Security breaches | 12 years of sloppy Ministers and Russian money

Three stories have broken in recent weeks about security breaches at the top of Government. 

Suella Braverman has been reinstated as Home Secretary less than a week after she resigned for serious breaches of confidentiality with secret documents. The extent of her breaches are not yet clear, nor is the extent of involvement from MI5.

Gavin Williamson resigned over accusations of bullying, and his resignation was accompanied by revelations that he leaked confidential defence secrets in his spell as Defence Secretary. These went beyond his previous allegations of leaks which led to his sacking by Theresa May. Hard to think of anything more shocking than the defence secretary leaking military secrets. Shocking he was allowed back into Government.

We also found out that Russians hacked Liz Truss’s phone during the Tory leadership campaign, and that this was covered up so as not to jeopardise her chances of becoming PM.  As someone with a long odds bet on Rishi Sunak I am particularly aggrieved.  

So many scandals have hit the Government it is hard to keep track of them all, and there is a tendency to shrug and just get on with life.

But this is part of a pattern of security breaches going back a very long time. Or rather 2 patterns – sloppy Ministers and widespread Russian interference.

Even before the Conservatives came to power in 2010 there were already concerns about relationships with Russian Oligarchs. The first scandal to hit the papers was George Osborne’s relationship with Oleg Deripska, attending parties on his yacht. Deripska is currently sanctioned by the UK and the US for his closeness to the Putin regime.

In the early days of the  Cameron Government Dame Pauline Neville Jones had to stand down as National Security Minister, after only a few weeks in the job.  MI5 had raised concerns during her vetting process about her financial relationship with some Russian businessmen, named by the Daily Mail as Ukrainian oligarch Dimitry Firtash and Russian tycoon Mikhail Chernoy. Firtash was described by the US Justice Department as an “upper-echelon associate of Russian organized crime” – he was arrested in Austria and is currently fighting extradition to the US to face criminal charges.

Cameron failed to learn this lesson and Andy Coulson was appointed to Cameron’s private office despite having no Developed Vetting.   Having someone working in the PMs office without vetting is a massive security issue.  Clearly the Government didn’t want to put Coulson through vetting for fear of what they might find out about his time with News International.  Coulson later served a prison sentence for phone hacking.

Michael Gove fought a long losing legal battle against the Financial Times who had discovered that he used a private email account under the name of Mrs Blurt to discuss Government business.   This was an attempt to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act so his discussions with the special political advisor Dominic Cummings could never be made public. 

The Guardian also revealed that Grant Shapps had a second identity as a web marketer under the names Michael Green, and had also used the name Corinne Stockheath and Sebastian Fox,  

Liam Fox has to resign because he was bringing a “chum” to work with him despite Britian having troops deployed abroad. As a trade minister he used a private email account for Government business, an account which was hacked by the Russians allowing them access British secrets.

Beyond these routine scandals the Conservative party became increasingly dependent on Russian money to fund political campaigns.  The money didn’t come directly from the Kremlin, but from very rich British citizens who were born in Russia, often with previous links to the Putin regime.   No-one in Russia becomes wealthy other than by proximity to Putin. 

David Cameron and Boris Johnson were paid to £160,000 to play tennis with Russian donors despite Russia’s involvement in the shooting down of a Malaysian plane over Ukraine.  Two Newcastle supporters were on the plane, and I was one of the Sunderland fans who raised £30,000 in their memory.  The contrast of football rivals donating money to charity while the Government pocketed cash was a very dark moment.  

The death of 2 British citizens should have been a turning point, but the Government ignored it

Cameron won a majority in 2015 against a Labour Party led by an uninspiring Ed Milliband.  Cameron had promised an in/out referendum on Britains EU membership if he won, never thinking he would have to go through with it.  

Russia immediately targeted the Leave vote.  We know from the work of the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee and from investigations in the US that Russia was active with a mass campaign of disinformation in support of Brexit. What is less clear is the extent of direct contacts between Russia and key Brexiters. Catherine Belton, in her book Putin’s people, reported that Soviet-born oligarch and major Conservative donor, Alexander Temerko, claimed that Johnson was finally persuaded to back Brexit by a group of ‘eastern European businessmen’.

We know that the Leave.EU campaign held meetings with the Russian embassy. It is difficult in the mass of claims and denials to get a clear picture of the extent of Russian involvement with Leave.EU. Carole Cadwalladr made multiple claims in the Guardian including financial connections which were the subject of a libel action by Aron Banks who financed Leave.EU which he lost  

As Foreign Secretary Johnson infamously lost his minders so he could party with the Lebvedev family of Russian oligarchs.   Lebvedev senior was ex-KGB, Lebvedev junior owns UK newspapers and was made a member of the House of Lords as Lord Lebvedev of Siberia.   The FO during Johnsons period in change was subject of cyber attacks while he was For Sec, defeated by GCHQ. At the same time Gavin Williamson had to resign as Defence Secretary for leaking confidential material from the National Security Council.  

