It should be a national scandal, but it isn’t. Downing Street’s decision not to release the intelligence and security committee’s report on Russia ahead of the election has generated predictable and understandable anger and confusion. Speaking in the Commons on Tuesday, Emily Thornberry asked the government what it had “to hide” by not releasing the report. That is a fair question, for much is already known about Russia’s involvement in – if not, influence on – the UK’s democratic processes.
Most obviously, in 2012 Russia’s embassy hosted the launch party of a group called ‘Conservative Friends of Russia'. The group initially secured high-level support within the party, including from Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former defence secretary and foreign secretary. However, following a scandal – which involved publishing kompromat on Labour MP Chris Bryant – the organisation was dissolved. The group’s point of contact at the embassy was Sergey Nalobin, a first secretary in the political section, who spent five years cultivating leading Tories between 2010 and 2015.
Russia’s embassy might insist that Nalobin – who once described Boris Johnson as “our good friend” – was in London for purely diplomatic reasons, but it is revealing that he lives in a Moscow apartment block known as the “FSB house” because it houses so many employees from the Kremlin’s main spy agency. Nalobin’s father, Nikolai, was a colonel in the Soviet-era KGB and was later deputy head of the FSB department responsible for investigating economic crime. (In this later position, he was – briefly – the boss of Alexander Litvinenko, according to Litvinenko’s widow Marina.) Nalobin’s brother also worked for the FSB.
Beyond this, stories about prominent Russians with alleged connections to the Kremlin (however tenuous) who have given money to the Conservative party are ten-a-penny. In 2014, Lubov Chernukhin – the wife of the former Russian deputy finance minister – paid £160,000 to play tennis with Johnson and David Cameron. Earlier this year, she paid £135,000 at the Conservative’s summer party for a dinner with Theresa May. (A guest at the 2013 fundraiser was Vasily Shestakov, Vladimir Putin’s judo partner.) This summer, Westminster was temporarily fixated with the relationship between Alexander Temerko, a Russian industrialist who has gifted more than £1 million since 2011, and Johnson.
But this isn’t an issue solely for the Conservative party. In 2016, the Labour party-controlled Greater London Authority – led by Sadiq Khan – accepted £138,000 from the Mayor's Fund for London which came from a Swiss-registered foundation controlled by Elena Baturina, Russia’s richest woman and wife of Yuri Luzhkov the former mayor of Moscow. In 2014, Seumas Milne, while still employed by the Guardian, had his expenses paid when attending the Kremlin’s annual Valdai Club meeting. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s former First Minister and leader of the SNP for 20 years, presents a show on RT (formerly Russia Today).
None of this is new, however. Thus it is unclear whether the ISC report itself actually contains anything that isn’t already known. But in the absence of the report, speculation inevitably circulates.
Perhaps the report offers fresh detail about Johnson’s trip to the Italian home of Evgeny Lebedev, the son of former KGB spy Alexander Lebedev, in April 2018, during which the then-foreign secretary is rumoured to have travelled without a 24/7 security detail. Perhaps it contains revelations about the three years Dominic Cummings spent in Russia in the 1990s. Perhaps it documents financial connections between the Kremlin and the Vote Leave campaign, or individuals closely connected to them. Or perhaps it doesn’t.
It is hard to imagine No.10 would have not released the report if it had offered a clean bill of health. It is hard to imagine No.10 would have not released the report if it contained material that was likely to be more damaging to Labour, the Lib Dems, SNP or another political party. It is hard to imagine No.10 would have not released the report if – without wishing to labour the point – it had contained greater kompromat on Corbyn, Jo Swinson or Milne, or another individual connected to another political party.
The point, of course, is that until the report is published we simply don’t know. But we ought to. Because the issues the report addresses are about the UK’s democratic processes and the extent to which they are vulnerable to interference by a country that last year carried out a military operation on UK soil which led to the death of a British citizen.
In the end, No.10’s refusal to publish the report sows confusion and division in the run-up to the election – something you could be forgiven for thinking the Government would want to avoid. One person who benefits from this, ironically, is Putin.
Dr Andrew Foxall is a commentator and writer on Russia