Let me tell you a story. It may even be true.
A man I once interviewed had business interests in Russia, though he was not actually Russian. He lived in a heavily guarded compound in a smart bit of London. I never liked to ask if his need for security had anything to do with those Russian interests.
Among them was a car dealership. He told me this story. It may have happened to him, or to someone he knew. He was not above a bit of creative embellishment about his admittedly interesting life story.
One day a “businessman” pulled up at the car lot, along with two men who were clearly his security entourage. He pointed to a limousine. Is it bullet-proof, he asked? Oh, yes, said the salesman. He nodded to his entourage. They pulled out submachine guns and started shooting at the car.
The bullets bounced off. Da, said the “businessman”. I’ll take it.
There is indeed a Russian firm that makes bullet proof cars. Putin has one. Some Western firms also make them.
You have to wonder just what business the buyer was involved with, where an armoured car was as much an item of corporate paraphernalia as the latest Microsoft software, a business jet or an expensive work of art for the boardroom. Until you read about the Russian aluminium wars, for example, in the 1990s.
As many as a hundred people were killed, it is believed, several of them aspiring oligarchs, as various factions vied for control of this important commodity. Roman Abramovich, the now sanctioned owner of Chelsea FC, told a UK court a decade ago of his “reluctant” role in this. “Every three days, someone was being murdered,” he said.
One of the main winners was Oleg Deripaska, whose London mansion was taken over by protesters yesterday. He’s another man familiar with the insides of Western courtrooms.
He too has just been sanctioned.
In 2008 George Osborne, then Shadow Chancellor, had to deny an allegation that he had approached Deripaska to request a donation to Tory Party funds but admitted he had met the oligarch four times when on holiday in Corfu.
Russian donations to the Tory Party
Labour has claimed the Tories have taken £1.9 million from Russian donors since Johnson came to power. The donations have in many cases been made in plain sight – for example, the ex-wife of the former Russian finance minister, Vladimir Chernukhin, paid £90,000 for a game of tennis with Johnson.
Ms Chernukhin has always insisted her donations had not been funded by improper means, and we have to believe her. Her ex-husband had already fallen out with Putin.
UK slow to impose sanctions
Let’s pull a few threads together. The sanctions were imposed last week, several weeks after the Russians invaded Ukraine. This, clearly, allowed any amount of oligarch money to be siphoned out of the UK. We will never know how much. But look at this story, from the financial pages.
I highlight this paragraph:
“But Evraz and Polymetal – the two biggest Russian stocks listed on the London market – were allowed to continue trading and just four days ago $423million in dividends was handed to Abramovich, Abramov and Frolov.”
“Four days ago” would have been March 1, a week after the invasion of Ukraine.
So even after the invasion of Ukraine, Russian or Russian-linked companies were trying to make payments to Russian oligarchs. With the connivance of City firms who have always been happy enough to earn huge fees from such companies.
The Government’s explanation for why the UK imposed sanctions later than other countries is that it feared challenges in the courts.
This makes no legal sense whatsoever, does it? Any legislation could theoretically be challenged in the courts afterwards. Therefore, by the Government’s logic, no legislation should ever be attempted.
Let’s go back to Evraz. Note one of those British names who quit the Evraz board, and who must have approved that dividend. Sir Michael Peat is a former courtier and close aide to Prince Charles who quit to make “big money” in the City. His links to Abramovich and Evraz go back a decade.
Here is another Royal connection. There was, I suppose, at the time no reason why Prince Michael of Kent, the Queen’s cousin, should not have been “patron of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce. His links with Russia also go back a long way.
The Telegraph and Russia
So that’s one important member of the Royal Family and a former senior aide. How about the free press? And The Daily Telegraph, the house paper for the Conservative Party? For years it made a profit publishing Kremlin propaganda. As you see, the paper is not saying how much it was paid to take content. It was estimated at £40,000 a month in 2008, and the deal appears to have run until 2017. The content was produced by a Russian state-owned newspaper and the British paper had no say in what was published.
Such “special supplements” or “sponsored material” are common in newspapers and are highly lucrative. They do not normally include propaganda on behalf of a hostile state. I am told these Telegraph supplements are now hard to track down online, but here is an archived one from 2013.
Putin to play a key role in arranging a ceasefire in the Syrian civil war? That has aged well, hasn’t it?
