Russian influence over Brexit: questions that won't go away

Almost half the British public believes the Russian government interfered in the EU referendum and last year’s general election, according to an opinion poll*.

The British government has played down speculation on the matter, saying only in response to the publication last week of a long awaited report by the Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK Parliament on Russian interference “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU Referendum”.

The report, however, drew particular attention to the fact that the government “had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes” at the time, and it made clear that no serious effort was made to do so, saying the government was “actively avoiding” looking into evidence of the Russian threat to the EU referendum. The authors found this particularly unforgivable given the evidence that emerged of Russian interference in the U.S. elections and in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

Whilst the issues at stake in the EU referendum campaign are less clear-cut, it is nonetheless the Committee’s view that the UK intelligence and security community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum and that an unclassified summary of it be published.

Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK Parliament

As it becomes clear that no attempt was made to find any such evidence, speculation is rife that Boris Johnson's government, which delayed publication of the report, which was finalised in October of last year, is hiding something.

“There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole,” said Intelligence and Security Committee member Stewart Hosie MP.

Alexander Temerko Boris Johnson

Johnson's Conservative party has received considerable funding from Russian interests, such as Alexander Temerko, who has previously worked for the Kremlin’s defence ministry, and who is reported to have donated £1.3 million to the party.

Whilst there appears to be no evidence to suggest that Termenko is himself an FSB agent - his biography does not contain any of the usual giveaways - he has spoken in positive terms about one of Putin’s closest and most powerful allies, Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s Security Council and former long-time head of the FSB. “There is much more positive than negative about him,” he has said.

Temerko revealed himself to be a supporter of Johnson’s bid to lead Britain out of the EU, describing the 2016 public vote to leave the bloc as a “revolution against bureaucracy.” He praised senior Russian security officials, including the current and former heads of the Federal Security Service (FSB), successor to the KGB, and proudly recalled his past work with Russia’s Defence Ministry.

Catherine Belton, writing for Reuters, July 19th 2019

Temerko is, presumably, one of the so-called "anti-Putin oligarchs" that Johnson has referred to. Most observers with an understanding of politics and economics in Putin's Russia however would likely agree that there is no such thing.

He is, however, close to Johnson, spending considerable time with him. Temerko himself described how, "at the beginning of Johnson’s tenure as Foreign Secretary from 2016 to 2018, they would often “plot” late into the evening over a bottle of wine on the balcony of Johnson’s office at parliament in Westminster."

He certainly appeared to have been party to whatever aspirations Johnson had as early as 2016 to pocket the keys of 10 Downing Street.

In one conversation in February this year, Temerko said he’d joined an unsuccessful attempt led by members of a group of hardline Conservative MPs, the European Research Group, to remove Theresa May as leader in December 2018. The MPs were unhappy at May’s failure to take Britain out of the EU almost three years after Britons voted to leave. Temerko didn’t detail his role in the move, but a senior Conservative Party member confirmed that Temerko was “very much behind the attempt to oust” May.

Catherine Belton

Russian foreign policy holds that the EU is a temporary phenomenon, and is very keen to hasten what it sees as its inevitable demise. This would result in Russia becoming the single pole of power in Europe.

In pursuit of this outcome, Russia has courted, and indeed financed, European eurosceptic parties such as Front Nationale, AfD, Lega Nord, and others. Kremlin-controlled RT ( Russia Today) once famously described former UKIP leader and aspiring media personality Nigel Farage, once the most prominent voice of euroscepticism, as their "favourite British politician".

Farage, in his turn, described Vladimir Putin as the world leader he most admired, and following Russia's military actions and illegal annexation of Crimea, stated the "the European Union has blood on its hands".

Questions are, not for the first time, being asked about the now disbanded Conservative Friends of Russia group, one of the founding members of which was Matthew Elliott, destined to become the chief executive of the official Vote Leave campaign.

Screenshot 2020 07 26 At 13 41 58

A key figure in this reported Russian programme to deepen the "co-operation" between senior Conservative politicians and the group was one Sergey Nalobin, who unlike Temerko does indeed have the typical educational background associated with KGB/FSB officers. In this, he would have been following in the footsteps of both his father and his brother.

From 2010-15 he held the post of first secretary of the political section at the Russian Embassy in London; another glaring clue to his background.

Like Temerko, Nalobin appears to have succeeded in getting close to at least one "prime target".

Other Conservative politicians who appear tainted by Russian money include Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis, International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Justice secretary Robert Buckland, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Business Secretary Alok Sharma, who have all been handed between £5,000 and £58,000 personally or via their constituency parties in the past six years, according to figures obtained by The Times.

One remaining question, and one which may prove to be most enlightening concerns Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson's seemingly indispensable adviser.

What exactly was he doing in Russia from 1994 to 1997?

*The poll, conducted by Opinium for the Observer, found that 49% of voters think there was Russian interference in the Brexit referendum, with 23% disagreeing. Some 47% believed Russia interfered in the December general election.

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Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright is publishing editor and Brussels correspondent of EU Today.

An experienced journalist and author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.

He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.

Gary's latest book WANTED MAN: THE STORY OF MUKHTAR ABLYAZOV: A Manual for Criminals on How to Avoid Punishment in the EU is currently available from Amazon

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