For all the fulminating about the Navalny poisoning, Britain is not doing enough to root out Russian influence
Britain has done nothing to confront Putin’s oligarchs since the Salisbury poisoning
CON COUGHLIN. 9 September 2020 • 7:00am
The German government’s revelation that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok has inevitably resulted in comparisons with our own Salisbury poisoning more than two years ago. Immediately after the German authorities announced that they believed Mr Navalny, who was flown to Germany for emergency treatment after collapsing while campaigning in Siberia, had been poisoned with the deadly agent, Boris Johnson tweeted: “We have seen first hand the deadly consequences of Novichok in the UK. The Russian government must now explain what happened to Mr Navalny – we will work with international partners to ensure justice is done.”
Back in the spring of 2018, Novichok, a Russian-made nerve agent designed to cause mass casualties on the battlefield, was used by a Russian GRU intelligence unit in a botched assassination attempt against Russian defector Sergei Skripal. In the aftermath of the attack, the Government made similar promises to take robust measures against Russia. Countries throughout the world showed their solidarity with Britain by expelling scores of Russian spies.
And yet, two years later, the Government’s pledge to take robust measures against Moscow by way of retaliation appear to have achieved little. While the three GRU officers responsible for the attack have been identified, there is little prospect of them standing trial so long as Vladimir Putin continues to deny Russian involvement in the act. Meanwhile, threats made by former prime minister Theresa May to limit the activities of pro-Putin oligarchs in Britain have amounted to nothing.
As Sarah Bailey, the wife of a British police officer who was also poisoned with Novichok in the Salisbury attack, tweeted sarcastically in response to Mr Johnson, “Justice would be nice. Actions speak louder than words. #nevergoingtohappen.”
Now the Government’s reluctance to tackle the threat posed by Russia has been highlighted with the publication of a 1,000-page report by the US Senate Intelligence Committee last month. While the report’s primary aim was to investigate allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, it also focuses substantially on Russian-related activities in the UK.
In particular the report examines the role of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who first came to prominence in the UK in 2008 when he hosted Lord Mandelson and George Osborne on his private yacht, prompting allegations that the latter was seeking donations for the Tory party from the Russian businessman, which Mr Osborne denied.
Senate investigators now state that Mr Deripaska “has acted as a proxy for the Russian state and Russian intelligence services.” They are equally critical of Mr Deripaska’s business interests, such as the Rusal aluminium conglomerate, whose parent company is chaired by the Tory peer Lord Barker of Battle. The report states that Mr Deripaska’s business concerns “are proxies for the Kremlin, including for Russian government influence efforts.” It names senior former members of Russia’s GRU intelligence service among the firm’s employees. These conclusions should subject the Tory peer’s continued association with the oligarch’s company to close scrutiny.
Mr Deripaska has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, as has Lord Barker, but the Senate report nevertheless raises a number of important issues for the British authorities. If, as American investigators claim, the Russian oligarch has links with Russia’s intelligence services, why is it that he still has a visa that allows him to travel freely to Britain, where he recently appeared in court in a legal action against a former oligarch?
Christopher Steele, the former MI6 officer responsible for producing the infamous Trump dossier, also features in the Senate report. Although it states that Mr Steele declined to answer direct questions about whether he worked for Mr Deripaska, investigators nevertheless uncovered evidence that suggested the former MI6 man had been in contact with the US Justice Department about the oligarch’s request for an American visa in 2016.
Another London-based figure who features in the report is Israeli security consultant Walter Soriano, who has previously claimed he has had no dealings with Mr Deripaska since 2010. However the report states that Mr Soriano, whose London office is, coincidentally, next to Mr Steele’s, was hired by the oligarch “in probably 2015” to work on an intelligence operation codenamed “Project Starbucks”.
At the very least, the fact that an American report into Russian meddling has found it necessary to focus its efforts on Britain raises questions about why the UK Government is not doing more to curb the activities of Kremlin sympathisers in Britain. To date, the only meaningful investigation has been carried out by the Intelligence and Security Committee which concluded that the Government had “taken its eye off the ball” in terms of gauging the level of Russian interference in Britain.
If this is the case, then a more rigorous examination of Russian activity in Britain is long overdue.