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The curious case of the UK-Russia report

Whilst the United Kingdom negotiates a new relationship with its more immediate neighbours, the Kremlin has also proven to be a regular fixture in British politics.

April 28, 2020 - Niall Gray - Articles and Commentary

Minister of Foreign affairs Sergey Lavrov and his counterpart at the time, now Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2017 Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (cc)

In the lead up to the 2019 British elections there was of course only one topic of debate: Brexit – a word as much reviled as it is celebrated. It retained its never-ending dominance of the headlines as voters decided on the fate of a Conservative administration gripped by infighting. This difficult situation was ultimately seized by an ascendant Boris Johnson and his repeated mantra of “Get Brexit Done”, seemingly bringing a rare glimmer of certainty to a political system mired in deadlock. This common retelling of Britain’s last visit to the polls puts forward a rather uncomplicated story of events. Simply put, the Conservatives won by transforming proceedings into an unofficial second referendum.

For a brief moment, however, something else appeared to rise above the noise of the constitutional debate. Talks grew in early November around an unreleased document produced by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), the focus of which was Russian interference in British politics. The 50-page report quickly served as a potential smoking gun for government incompetence. The opposition parties went on the offensive. Committee leader Dominic Grieve also made very public demands for the report’s timely release. Nevertheless, Johnson remained resolute in his refusal to publish the document stating that the new year would shed new light on the Kremlin’s activities in Britain. As of writing such promises remain unhonoured. This has only fuelled suspicions as to the report’s content and why it has been delayed, with Downing Street’s continued silence perhaps revealing of a government uncomfortable with its findings.

Though what exactly could be so potentially damaging about this report – known simply as “Russia” in the official jargon? Overall it is clear that popular outrage and indeed long-term interest have failed to reach levels akin to the campaign directed against Donald Trump and his potential flirtations with Moscow. Despite this, recent years have shown that many Conservative politicians possess an impressive ability to, whether knowingly or not, end up in the same social circles as many prominent Russian émigrés and representatives.

Of course, it should be noted that links to Russia are far from a rarity in UK party politics. Some in the Labour fringe maintain deep anti-NATO sentiments and former Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond even runs his own talk show on RT (formerly, Russia Today). They, however, are not members of a party that has now run the British government for a decade.

Indeed, the document may bring new information to light regarding Russian attempts to court Conservative decision-making which began shortly after the group’s 2010 election victory. This effort has ultimately put many prominent Conservatives in close contact with Kremlin officials. These links were once dominated by the controversial Conservative Friends of Russia, whose activities were led by Moscow diplomat Sergey Nalobin. Whilst the organisation may simply amount to an attempt at political lobbying, British media has argued otherwise. The Guardian has even drawn links between Nalobin’s activities and the career of his father, Nikolai, in Soviet intelligence. Due to this, the report could reveal potentially damaging information regarding a party seemingly vulnerable to infiltration.

Certain links to oligarchs may also rank highly in the report’s findings. Of course, London is no stranger to these powerful figures, many of who possess close personal histories with the Kremlin. As a result, many who have settled in the capital have quickly integrated into similarly influential networks, which are commonly frequented by some of the Conservative Party’s most prominent figures. This therefore raises the chances of a more informal Russian influence perhaps discussed by the file. The potential danger of these links is exemplified by Lubov Chernukhin. The wife of a former Kremlin deputy finance minister, Lubov is now reported to be the biggest female donor in British political history. A famous bid of £160,000 at a Conservative fundraising event even allowed her to play a tennis match with now former Prime Minister David Cameron and Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London. Naturally, suspicions have been raised concerning whether or not something more than tennis was discussed during this game. Though whilst the Russia report remains in the government’s hands, this scepticism will only endure. Even if these oligarch links possess no Kremlin influence, even a cursory note of Conservative connections to Russia’s rich and powerful will do no favours for the government’s image.

At the core of debate surrounding the mysterious document, however, lies discussions regarding Moscow’s involvement in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Arguments supporting the presence of Russian activity are not without precedent. For instance, SNP Defence Spokesman Stewart McDonald stated in 2018 that Russia attempted to foster separatist sentiment during Scotland’s vote on independence four years earlier. This approach was supposedly chosen as self-determination, at the time, naturally cast uncertainty over Scotland’s future relationship with the European Union. Following McDonald’s logic, it could be argued that 2016’s UK-wide referendum presented a “Plan B” for a Kremlin eager to disrupt an institutional order so often at odds with its interests.

For a Conservative inner circle effectively forged in the heat of the referendum debate, this potential involvement may prove vital to decisions regarding the report’s delay. Sporadic reports from media and government since 2016 suggest that not only does the document focus on the referendum but that there was indeed a long campaign of attempted Russian influence. This is particularly true regarding attempts to shape public opinion online, now a well-known Kremlin tactic. Twitter noted the 2016 creation of 3,613 Russian accounts, as well as roughly 1,000 more from loose allies Iran and Venezuela, which spiked in activity on the day of the Brexit referendum (June 23rd). Those accounts originating from Russia are said to be linked to an organisation known as the Internet Research Agency. Based in St Petersburg, the group was described by a US Intelligence report as being likely funded by a “close Putin ally”. This activity may have proven decisive given the Brexiteers’ small margin of victory. Therefore, whilst the campaign’s influence may be impossible to fully analyse, the unreleased report’s potential elaborations may prove highly embarrassing for Downing Street. The release of such information would by no means make Kremlin stooges of the Conservative government. But it may create many unwitting allies.

Speculation will only persist as long as the report remains undisclosed. Though given the current dominance of EU negotiations and coronavirus troubles in government policy, the public may face a long wait. This is due to the crucial role of the aforementioned ISC, which ultimately retains the power to release the document. At the time of writing, however, a new committee has not yet been created by the Johnson administration. Whether this delay is intentional or not remains a topic of fierce debate. Permission for the cross-party body’s creation is also needed from a Labour Party still recovering from its December electoral defeat. Political expediency therefore appears to have relegated the Russia report to the political wilderness.

Nevertheless, a small campaign continues to challenge this silence in the courts. This effort has even received support from the widow of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who is believed to have been the victim of deliberate poisoning in 2006. Sporadic discussions in the media also continue to provide potential hints as to the Russia report’s true nature. For example, evidence given to the ISC by Bill Browder, a British-based financier, was recently made public by The Guardian. Claims were made that a powerful “network of Britons” now works for the Kremlin.

Boris Johnson’s contribution to the Christmas issue of The Spectator, the Conservatives’ unofficial magazine, may also prove relevant. Responding to the prompt “When have you changed your mind?” the prime minister wrote resolutely about his past desires to “reset with Russia”. Could this admittance ultimately amount to a penance for past mistakes? Only time will tell.

Niall Gray is an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe, as well as an MA student of European Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

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