Britain Risks Danger in Flirting With Putin’s Friends

Despite the terror threat, wealthy Russian influence remains troublesome for U.K. security

Britain Risks Danger in Flirting With Putin’s Friends
Russian oligarch sits at table and drinks whiskey / Getty Images

Anticipating that Vladimir Putin will launch another invasion of Ukraine, Britain has introduced legislation to enable the sanctioning of Kremlin-aligned oligarchs in Britain. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss says that if an invasion occurs, oligarchs’ “assets in the U.K. will be frozen. No U.K. business or individual would be able to transact with them. And should they seek to enter the U.K., they would be turned back.” Yet when pressed on what scope these sanctions would take, the British government remains reticent to offer more details. This has fueled skepticism by some U.S. officials that any new British sanctions will be more focused on symbolism than on punitive action.

Putin hasn’t been so shy in his own dealings with the U.K.

The Russian president warned in 2010 that Russian “traitors” would eventually “choke” on their betrayal.

On March 4, 2018, Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found slumped on a bench in the medieval English city of Salisbury. They had been poisoned with Novichok, a class of highly concentrated nerve agents developed by the Russian state. (In August 2020, a different Novichok agent was used against the Russian political activist Alexei Navalny.) Skripal was a former officer of the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, and was recruited by Britain’s foreign intelligence service (MI6). While the Skripals and a police officer who attended to them eventually recovered, not everyone was so lucky. Later that July, a British woman, Dawn Sturgess, died after finding the discarded Novichok delivery device. It was a disguised perfume bottle. Sturgess had sprayed herself, believing that she had stumbled across some free perfume.

It was a stunning attack, one conducted with callous indifference to innocent life.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people could have been killed with the amount of Novichok the would-be assassins left in the discarded bottle. Numerous areas were quarantined as possible chemical hazard zones, with news reports showing military specialists patrolling in chemical warfare protection suits. The government advised Britons not to pick up foreign objects. A poster warned, “If you’re a parent, guardian or carer, please ensure your children follow this advice, particularly with school holidays approaching.”

A three-person GRU team would later be identified as having carried out the plot. Confronted with the evidence, Russia claimed two of the men had been visiting Salisbury Cathedral. But the evidence of the GRU’s involvement was and is, even more so today, overwhelming. Russia knows as much. Cathedral enthusiasts do not tend to conduct extensive countersurveillance in preparation for their visits (the U.K. possesses unreleased CCTV footage showing the GRU team engaging in so-called surveillance detection runs). Nor was Putin too fazed by the worldwide NATO-led diplomatic expulsions of Russian intelligence officers that followed the attack. At the end of 2018, his RT propaganda network sent chocolate cathedral cakes to various regime critics. The message was not hard to digest. But while this was a grievous assault on Britain’s sovereignty and way of life, if you were to look at the position of Putin’s cronies in Britain today, you might think the Skripal incident had never occurred.

Since 2006, many of Putin’s enemies have died in Britain in mysterious ways. While the evidence of Kremlin culpability varies in each case, successive British governments have failed to impose serious consequences even where Putin’s hand lurks close. Indeed, the U.K. government has often slow-walked or whitewashed these deaths with only the most cursory of investigations.

Numerous British and U.S. security officials tell me that the Kremlin regarded its 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko as a successful template for future action.

A former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer, Litvinenko was killed in London after a dose of the highly radioactive Polonium-210 compound was added to his tea by former colleagues. As with the Skripal attackers, Litvinenko’s assassins were disdainful of innocent life. They left a radioactive trail in their wake, forcing various restaurants in London to shut down and spreading public fear. Russia’s culpability was apparent, the grounds for heavy diplomatic and economic retaliation clear. But then-Prime Minister Tony Blair offered only the most muted response. Whether further assassinations might have been deterred by more robust action earlier is now a moot point.

Fast forward 12 years.

