Tough times for Putin’s fellow travellers in the UK

Expressions of support for Vladimir Putin by various leading figures of the Brexit movement, and their connections with his mafia state, are coming back to haunt these ‘useful idiots’, writes Tom Scott.

In 2017, I worked with the Green MEP Molly Scott Cato on a website that examined the motives and connections of various leading figures in the Brexit campaign. One thing that emerged from our research was the extraordinarily large number of these who turned out to have strong links with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Some of these are now well known – not least Arron Banks, who made the largest political donation in British history to Leave.EU, using money derived from sources that have still not been fully explained. Banks, who controls an impenetrable web of offshore companies, repeatedly lied about his multiple meetings with agents of the Russian state in 2016, which he originally claimed had amounted to one boozy session with the Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko.

It later emerged that there had been at least a dozen meetings, some of which included discussion of lucrative “business opportunities” involving Russian gold and diamond mines.

Whether or not this has any bearing on the fact that social media sockpuppet accounts run by Russian intelligence operatives heavily promoted Brexit is impossible to say. But Yakovenko was later invited to a party held by Leave.EU on the night that the 2016 referendum vote was counted.

Banks has dismissed claims of Leave campaign links to Russia as “complete bollocks from beginning to end” and has reacted furiously to journalists investigating these. Leave.EU created a hideously misogynistic video in which it transposed the head of Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr – who had shed much light on Banks – onto that of a woman being beaten up to the strains of the Russian national anthem.

Banks also tweeted that Cadwalladr “wouldn’t be so lippy in Russia” (where many journalists critical of the Putin regime, such as Anna Politkovskaya, have been murdered). He later brought a libel case against Cadwalladr, on which a judgement is expected soon. How it is possible for Cadwalladr’s reporting to have damaged the “reputation” of a man like Banks is anyone’s guess.

More details of Banks’s involvement with the Putin kleptocracy may eventually come to light. What is certain is that he has enthusiastically channelled pro-Putin propaganda lines, including the assertion that Putin’s aggression is all the fault of the EU and NATO, and that Ukraine is a rightful part of Russia.

Nigel Farage has also had involvement with agents of Putin’s mafia state, and likewise has consistently promoted Russian talking points. He has even gone as far as to say (in 2013) that Putin is the world leader he most admires.

Farage has been a frequent guest on the Russian state-owned  TV channel Russia Today (RT), which at one point offered him a show of his own. In a bizarre and stomach-churning episode in 2017, RT even arranged to have Farage ‘knighted’ by a small girl dressed as the Queen, after ‘Mr Brexit’ had unaccountably been left off the new year’s honours list.

RT has been accurately described as a “lie machine” operated by the Russian state, spreading confusion and disinformation on everything from Russian atrocities against civilians in Syria to the nerve agent attack in Salisbury in 2018.

Farage is ‘knighted’, screengrab from RT

It was created in 2005, after Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution’ led to the defeat of pro-Kremlin presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych. In interviews with Russian publications, RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan has been surprisingly frank about how she sees RT’s role as an ‘information weapon’. In 2012 she told the Russian newspaper Kommersant:

“Right now, we’re not fighting anyone. But in 2008 we were fighting. The Defence Ministry was fighting with Georgia, but we were conducting the information war, and what’s more, against the whole Western world.”

In another Russian-language interview, she explained:

“The information weapon, of course, is used in critical moments, and war is always a critical moment. And it’s war. It’s a weapon like any other. Do you understand?”

Farage also had several contacts with Russian Embassy officials in the years leading up to 2016, which he contrived to forget when asked about these by a German journalist in 2017. When pressed, he flew into a rage, exclaiming: “I think you are a nutcase! You are really a nutcase! Brexit is the best thing to happen: for Russia, for America, for Germany and for democracy.” He then broke off the interview abruptly.

Like Banks, Farage has continued to peddle Kremlin propaganda lines about the EU and NATO as being responsible for Russian aggression.

The links between Russia and other leading supporters and bankrollers of Brexit are less well known. Take Banks’ close associate Jim Mellon, a multi-millionaire with whom Banks owned a bank in the Isle of Man and who gave £100,000 to Banks’ Brexit campaign. Mellon’s fortune originally derived from the chaotic world of 1990s Russia.

“I had read somewhere that Russia was privatising its industry and that they were handing out certificates that represented a share of the post-Soviet state to every adult,” Mellon has explained

He bought up large numbers of these certificates at rock-bottom prices from Russians who “did not think they were worth more than a bottle of vodka”.

Mellon’s company Charlemagne Capital, and funds that it controls, went on to take advantage of many other opportunities in Putin’s Russia, not least the privatisation of Russian fossil fuel companies such as Gazprom.

It also benefited from one of the “business opportunities” held out to Arron Banks by Russian agents in 2016. Three weeks after the Brexit referendum, the Russian government sold its stake in the Alrosa diamond-mining company through a private offering to a restricted group of investors, at a discount to the company’s market price. A fund managed by Charlemagne Capital was one of these.