In 2018 The Conservatives launched a fund raising blitz that helped them win the 2019 election, much of which came from donors with links to Russia.     There is nothing in law to stop someone with links to Russia funding British politics as long as they are eligible to vote in the UK and the donation is declared

In February the Conservative party received a donation of over £500k from Ehud Sheleg, a wealthy London art dealer and former Treasurer of the Conservative party.   Barclays Bank traced the funds back to Mr. Sheleg’s father-in-law, Sergei Kopytov, who was once a senior politician in the previous pro-Kremlin government of Ukraine, and who owns real estate and hotel businesses in Russia and occupied Crimea.    Barclays Bank were concerned enough that they reported the donation to the National Crime Agency as money laundering and a potentially illegal campaign donation.

Weeks later in March 2018 Russian security forces attempted the assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skirl on British soil, which left one dead.   This should have been another turning point in Britains approach to security, and in particular Russia, but once again nothing was done, and UK based Russians remained the largest source of funds for the Tory party .

The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament investigated Russian interference in British politics. Their description of Russian ambitions was chilling:

[Russia] appears fundamentally nihilistic. Russia seems to see foreign policy as a zero-sum game: any actions it can take which damage the West are fundamentally good for Russia. It is also seemingly fed by paranoia, believing that Western institutions such as NATO and the EU have a far more aggressive posture towards it than they do in reality. There is also a sense that Russia believes that an undemocratic ‘might is right’ world order plays to its strengths, which leads it to seek to undermine the Rules Based International Order

They identified 3 threats to the UK from Russia:

  1. Cyber warfare, including phishing attacks on British politicians and Government institutions, and deliberate attempts to influence elections and the Brexit referendum
  2. Disinformation and political influence campaigns, spreading pro-Russian messaging, promoting pro-Russian politicians, including direct donations – for example to Marine Le Pen’s far right Front National in France
  3. Russian expatriates living in the UK

One of the key disinformation tactics was to convince people that all politicians are as bad as each other, that truth is elusive or subjective “you don’t know who to believe”

One particular concern that the Committee raised was that while the UK was a target for Russian political interference the security services didn’t see it as their job to protect the integrity of our politics or democratic processes. The Committee identified specific Russian interference in the Brexit referendum, but reported that no attempt had been made to investigate this interference or take steps to stop it happening again.

Most shockingly. the Committee raised 14 other deaths of Russia expatriates in the UK as well as the Salisbury poisoning, with no response from the Home Office or Security Services.

The publication of this report was delayed until after the 2019 General Election. The report was scathing of Johnson and May both of whom were given evidence of Russian hostile actions in British politics, including. the Brexit campaign , but did nothing to investigate or to take steps to stop it happening again

Boris Johnson raised £2m from Russian sources during his reign as PM. Conservative Party Chairman Ben Elliot who oversaw this influx of funds had his own business deals in Russia, including in occupied Crimea.  Johnson attempted to appoint his chum and unsuccessful Brexit negotiator Lord Frost as National Security Advisor, only to reverse the decision

The Russian invasion of Ukraine should have been the final moment when the Government took the threat seriously, but they continued to accept funds from Russian linked sources – £65,000 since the war began

Truss and Braverman are only the latest in a long sequence of compromising events going back to when the Tories first came into power in 2010. Rishi Sunak attempts to present himself as a clean break with the past but his wife’s company Infosys still have an office in Moscow, and are still working there, despite announcing they would leave Russia when the invasion happened. Sunak’s wife is paid £12m a year through her stake in Infosys.

You would have to be very naïve not to see a concerted campaign of influence by a hostile foreign power, and a group of senior UK politicians who were sloppy in their approach to security, and happy to accept help from Russian sources when it suited them.

The big questions is what happened to make the UK so vulnerable to Russian influence. the Kremlin had tried before – Peter Mandelson also partied on an oligarchs yacht, but that was where the influence ended. The last 12 years have seen the wholesale co-option of British Conservative Politics by money and influence linked to Russia.

So how did this happen?   How did we become so soft and sloppy? How did Russian influence become so entrenched in British politics?