Just one week after the Skripal incident, a prominent Putin critic was found dead in his London home. This past April, a coroner ruled that Nikolai Glushkov had been strangled by a third party in a manner designed to make his death appear the result of suicide. The apparent 2012 assassination of Alexander Perepilichnyy was more subtle. Collapsing while running near his Surrey home, the financier was later found to have a lethal plant-based poison in his stomach. A 2017 BuzzFeed series outlined other suspicious deaths of Putin critics in the U.K. But sources on both sides of the Atlantic say that the top line is simple but alarming. By March 2018, Putin had little doubt that the benefits of assassinating Skripal — even with Russian intelligence fingerprints all over the weapon — would far outweigh any costs.

In the U.K. at least, Putin’s gambit has paid off. Paid off, figuratively and literally, that is.

In London, Putin’s people rarely have to operate in the shadows. They are led by Roman Abramovich, owner of the Chelsea soccer club and self-identified ally of the Russian president. A London fixture, Abramovich has wooed public favor by investing extraordinary Russian wealth in England’s favorite pastime. Others have followed. Another Putin ally, Alisher Usmanov, owns the Everton soccer club. Usmanov has been accused of corruption by U.S. senators but faces very few difficult questions in Britain. Mikhail Fridman is a top Russian financier and enabler of Putin’s inner circle. U.S. Department of Justice court filings reference his possible engagement with organized crime activities. Fridman has also faced repeated organized crime investigations in Spain. Not so in the U.K. Fridman paid more than $88 million for a derelict London mansion he then restored, indoor swimming pool included. Beyond significant energy holdings, Fridman’s corporate interests in Britain extend to ownership of a major health foods retailer, telecommunications activities and real estate investments.

Other pro-Putin billionaires have close links to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his ruling Conservative Party. Take Lubov Chernukhin, wife of Vladimir Chernukhin, a former Russian minister and Moscow power player. Since 2018, Lubov has given $2.5 million to the Conservatives. Lubov’s generosity has earned her tennis games with Johnson and former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. Johnson’s immediate predecessor, Theresa May, met with Chernukhin following other donations.

But Johnson himself sits close to these donors. Alexander Temerko is a top Conservative Party donor who has cultivated a close relationship with Johnson (and who reportedly remains close to the Russian security services).

A British-Lebanese entrepreneur and “envoy” to the president of Imperial College London, Nadey Hakim, offers another example. When asked by a journalist for his thoughts on Johnson, the overtly pro-Putin Conservative Party donor responded, “He’s a very nice person to sit next to.”

Sitting next to Johnson can be beneficial.

Following his nomination by the prime minister, Evgeny Lebedev took to the House of Lords’ benches on Nov. 19, 2021. A socialite and philanthropist, Evgeny owns numerous British newspapers. He also happens to be the son of Alexander Lebedev, a Russian oligarch and former KGB-SVR (foreign intelligence service) officer. That bears note, because while Alexander pretends to be a patriotic critic of Putin, the Lebedevs’ media and corporate empire provides a friendly access port to politicians and corporate interests that the Kremlin wishes to cultivate. Attracting Johnson and others, Evgeny’s parties encapsulate high society London.

The influence peddlers have many agents.

The linchpin comes via real estate. London and southern county property, after all, offers a means both of legal residence and assets protected under English law. A director from one major real estate agency, Knight Frank, recently told Russian media that in the first quarter of 2021, Russian-origin purchases of real estate in London were up 50% from the first quarter of 2020. RBC explained that “[Marina] Shalaeva noted that in connection with Brexit, the pandemic and the lockdowns caused by it, activity in the elite housing market has decreased, but now ultra-high-net [worth Russians] are again buying real estate with great interest.” A number of Russian-language consultancy businesses are available for those interested in U.K. property. And the children of the new investors always seem to know to stay quiet about how their parents made their money.

London public relations and law firms also compete to provide services for the oligarchs. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee identified related concerns in a report that was delayed by Johnson’s government in anticipation of the U.K. December 2019 general election, then belatedly published in July 2020.