Then there is George Cottrell, UKIP’s one-time director of fundraising and Nigel Farage’s PA when he was leading the party. “Posh George”, as he was known to his friends, was hired by UKIP on the strength of his knowledge of “the murky and complicated world of shadow banking, secret offshore accounts and sophisticated financial structures”, according to former Ukip candidate William Cash. When I was researching him in 2017, I discovered that a LinkedIn profile under his name showed multiple connections with Russian entities involved in money laundering.

In December 2016 Cottrell was convicted in the US of a scam that involved laundering drug money on the dark web, having been arrested in Chicago earlier in the year as he travelled back with Farage after a trip to support Donald Trump’s candidacy at the Republican National Convention.

But it was not only the “Bad Boys of Brexit” (as Arron Banks styled himself, Farage and other far-right associates involved in Leave.EU’s campaign) who had close links to Russia. So, too, did the supposedly more ‘respectable’ end of the Brexit campaign: Vote Leave.

In 2012 many leading Tory MPs attended a champagne reception at the Russian Embassy to launch an organisation calling itself Conservative Friends of Russia. Raffle prizes included a biography of Vladimir Putin, already known to have ordered the 2008 London murder of Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium. (Litvinenko, a former FSB officer, had been working on a book exposing the facts behind the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings, which were used as a pretext for Putin’s invasion of Chechnya and are now widely believed to have been a ‘false flag’ operation by Putin’s FSB.)

Conservative Friends of Russia was set up by Matthew Elliott, later the CEO of Vote Leave, with the help of Sergey Nalobin, a Russian diplomat now thought to have been working as an intelligence agent. Its founder members included John Whittingdale MP, later appointed as Culture Secretary. Whittingdale also happens to have an interesting connection with the pro-Kremlin Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash (now wanted by the FBI on charges of bribery).

Whittingdale attended the party with a young assistant, Carrie Symonds (now Johnson) and I think it is her you can see by Whittingdale’s side chatting with a beaming Yakovenko in the photo from the event below. [She was not always as blonde-haired as she is now. Ed]. Whittingdale later went on to become a leading figure in Vote Leave’s Brexit campaign.

John Whittingdale and (I think) Carrie Symonds with Ambassador Yakovenko at launch of Conservative Friends of Russia from press pictures put out by the Russian Embassy –
Farage with Yakovenko from press pictures put out by the Russian Embassy –

Conservative Friends of Russia has now morphed into a group calling itself the Westminster Russia Forum, which organises events such as the one shown below, at which keen Brexiter Daniel Kawczynski MP enthused about Putin propaganda organ RT (“one of my pet favourite channels”)  and compared it favourably with the BBC, complained about the lack of scrutiny of “deficiencies in the Ukrainian government and what the Russians tell us about what Ukraine are doing ”, and eagerly anticipated post-Brexit business opportunities in Putin’s ‘Eurasian Economic Union’.

Daniel Kawczynski at Westminster Russia Forum – screen grab from video on Westminster Russian Forum site at Westminster Russia Forum site

Within the UK, the ultimate political beneficiary of Brexit was Boris Johnson, a man who has himself received generous support from Russian oligarchs with connections to Putin, and has returned such favours by making determined efforts to suppress the Russia Report into the corruption of the British establishment by dirty Russian money. In 2020, the Russian-British media tycoon and Johnson’s close friend Yevgeny Lebedev – the son of a senior KGB officer – was appointed to the House of Lords, where he has taken the title ‘Baron of Hampton and Siberia’.

When he returned to Russia after his long London posting, Ambassador Yakovenko was given a medal by Putin’s regime. Accepting it, he is reported to have remarked:

“We have crushed the British to the ground. They are on their knees, and they will not rise for a very long time.”

He was not exaggerating. The Brexit that Putin had helped to promote was the single most destructive development to have overtaken the UK since the Second World War, severing Britain from its close political and trading partners in Europe and opening up political and social divisions that may take generations to heal.

The KGB had a term to describe people who were used to further the aims of the Soviet Union without necessarily realising what they were doing: ‘useful idiots’. I’m not sure that this is quite adequate for all of those described above.

Some of them certainly knew exactly what they were doing. For some, personal greed played a large part. Others were more than happy to align themselves with a fascistic, ethno-nationalist kleptocrat – because that is essentially what they are themselves.

Whatever the motives of leading Brexiters such as Banks, Farage, Elliott, Whittingdale, Kawczynski, and indeed Boris Johnson, there is no doubt that they have done Putin a great service.

They may not be genuine “friends of Russia” – no-one who attempts to justify the criminal behaviour of the warmongering mafia boss who now rules from the Kremlin is any real friend of that great country.

But they have certainly proved to be valuable “friends of Putin”.