The sloppiness is the easiest to explain – the last 12 years has seen the UK ruled by an elite of posh boys – arrogant and entitled. Obeying the rules is for little people. They have set the tone for a style of administration where they did what they liked, and ignored the consequences

The colonisation of British Conservative politics by Russian wealth and influence is a slightly longer story.

The last few decades have seen a flood of Russian money coming into the UK with no questions asked about where this money came from and how it was acquired.   They weren’t the first group of rich people to decamp to London to protect their wealth – over the centuries Indian Maharajahs, Arab oil billionaires, African dictators,  had all moved their money to London to protect it.  

Russian oligarchs found in incredibly easy to become accepted into elite social and political circles. Partly this is background – we have a government dominated by the rich and the privately educated. At elite public schools and in their private lives they mix more with rich people from around the world than they do with their fellow citizens – be it Russian oligarchs, Mumbai businessmen, or East Coast Hedge fund bosses.    

The British elite have always got on in life by doing favours for each other – in politics, business and money.    This is how they have maintained their wealth and power for generations.   Occasionally they allow talent from the lower orders to rise up to keep the talent pool growing, but mostly they are a closed group.    Russian oligarchs found it very easy to tap into those networks of wealth and privilege, and were generous with their favours. 

Right from the start there was a tacit acceptance that the sources of such vast wealth were not entirely legitimate, but there was a naive belief that developing links with Russian companies and oligarchs would encourage them to adopt better governance and obey the law.  

Instead the opposite happened.  London offered the ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat’ for Russian wealth pouring into the UK. 

This money was invested patronage and bought influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment – not just Conservative political interests, but PR firms, charities, academia and cultural institutions.    A big part of the London economy revolved around this Russian elite; Lawyers, accountants, estate agents and PR professionals, restaurants, boutiques, art galleries.   More worrying the Commons select committee identified the growth of a large private security industry has developed in the UK to service the needs of the Russian elite.  British companies protect the oligarchs and their families, seek kompromat on competitors, help launder money through offshore shell companies and fabricate ‘due diligence’ reports

Russian influence became seen as completely normal, even thought it is clear that the political influence being traded was at times is linked to promoting the interests of the Russian state. 

The private interests of rich Russian expatriates blurred into Russian state interests, working through a network of influential political business and cultural interests who become de facto Russian state agents, wittingly or unwittingly.

It looks to me not that different to an older generation  – Burgess, Philby Blunt, Cairncross and MacLean – all came from elite privileged backgrounds, they were turned to the Russian side at Cambridge, and all were easy targets for Russian intelligence.

The final piece of the jigsaw is Brexit.  The politicians who have been in power for the last few years came to power through Brexit.   They were catapulted from the backbenchers to centre stage by embracing Brexit as the motivating ideology of the Tory Party.  Thinking hard about the extent of Russian influence in British politics would involve thinking about the extent Russia was involved in Brexit, and that is forbidden.    The same vow of silence which prohibits any discussion of the wisdom of leaving the single market prohibits any discussion of Russian interference.  

Luke Harding in his book Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem, and Russia’s Remaking of the West, quotes Russian Diplomat Alexander Yakovenko:

“We have crushed the British to the ground. They are on their knees, and they will not rise for a very long time.

Two years from now there will be a massive General Election.   Labour lead and the Tories are in disarray.  A period of easy Russian influence will come to an end, and a new Government is likely to enter power unbeholden to Russian money and patronage.   

The Kremlin will not like that, and we can expect another intense campaign of disinformation and influence to keep their allies in power.  

And His Majesties Government will have no incentive to stop them.

4 thoughts on “Security breaches | 12 years of sloppy Ministers and Russian money

  1. Well constructed critique that now seems to be an afterthought in British politics. This is scary stuff but hey ho we still have the Brexit prize to hang on to…!

  2. I think the big difference between Burgess, Philby, et al, is that they did it for ideological reasons.

    With Banks, Farage, Cummings, Corbyn – I can see that working – all they needed was intellectual flattery that they were utterly right – please have some money or a show on Russia Today, no strings attached . . . no syringe necessary.

    For the rest – I think the simplest explanation is greed. With the exception of Sunak, most of the public school elite politicians have wealth measured in millions or tens of millions – and a background that drills into them this wealth is a family business to grow, not a lottery win.

    To most Britains they are incredibly wealthy, but the oligarchs are a magnitude or two higher – like someone earning 10k a year going to a restaurant with someone earning £1 million.

    They have seen what extreme wealth looks like, and they would like gold wallpaper too.

    1. I wouldn’t underestimate the ideological motivation of the Brexit hard core, but you are right about the difference in money- in an unequal society like our the difference between the top 2% and the top 1% is enormous

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