Vladimir Putin and Boris Johnson cannot believe their luck. In 2016, Putin scored his two biggest foreign policy wins since becoming Russian president in 1996. Now a major report in Britain lets Putin off the hook, just as Trump has buried reports by government investigators in Washington on his links with the Kremlin.
In 2016 Putin helped get his friend Donald Trump elected, thus shutting down - for the first time since 1946 - any US criticism or action over Russian foreign policy adventurism.
And he helped deliver a serious blow to the European Union by helping win Brexit. Putin did not bother to use what Russians would call a ‘useful idiot’ like Boris Johnson. The then Tory MP had more than proven his fidelity to the Kremlin world view that the EU was a bad thing, as well as supporting handsome donations to the Tory Party by Russian oligarchs.
Instead, Putin worked through an even more ‘useful idiot’, Nigel Farage, and threw Russian money and influence to help push British voters over the line into agreeing with the official Russian hostility to the European Union.
As the report by the Intelligence and Security Committee makes clear, the British government, helped by an openly EU-hostile Labour leadership, refused to make any effort to investigate the biggest foreign interference in British democracy ever seen.
In an astonishing condemnation of Theresa May, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) concludes: “We have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference” and that ministers “had not sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes”.
In other words, as evidence mounted from many different sources, notably from across the Atlantic and from the former diplomat and MI6 agent, Christopher Steele, who had been a respected member of the British embassy team in Moscow of Russian involvement in Brexit, the British political-security establishment and Downing Street just turned away, pulled the duvet over their heads, and pretended there was no problem.
All Boris Johnson did was delay the report’s publication for party political purposes to help win the 2019 election.
But the responsibility for failing to investigate this assault on British democracy lies with Theresa May, with the senior civil servants who either agreed to this non-action or acquiesced in May’s decision, as well as Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour shadow cabinet for allowing her to to get away with it.
In 2016 Putin was thoroughly fed up with the EU, which had imposed sanctions on Russia over its invasion and annexation of the Crimea, part of Ukraine, an independent state.
He hated the European Commission’s use of its competition law to investigate Gazprom and other oligarch controlled energy companies abusing their monopolistic power. He was annoyed with the cross-party support for Magnitsky legislation aimed at naming Russian officials involved in human rights abuses and closing down their access and assets in Britain.
The head of the main Russian spy agency, the GRU, which sent killer squads in 2007 to murder Alexander Litvenenko and in 2018 former GRU spy, Sergei Skripal, was Igor Sergun, who urged support for pro-Brexit activity in Britain, according to Guardian writer, Luke Harding, in his new book, ‘Shadow State.’
£8.4 million was donated to the unofficial Leave campaign, Leave.EU —the biggest ever political donation in British history. It was made by Aaron Banks, who disliked immigration and in Nigel Farage found a conduit for his hostility to Europe.
This donation was not illegal IF that money came directly from Banks’s bank account, and Banks has not been found to have breached electoral law.
Banks’s close associations with the Russian government are not disputed. His own published accounts of his involvement in the Brexit campaign record meeting with the then Russian ambassador Alexander Yavlenko, a close Putin associate. As the New Yorker has revealed, a Russian spy, Alexander Udod, was given the job of getting close to Banks, Farage and UKIP.
Udod was expelled from the UK in 2018 following the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.
In evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, Banks and his associate, Andy Wigmore, denied any Russian connection.
Banks had been in Moscow and at least three business deals were offered at the Russian embassy or by Russian agents to the pair. The Russian ambassador and the spy Alexander Udod were invited to parties hosted by Banks.
The Electoral Commission did refer Banks to the National Crime Agency, but, as the ISC report confirms, Theresa May did not order the intelligence agencies to help in providing evidence. She refused to accept that any question mark might be placed over the very narrow win for Brexit, when just 36 per cent of the total registered electorate voted to leave the EU.
With the arrival of Boris Johnson and a 100 per cent Brexit cabinet, the political-security establishment began to instinctively retreat from the notion that Russia may have influenced Brexit. The Electoral Commission’s expectation that the intelligence community would properly investigate Banks turned out to be a false hope.
In a new book, Going Dark, Julia Ebner, a researcher at London’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue, reports on Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a Putin trolling operation that reached one in three Americans between 2015 and 2017 when Putin tried to get Trump elected. The Internet Research Agency set up 3,841 fake twitter accounts to pump out Kremlin lines on Trump and also Brexit. The Russian state-controlled TV station, RT, and linked news agency, Sputnik, based in Edinburgh, provided endless platforms for anti-EU commentators, economists and politicians.
The row over whether Chris Grayling or another pro-Brexit Tory MP, Julian Lewis, should be the ISC Chair is a typical Downing Street spin operation. As was the briefing about Russian interference in the 2014 Scottish referendum. It was reported in the Scottish press at the time that David Cameron asked Putin to support the unity of the UK.
No 10 wanted the media to focus on the Grayling question or Russian activity in Scotland or in the 2019 election – anything other than the damage done to the EU by Brexit.
Putin isn’t interested in the fate of Scotland or the UK, but he was and is keen to see the EU weakened, which Johnson and Farage delivered for the Kremlin and which May refused to soften by failing to opt for a Norway style relationship with the EU after she became prime minister.
Official inquiries into mistakes or errors by the British political establishment are regularly accused of being a whitewash. This is worse. This was deliberate sabotage, by refusal to authorize a proper investigation into a major assault on British democracy by a foreign power and its helpmates at the highest level of the British state.
By Denis MacShane - former Labour Minister of Europe. His latest book is “Brexiternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” (IB Tauris-Bloomsbury)
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