The report noted how Britain has “offered ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat.’ The money was also 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.”

The prominent Finsbury Glover Hering firm, for example, has been particularly ardent in support of its client, Usmanov. In 2012, Finsbury apologized after it scrubbed Usmanov’s Wikipedia page of negative material. I can personally attest that Finsbury has also sought to use English defamation law, which places a heavy burden of evidence on reporters, to demand post-publication edits to U.S. media reporting.

In London, it’s easier for the oligarchs to sue. The British journalist Catherine Belton is author of “Putin’s People,” which documents Putin’s rise to power. Belton was sued by Abramovich over her reporting on his links to Putin. U.S. media speech protections under “public figure” federal law mean that the case would almost certainly be thrown out were it introduced in U.S. federal court. But Belton’s case was only settled when her publisher agreed to make some changes to the book and apologize for certain original passages.

So embedded is Putin’s influence in London that sometimes the Kremlin acts without its oligarch cover.

The SVR’s reach into British political life is particularly notable. The Westminster Russia Forum, for example, holds events in Parliament, boasting of offering privileged Kremlin access and barely bothering to hide its links to the Russian security apparatus. Benefiting from lax foreign lobbying laws (the U.K. has no Foreign Agents Registration Act equivalent), British politicians are able to pursue lucrative financial deals with Russian interests, even while in office. This is particularly true when it comes to the House of Lords. Led by George Galloway, who hosts TV shows for Russian state media, members of Parliament are also able to benefit from appearance fees on networks such as RT. But U.S. and U.K. officials tell me that the Westminster Russia Forum is little more than a corporate-political access agent for the SVR’s London-based spies (i.e. rezidentura).

It would be unfair, however, to say that British intelligence services have sat idle since 2018.

The Russian intelligence apparatus is defined by a hypercompetitive — even hostile — relationship among its big three services: the GRU, the SVR and the FSB. They are led by the secretary of the Russian national security council, Nikolai Patrushev. Ambition and aggression are the cardinal rules. As in the Cold War, Putin’s and Patrushev’s main enemy remains the United States, followed by NATO member states and sympathetic interests.

Britain’s domestic intelligence service, the Security Service (otherwise known as MI5), leads Britain’s defensive action against Russian and other hostile state activity. But MI5 is not a law enforcement agency in the vein of the FBI. MI5 officers lack powers of arrest. As with MI6, MI5’s agent recruitment and running is its keystone mission.

But MI5 was, somewhat understandably, late to Putin’s British game.

In the 2001-2018 period, while Russian intelligence officers and pro-Putin oligarchs were establishing their London bona fides, MI5’s focus was absorbed in terrorism. Facing an exceptionally high caseload of al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist plots, MI5’s division of effort was weighted heavily toward counterterrorism. This came at the expense of MI5’s counterintelligence responsibility to monitor foreign state activity. The 2005 London bombings, the 2006 al Qaeda transatlantic airliner plot and the 2007 London-Glasgow attacks only reinforced political pressure on MI5 to further prioritize counterterrorism. The 2014-15 period of the Islamic State group’s rise also saw a rise in Northern Irish republican terrorist activity. Resources were stretched. At the same time, Britain’s policing focus on Russian illicit finance and organized crime is far inferior in scale, authority and capability to that of U.S. authorities. Put simply, prior to Skripal, Russia was a lower order of concern.

MI5’s Russia focus has increased significantly since 2018, partly enabled by a recent decline in its — albeit significant — counterterrorism caseload. But MI5’s work here is often complex, disabusing the notion of sloppiness as a defining characteristic of Russian intelligence tradecraft. In the period since the Skripal incident, the Russian GRU conducted a successful intelligence operation to evade a well-resourced MI5 surveillance effort. This involved the patient deflection of MI5 interest in the relevant GRU officers responsible for the operation, and excellent use of associated space and timing — taking next steps only when surveillance was reduced. The GRU was then able to conduct a clandestine approach of a high-value British government target for their prospective recruitment as a GRU agent. The plot only failed when the civil servant reported the approach.

