Sunday Times
World News /06 Jul 2019
07.06.19

Are Russian Diplomats on Loan to Private Interests?

Last weekend the UK’s Sunday Times reported that MI5 had launched an investigation into a Russian lobbying campaign that purported to use Russian and British officialdom in tandem to put pressure on a British businessman with assets in Russia and further the interests of two private-sector businessmen.

The campaign was led by Andrei Lyakov, a Russian lawyer struck off in the UK due to fraud, and Patrick Newman, a Russophile with mining interests who was a director alongside Razzall in several companies. The campaign was aided by PR firm Sans Frontières Associates, owned by Lord Bell, and received advice and support from Tory MP Sir Henry Bellingham, the prime minister’s trade envoy to Libya, and Lord Razzall, the former LibDem treasurer and chair of their campaign committee.

Together, these Russian and British men had attempted to coerce and manipulate Russian state assets – including the Russian ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, and a delegation from the Investigative Committee of Russia (equivalent to the UK’s National Crime Agency) – to work on behalf of their clients.

The fact that this was considered possible is a damning indictment of the extreme overlap of Russia’s private and public sectors. Corruption and bribery have long been an issue in the country – from the most basic level with bribes to traffic police to the intertwined political links of Kremlin-linked oligarchs who control most of Russia’s economy – but now, with Russia’s diplomatic network on offer, it is unclear what is official government policy and what is ‘hijacked diplomacy’ being used for private goals.

Since the Sunday Times report, the target of the campaign, London-based businessman, Ildar Uzbekov, has explained his view: that the whole operation had been coordinated by the businessman trying to illegally seize his Russian assets, Ruslan Rostovtsev, and his patron, Rustem Magdeev.

In their view, discrediting and putting pressure on Uzbekov in London would force him to cave into their legal demands and hand over control of the Siberian coal mine at the centre of their dispute.

The concern for the UK and for MI5 is the apparent lack of due diligence conducted by Parliamentarians before they acted. Bellingham’s role as a ‘useful idiot’ for Russian interests included writing to the Home Office, bragging about his relationship with the Russian ambassador (the same who denied Russian involvement in the Skripal poisoning) and advising on how to “paint” the campaign “in a positive light.” He even approached Security Minister Ben Wallace in a voting lobby and asking him to raise the campaign with the (politically-independent) National Crime Agency, triggering Wallace’s call for an investigation. Bellingham, who was visibly labeled “The Boss,” eventually said he could not be publicly involved because the operation could “end up as a full-blown press story.”

Meanwhile, Lord Razzall admitted to writing to the most senior figure in the Investigative Committee – a man hand-picked by Putin – to invite his delegation to the UK. He also hosted the delegation in Parliament and for dinner, perhaps going further than would strictly be required for someone in his position. This can perhaps be attributed to his long-standing links to Patrick Newman, but it is a damning indictment of his values if he allows such a friendship to compromise both them and British interests.

MI5 will no doubt be investigating which other MPs or peers lent their support to the campaign and allowed it to secure a candlelit dinner in the Houses of Parliament, despite warnings from the Foreign Office that it was a dud. Bellingham reportedly left some of the heavy lifting for the event to the APPG on Russia, which is led by Labour MP Chris Bryant. Bryant, who has ambitions to take over from Speaker John Bercow, is normally a reasoned critic of the Kremlin’s operations, so it would be a surprise, to say the least, if either he or his office had helped coordinate any aspect of this campaign.

It is not clear whether MI5’s investigation will examine the role of Lord Bell’s Sans Frontières Associates, which was supporting the campaign with media outreach and some parliamentary engagement. There is a long-standing and widening concern within Parliament and throughout the business community about the engagement by such service firms with unsavory Russian individuals and the lack of due diligence conducted before committing to influencing political and media figures in London.

What is clear, however, is that this kind of disruption campaign undermines the fabric of British democracy. Russia’s official channels are complicit because aiding this type of campaign is in the Kremlin’s interests – and there will be others like it where apparently private sector issues are used to divide and disrupt British institutions.

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