The Russian in the room
Updated: Jan 14
Writing: Will Lewallen
It seems that one of the biggest issues that we faced in our election was not determined by which side of the debate you fall on, but by the fidelity of the process itself and whether our Democracy is as sound as we all seem to assume. There has been talk of Russian interference in elections across the world for some years now, one of the more notable reports being the Mueller inquiry conducted in the US in 2016, however there has never really been public concern here in the UK. Until that is, the current Government sparked outrage by stalling on the publication of a new intelligence report into covert Russian operations in the UK.
The pre-cursor to this report was a report published by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee into ‘Disinformation and Fake news’ in which a large part of the document focussed on ‘foreign influence in political campaigns’; particularly Russian involvement here in the UK. Ian Lucas, former Labour MP for Wrexham and member of the DCMS select committee, confirmed Russian involvement in elections dating back to the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 and the report found that “electoral law is not fit for purpose”. He also accused the Government of failing to address the issue by adapting the law to the new electoral landscape; despite the findings of the report being overwhelming. The report also highlights that in the month after its interim publication, 63% of the IP address that looked at the report were foreign, and over half of these were from Russia; something which can only be taken as some degree of an admission of guilt.
However, fake news and disinformation is not the only threat that Russia poses to our national security. Bill Browder, an American born British financer and political activist, has reason to believe that Russian Oligarchs, glorified kleptocrats, currently residing in the UK have penetrated the highest echelons of British society. After the fall of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 90s a handful of individuals were allowed to steal about 35% of the country’s wealth. It is estimated that since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 approximately £390 billion has been stolen from the Russian people and moved to the West to be laundered. These individuals became the Russian Oligarchs.
The Oligarchs, which comes from Oligos meaning few and arkho meaning to command, did exactly that. According to Browder they, in return for all of their ill-gotten gains, began to slowly employ members of the British establishment- be it MPs, ex-security staff, members of the House of Lords etc. to effectively lobby on behalf of the Russian state for money. Browder gave evidence, in the form of a 14 page document, containing dates and names of both MPs belonging both to the Government and the Opposition, to the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) for their new report. Browder declined to comment on the names mentioned in the report on LBC but did point out that, conveniently, it is only under Parliamentary privilege that the names can be revealed without anyone becoming at risk of a hefty law suit.
Browder became involved in the battle with Putin’s kleptocracy a decade ago after his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was murdered in pre-trial detention. Magnitsky testified against the Russian authorities after discovering an elaborate fraud that was used to steal $230 million of Browder’s taxes and was subsequently arrested. Since then, Browder’s life work has been a piece of legislation called the Magnitsky Act which freezes the assets and imposes visa bans on Russian Oligarchs who are attempting to spend and launder money in the west. The Act was first passed in the United States and then a variation called the Global Magnitsky Act was passed in a further 5 countries: Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania and the UK. In all of the countries where the Magnitsky Act has been implemented sanctions have followed… except the UK.
The grave of Sergei Magnitsky (Image via Wikipedia)
On the 1st of October 2019 a statement was released on the Conservative website titled, “Why we’re implementing Magnitsky’s Law”. However the official Government position has always been that they need to wait until we have left the EU to impose sanctions; although that doesn’t seem to have much credibility seeing as three out of the five countries to have imposed sanctions are member states of the EU. Even the Trump administration’s Treasury department added new names of individuals to their Magnitsky list at the end of 2019; adding both Try Pheap and Kun Kim from Cambodia and Min Aung Hlaing from Myanmar.
Whether MPs such as Raab are truly supportive of more stringent sanctions for human rights abusers or they were just using it as a compelling campaign tool is unclear; either way this reluctance to deal with the issue confounds Ian Lucas’s fear that the Government is choosing to turn a blind eye. This ties in with more common known facts; the UK, especially London, is the global hub for money laundering with an estimated £90 billion of illicit money passing through the UK every year, reportedly £35bn of which is Russian. Blair and Cameron are both no strangers to getting into bed with Russian Oligarchs, Saudi Princes and Chinese property hoarders with over £100bn of property across England and Wales owned by anonymous companies undoubtably using the UK to launder their dirty money. Alas, no one wants to know, and now with Brexit it is an inevitability that all money, dirty or not, is going to be welcomed with open arms and the Government will maintain its implied position that harbouring laundered money harms no one and should rather be seen as inward investment; but at what cost?
Professor Philip Davies who is head the Director of the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security has a different take on the issue. He is concerned most by neither the infiltration from the Oligarchs, or the disinformation/fake news; rather he is concerned by what he calls the “degree of hostile control”. What he means by this is that having wealthy business men attempting to influence elections is one thing, but having a state-run clandestine operation is another. The former is obviously not agreeable but has always been a part of politics but crucially, as Davies points out, can be tackled by “regulatory framework” such as the Magnitsky Act. On the other hand the latter can slip below the radar.
Davies points out that whilst the DCMS Select Committee report only focusses on the overt attempts to influence our democracy, the new ISC report address the issues of clandestine operations meaning it should be a matter of pressing and immediate concern to the Government. Especially if the way British politics is being manipulated is attempting to force the UK out of a wider western alliance. By doing this, according to Davies, you’re not only undermining British sovereignty you’re also “affecting and weakening wider strategic deterrents and security”.
If this report is so important, the only question worth asking, it seems, is where is it? The official Government position is that “the process cannot be rushed, the information contained within the report is too sensitive for the public and must be redacted prior to publication”. However Dominic Grieve, former head of the ISC and MP for Beaconsfield, told LBC that the “redaction and checking process” has been completed and that by the 17th of October the Intelligence Services and the National Security Secretariat (NSS) had signed off on the report to say that it was ready for publication. At this stage, the report is submitted to the Prime Minister for it to be signed off; a simple formality that usually takes no more than 10 days. But, on the 6th of November parliament was dissolved and thus the report cannot be seen. Due to a statutory requirement, to be seen, it needs to be laid before parliament which as Davies points out rather nicely could be described as “using the letter of the law to defeat the spirit of the law”.
The Government released a new statement saying that “during this election we [are] working with relevant organisations so we can identify and respond to emerging issues and protect the safety and security of our democratic processes. The government cannot rush this process at the risk of undermining our national security”. Here is where it gets really neat. Due to the classified nature of the file, even those who are privy to the content of the report such as Philip Davies or Dominic Grieve are prevented from commenting on the credibility of the Government’s justification (that it risks undermining democratic security) as to do so would be to implicitly reveal the content of the document- which is a crime. We can however, imagine a scenario where the scandal revealed in the dossier is less incriminating. This would mean that the document would not be classified thus allowing commentators or journalists to pass judgement on the reliability, or lack thereof, of the Government’s reasoning. Yet in reality, the severity of the accusations we presume this new report makes, actually serve to protect the accused.
Seeing as even after a new government is formed it can take up to 6 months for the new committee to be established, and I’m sure that neither party would be in a rush, we are unlikely to see this report in the foreseeable future. Whether those incriminated by this report have a plan or not is unclear. My best guess is that they think if they sit on it long enough it will either just die a slow death or, by the time it does eventually come out, media speculation will have been so rife that the public will hardly be surprised. No one will bat more than an eyelid and we will just continue as normal and no one will address the Russian in the room.