Sources tell me that the most capable Russian intelligence officers take advantage of this intelligence resourcing challenge, skillfully alternating between inane activities and active intelligence operations to keep MI5 off balance. The most aggressive Russian actions, a la Skripal, also tend to be conducted by intelligence officers and agents who are acting outside of diplomatic cover/credentials and are far harder to track.

What of the other British intelligence services?

Like MI5, taking advantage of the Islamic State group’s declining threat to Britain, MI6 has reprioritized the recruitment of Russian agents. (The Islamic State dominated MI6’s highest-end operational activity from 2014 to 2016.) That said, the main line of Britain’s post-Skripal Russia-focused intelligence effort has been carried out by the government surveillance agency known as GCHQ.

GCHQ works in near symbiosis with its U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) counterpart. The special relationship enables GCHQ to leverage the NSA’s vast data-processing capabilities. Concerned by aggressive Russian pre-positioning of cyber strike capabilities within Britain’s critical infrastructure, GCHQ has increased its denial-deter-defend-respond activities. Since 2018, GCHQ has also placed particular emphasis on the identification and persistent tracking of GRU officers and FSB-affiliated assassination units. Some of the capabilities that GCHQ have employed are exceptionally boutique in nature, allowing for the monitoring of Russian intelligence officers even amid extensive physical, device-based and digital efforts to evade potential monitoring. This post-Skripal endeavor has allowed for the prevention of numerous hostile Russian intelligence activities, the rapid identification of Russian intelligence culpability following certain incidents and highly valued support to foreign allies.

But more and better intelligence can go only so far.

Reality raises the sustaining questions: Why is Putin’s money-laundering circuit allowed a perpetual grand prix in London? Why do the English courts continue to serve as Putin’s reputation shields and launderers? Why does Johnson enable Putin’s people rather than hold them in check more effectively?

Were this situation occurring in the U.S., we might legitimately expect congressional inquiries, more credible and specific claims of collusion, and FBI raids. Not so in the U.K. Either directly or through their corporate/charity organizations, I repeatedly reached out to numerous former senior officials for comment on the continuing financial influence of Putin’s cronies in London and the risk that this influence poses in strengthening Russian strategic interests to the detriment of British national security. Former Prime Ministers Blair, Cameron and May did not respond to my requests for comment. Former MI6 Chief Sir John Sawers and MI5 Director General Baroness Eliza Manningham Buller declined to comment. Former MI6 Chiefs Sir John Scarlett and Alex Younger did not respond. Former MI5 Director General Lord Jonathan Evans and former GCHQ Director Iain Lobban did not respond (I was unable to find a contact email for former MI5 Director General Lord Andrew Parker). The issue is very sensitive.

But the sensitivity is problematic. Sources tell me that the U.S. intelligence community has received less cooperation from Britain on Russian financial intelligence under Johnson than under his predecessor May (although Johnson has authorized robust military activity in challenge of Russia’s posture towards Ukraine). MI6 is also seen by U.S. officials as more reluctant to risk aggravating Russia than is GCHQ.

But ultimately, it’s the economy.

Too many legal, public relations and property firms and too many barristers, solicitors and judges are too invested in “Londongrad.” Politicians don’t want to rock the boat amid continuing Brexit-related economic uncertainties. Johnson’s strategy toward China also reflects this balancing of security and economic concerns. States must balance interests. Britain is not the U.S.: It cannot command compliance when the threat of highly punitive law and sanctions enforcement are absent. It must balance security and prosperity. The question is whether the right balance is being struck.

What happened to the Skripals and Sturgess was not an aberration. It was a reaction by Putin to the political space that successive British governments have granted him. While the British intelligence community has improved its means of monitoring Russian hostile activities, the British government has not established deterrence against future activities. They will continue. And while fortune may favor Londongrad in the short term, what if when Novichok reappears or another weapon is employed, dozens die?

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