Barbarians at the gates? The Russia Report and why it matters

Photo by Raven Cozens-Hardy

At long last, we can read the Russia Report prepared last year by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). Boris Johnson had gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent this document ever seeing the light of day, and succeeded in blocking its release before the general election in December 2019. Arron Banks of Leave.EU had made a last-ditch legal effort to stop it reaching the public domain.  It’s now abundantly clear why.

Had voters in December been able to see the report’s conclusions, they’d have been in a much better position to judge whether Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party were safe hands into which to entrust the governance of the UK. Many might also have had cause to think twice about Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” slogan, given what the report has to say about the government’s complete failure to follow up on the wealth of open-source evidence indicating Russian interference in the 2016 referendum.

Much of the report’s contents will not come as news to anyone who has been following Russia’s efforts to influence the political process here and in other countries. We already knew that large amounts of money from sources close to Putin’s mafia state had made their way into the coffers of the Conservative Party. Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee had already published the findings of its investigation into fake news and disinformation which, among other things, detailed Arron Banks’s dealings with agents of the Russian state, and a large-scale social-media disinformation campaign directed at influencing opinion and promoting polarisation in the UK.

So what’s new in the Russia Report, and why does it matter?

One of the most striking things is the quality of the expert sources on which the report draws. These include not only intelligence and security service sources, but also a range of other witnesses with in-depth knowledge of how Putin operates.

The ISC took detailed evidence from, for instance, Bill Browder, the formerly Moscow-based banker who has been living in fear of his life since taking legal action against the Russian kleptocracy that murdered one of his colleagues for daring to stand up to state-sanctioned theft from his company. Browder has been the driving force behind the so-called “Magnitsky Act” in the United States, and associated laws in other Western countries that have imposed sanctions against leading figures in Putin’s regime.

The report also heard from the former head of the Russia Desk at MI6, Christopher Steele – the man who produced the so-called ‘Steele Dossier’ on Donald Trump’s dealings with the Kremlin. Steele knows more about the operations of Russian intelligence than just about anyone outside the FSB itself, and still has excellent contacts in Russia.

Disappointingly, the published version of the report includes little of the detailed evidence given by these expert witnesses – this has been put into a “substantial Annex” that remains classified. Steele has, however, released what appears to be a summary of the evidence he gave, in which he warns that

“If HMG does not formulate and implement a more effective Russia policy with some urgency, the UK inevitably will face increasingly damaging consequences as Russian corruption and a  nationalist and xenophobic political export model takes hold.”

The overall picture that emerges from the Russia Report is of a determined and well-resourced effort to exert political influence in the UK. The principal method used to do this is one of the oldest in the KGB/FSB toolbox, and one to which the Conservative Party is especially susceptible – money. This comes not in suitcases full of cash from FSB agents, but in the form of political donations made via Putin-friendly oligarchs.

As the report notes, the UK has become a favoured location for ultra-rich Russians to launder illicit finance through the so-called “London laundromat”. Much of this money has been “invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment – PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process.” So extensive is the reach of this money that the report describes this situation as “the new normal”.

As Bill Browder told the Committee:

“Russian state interests, working in conjunction with and through criminal private interests, set up a ‘buffer’ of Westerners who become de facto Russian state agents, many unwittingly, but others with a reason to know exactly what they are doing and for whom. As a result, UK actors have to deal with Russian criminal interests masked as state interests, and Russian state interests masked by their Western agents.”

Perhaps reflecting the fact that the ISC’s members included several Conservatives, the report does not name the principal political beneficiaries of Russian largesse: the Conservative Party. But it hardly needs to, as the extent of Russian donations to the party is already well documented. Boris Johnson has personally benefited from these, not least through his close relationship with Alexander Temerko, a Russian former arms tycoon and fossil-fuel magnate with long-standing ties to the Kremlin and Russian intelligence.