The Telegraph titles were then owned by the Barclay brothers, two secretive tax exiles. One of them, David Barclay, died last year. He had some very odd views, including believing that the disintegration of the EU was foretold in the Old Testament. Both brothers were ferociously opposed to the EU and their papers campaigned strongly for Brexit. The daily title also employed one Boris Johnson, who was at one time probably the highest paid columnist on any national newspaper. His views on the EU, as expressed there, are well known.
According to one estimate, the Telegraph may have made more money out of that Russian propaganda deal than Johnson subsequently accepted from Russian donors. Which is saying something, isn’t it?
So that’s the Tory house paper taking Russian money and campaigning hard to get the UK out of the EU, a development that will have greatly pleased Putin. The full story of Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum has yet to emerge and is now the subject of a court action brought by one of the funders of Leave.EU. There is no reason to suppose the Barclays were anything other than genuine in their dislike of the EU, but sometimes different interests converge, don’t they?
Tory Party co-chair Ben Elliot’s Russia connections
Let’s move on to Ben Elliot, the co-chairman of the Conservative Party. Elliot is co-founder of Quintessentially, a business that services the needs of very rich individuals.
He has boasted of the amount of work he has got by providing what Quintessentially describes as a “bespoke luxury lifestyle” to Russian oligarchs. The company recently closed its Moscow office, which employed 60 people.
Elliot’s job at the Tory Party is to raise money for the party. He has plainly been very good at it. Those Russian connections will have helped. He is also impeccably well connected. Old Etonian, nephew of Camilla, business associate of another Tory Party fixer, Ben Goldsmith, himself brother of Tory peer Zac. And where have we come across him before? He was, of course, another of the players at that auctioned tennis match with the ex-wife of the Russian oligarch.
Then there is Evgeny Lebedev. We learnt at the weekend the intelligence services had their doubts over this man almost a decade ago, and Johnson, we had already been told, overruled their misgivings about awarding his close friend a peerage two years ago.
So that’s two warnings ignored. Johnson’s friendship with Lebedev clearly runs deep. And Lebedev is well entrenched within the Tory Party. Here’s him and a link to Ben Elliott.
Lebedev appears to derive his fortune, which has allowed him to buy two British newspapers – the Independent and the London Evening Standard – and a degree of influence in the UK, from his father Alexander, a former KGB agent. In 2018 Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, paid one of several visits to Lebedev’s castle in Perugia, Italy. He was seen at the airport afterwards in a dishevelled state, even by his standards. He had apparently given his security guards the slip.
Why do that? What happened at that party? Johnson has refused to comment on his dealings with Lebedev, and official minutes have, unusually, not always been taken.
More from East Anglia Bylines
The Russians have a word. Kompromat. Does Lebedev have something on Johnson after that Perugia hillside party? Or are they just such good friends that the PM is prepared to disregard a threat to national security to ennoble him?
Some have pointed out that for a minister to leave behind his or her security detail to hobnob with a representative of a foreign power would normally see them sacked by the Prime Minister. Just this happened to Priti Patel under Theresa May.
Except, of course, by the time news of the Perugia meeting broke, Johnson was Prime Minister.
Tip of the iceberg
This article could have been two or three times longer. Wherever you look you see these connections between the Tory Party, its facilitators within or outside the media and Russian money. As the oligarchs use the City to launder their stolen cash and British lawyers and British courts to intimidate their critics. It is all there in plain sight.
All this is known. None of this is rumour, or supposition, or a wild conspiracy theory. All this is supported by links to reputable published sources.
There is a very strong chance that anyone who made large amounts of money in Russia in the 1990s did so in ways that would not be legal in the UK. Fraud, embezzlement, outright theft of state assets or their purchase at well below their true value, with the connivance of the state. Or, coming back to that bullet proof limousine, something much darker.
That oligarch you see peering out at the camera at a black-tie event, his arm around a senior Conservative politician, may have blood on their hands.
And I leave you with one grim thought. The purchase of a large chunk of the establishment in the UK, a key NATO member, by Russia, along with a Brexit that made the EU weaker, which the Russians probably influenced, may both have emboldened Putin, to a degree, to invade Ukraine. It is hard to argue otherwise.
If the war there ends as badly as it might, and you will all know what I am suggesting, then some of the above may, in their own small ways, have done their bit to bring about World War Three.
All for a few grubby roubles.