy combined with neo-feudalism. Once you understand this concept, we should then ask the important question: Should these people who support a very aggressive, revisionist, and ultranationalist regime be given all the privileges and legal protections that London offers? What is interesting is that the UK government is now reviewing the Tier 1 investment visa programme, about 700 of which have been given to wealthy Russians – who basically bought British residency for 2 million British pounds.
I think there is also a growing desire to properly checking the registers of property in London and elsewhere in the UK. And one more thing the British government can do is to compel overseas territories, like the British Virgin Islands, to introduce transparent property transfers and introduce registers of company ownership. This could make a huge difference.
Do you think the British government will move in this direction?
I think they will, however, we do not know how fast and how far they will. After spending some time in Parliament, I think there is a sense among all the MPs, whether it is Tory, Labour, Scottish Nationalist or Liberal Democrats, that they have to deal with this problem. The investigative journalism we have done at the Guardian, in parallel with the “Russian Laundromat” and the “Azerbaijani Laundromat” investigative research shows that any decent professional money launderer uses British corporate structures to set up British companies properly in London, Birmingham, Manchester and other cities to manage and launder their money. This has been going on for a long a time and clearly our regulation system is not working. Until now, there has been a lack of political will to deal with this problem, but I think that is changing.
You mention you were a bit surprised with how the West responded in solidarity with the UK. One of the questions that arises, however, is how Brexit is connected to this. Do you think it will be harder for the UK to find more solidarity if such situations happen in the future, after it leaves the European Union?
The simple answer is yes. I also think that this was part of the Kremlin’s calculation in the Skripal operation. There was a belief that the UK was friendless and since there is an American president who appears to be strangely, almost magically, beholden to Vladimir Putin, the UK will have no allies. Luckily, that was not the case. But I certainly think it will be harder in the future. The UK is controversially leaving one of the most successful alliances in European history. Brexit is coming within the year. It is going to be a difficult process for the British public and for British diplomacy.
Were you surprised that the US expelled such a large number of Russians – 60 in total – considering the ongoing investigation into the ties between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Kremlin?
I think the most compelling explanation was that when Trump found out the Europeans were going to expel around 60, he reportedly felt that the US had to do the same. The idea that the US would do any less than the Europeans was unacceptable for him.
The fact is that due to the serious foreign policy divisions within the White House, the US does not have a cogent policy towards Russia. Some advisors feel that the US should be exercising its power abroad and view Russia through the traditional Republican prism: as the enemy. And then there is Donald Trump who, I believe, colluded with the Russians. And even if you don’t believe that, Trump has refused to criticise Vladimir Putin, he has never done so.
Your most recent book looks at this idea of collusion in quite a lot of detail. Would you say that Trump’s silence on Salisbury is quite revealing?
In the aftermath of a nerve attack by the Russians in a sleepy, British city – he didn’t tweet anything. And this man is the “Tweeter-in-Chief”. The Salisbury operation was an astonishing attack which not only seriously injured Skripal and his daughter, but it also put a policeman in the hospital and 180,000 civilians at risk. And Trump kept silent. You have to ask, why? He did sign on the bland statement that said, yes, Russia is probably to blame, but this is not a big reaction.
This is part of a theme that was visible in his candidacy and still is during his presidency – his astonishing silence about Putin. This inaction can be explained by what Robert Mueller and his team are investigating. This includes Trump’s financial entanglements with Russia going back for a few decades and the particular deals he may have made with Moscow after 2008. And there are serious allegations that Russians have compromising material on Trump. I think the thesis of the Steele Dossier is broadly true. The Russians know it and Trumps knows it. That gives the Russians leverage.
Do you have faith that the Mueller investigation will reveal everything that many believe already to be true?
No. I think the most that the Mueller investigation will show is that there was a conspiracy and when the indictments come, it will be remarkable. But in today’s world, where the American president is in complete denial and claims the allegations are all fake and that nothing is real and they are invented by the Democrats – it will make it hard to know the exact truth. We will learn for sure that a number of Trump’s associates lied to the FBI about the events of 2015 and 2016. But what I think Mueller won’t get are the details on the Russians and what they know. This is a mutli-layered espionage operation, and actually quite a successful one, involving cyber criminals and career intelligence officers. It shows that quite sophisticated political decisions were made at the top of the Kremlin with a command structure where orders were given and calculations were made. Mueller, however, will not have any access to that or prove it since he will be unable to penetrate the GRU or FSB or any state secrets.
And this is how it is connected to the Skripal poisoning. It was meant to be a message to the Russian elite and the oligarchs and spies abroad – that if you co-operate with western intelligence or Mueller, this is what will happen to you and your family.
Do you think that because these operations were so successful the Kremlin feels more empowered now to continue to carry out these types of activities – even in spite of the West’s response?
I think the attitude over the last couple of years is – why not. The Kremlin makes these moves and gets away with them. Putin stole Crimea, and he still has Crimea. He fermented a war in eastern Ukraine and Ukraine’s European perspective has been set back at least 25 years. Sure, there is a price to pay with sanctions, but in a lot of international areas Putin is prevailing. He essentially won the war in Syria for Assad and that country has now become a real stronghold for Russia in the Middle East. And of course he has helped to install Donald Trump as president of the US, who is the most divisive and scandalous president in US history. I think Putin sees himself as doing pretty well. He sees contemporary foreign events through the prism of the Cold War and probably feels he is winning the Cold War. You may call this a new Cold War or continuation of the old one, it doesn’t really matter. Sure, the international response from Skrirpal poisoning has been damaging for Russian intelligence operations, but it is by no means fatal, and I don’t see any reason why the Kremlin would stop.
Luke Harding is a British journalist with the Guardian and served as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent between 2007 and 2011. His most recent books include A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko (2016) and Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win (2017).
Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.
This interview first appeared in the Polish magazine Nowa Europa Wschodnia issue 3-4/2018