In an attempt to undercut the significance of this, Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis has insisted that that these ultra-wealthy Russian donors have a perfect right to “invest in” the UK political scene, as they are actually British citizens. This is true; or, more accurately, they are dual Russian/UK nationals. For anyone who can show assets of at least a million pounds, obtaining a British passport is no problem.

This does not mean that they don’t retain close business and political connections with Russia and its regime, or are unwilling to do Putin’s bidding if asked. For them, keeping on the right side of Putin is vital not just for the protection of their wealth, but also for the preservation of their lives. Those who fail to do so tend to find their assets rapidly expropriated and often end up dead in mysterious circumstances.

In an intriguingly redacted section, the report notes:

“The extent to which Russian expatriates are using their access to UK businesses and politicians to exert influence in the UK is [REDACTED]: it is widely recognised that Russian intelligence and business are completely intertwined.”

Putin, a former career KGB officer, owes his own domestic power to methods he learned from the KGB and he has used these methods extensively in the pursuit of foreign policy goals. For him, these goals are in many respects identical to those pursued during the Cold War, with one obvious exception: Russia is no longer interested in installing socialist regimes in other countries. After an initial honeymoon period in the 1990s and early 2000s, the country’s rulers have reverted to seeing the West as an enemy that must be disrupted at every opportunity. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are probably the most notable achievements in that regard to date.

As someone who has written about the malign influence of Putin’s mafia state, I am sometimes accused of “Russophobia”. This is a hangover from the Cold War, when quite a significant part of the left in the West saw the Soviet Union as an ally, or at least as a counterbalance to the unrestrained hegemony of the US. I was never of this persuasion, having read too much about Stalin and his successors to see the USSR as any kind of force for good.

And what some people fail to understand is that Russia today bears almost no resemblance to the Soviet Union: its economic system is essentially gangster capitalism of the most extreme form, while its political rulers are kleptocrats who operate under the ideological cover of far-right nationalism.

Far from being a Russophobe, I’m a great admirer of Russian culture, which has produced some of the greatest artists and writers of the past 200 years. The Russian people deserve so much better than to be ruled by kleptocrats like Putin. And the West bears a share of the blame for what has gone wrong in Russia – Western “experts” pushed hard to make sure that Russian state enterprises were transferred into private hands, in ways that more or less guaranteed the creation of a kleptocratic class.

What worries me most about the situation exposed in the Russia Report is that it shows something more than simply an attempt to influence the political process in the UK. I believe that Putin’s support for Trump, for leading promoters of Brexit, for far-right politicians in Italy, France and other countries, and for elements of the Conservative Party, shows something even more sinister: the amalgamation of the Russian kleptocracy with corrupt politicians in other countries with whom it has a great deal in common; the formation, if you like, of an international kleptocratic class.

In 1984, KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov described how he had been trained to recruit agents of influence in the West:

 “My KGB instructors specifically made the point: never bother with leftists […] Cynical, egocentric people who can look into your eyes with an angelic expression and tell you a lie. These are the most recruitable people: people who lack moral principles, who are either too greedy or suffer too much from self-importance. They feel that they matter a lot. These are the people who the KGB wanted very much to recruit.”

Bezmenov’s description perfectly matches any number of people involved in the Trump and Brexit campaigns. Putin, who studied under the same instructors, learned his lessons well.

The Russia Report should be read in the light of the extraordinary levels of corruption that we have seen at the highest levels of government since the election of Boris Johnson in December. This has largely been ignored by the media, much of which is now engaged in huge efforts to spread counter-narratives to distract from the report’s central conclusions.

Johnson and his ministers will make loud noises about how they are taking action against Russian interference. But the truth is that many of the methods used by Putin to enrich his cronies, to undermine the rule of law and to cripple state institutions that stood in the way of his exercise of raw power, are now being used by our own government. And, as with Putin, all of this is happening under the cloak of populist nationalism. As the report notes, what the UK is looking at here is not just an external threat, but “a threat from Russia within its own borders”.

The barbarians are not just at the gates. They are inside the citadel.