There is a Russian proverb, Говоришь по секрету, пойдет по всему свету that translates as ‘nothing is as burdensome as a secret’. To that end Russia is gathering as many secrets from the west as it can then relieving us of the burden by telling all. At least, whilst that may not have been their intent, what Russia is doing has ruffled feathers.
So let us take a look at how this game is played out and where it stands at present, although it appears to be changing by the day and by the time somebody reads this it may have developed even further.
On 2 November in a Russian government owned building in London, Kensington to be precise, a group of Russia’s closest British friends gathered for a seminar. The speaker was Professor Neil Kent, a Cambridge academic who co-convened an influential intelligence seminar at the university that was normally attended by some of the biggest figures in the international intelligence community. One might say spies, spymasters and other ‘experts’, but that would always be difficult or too diplomatically sensitive to prove. Anyway, Neil Kent resigned last year over accusations that the seminar was linked to the Kremlin.
The Cambridge connection and shadows of the Cambridge Five
Professor Kent of the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge, also has a position at the St. Petersburg State Academy of Art, Architecture and Culture and Editor in Chief of the Journal of Intelligence and Terrorism Studies that closed down after two editions and had been published by a digital publishing house called Veruscript, which has been suspected of acting as a front for the Russian intelligence services. Veruscript is a London based publisher of open access journals across the sciences, humanities and social sciences co-founded by two Russians, Gleb Cheglakov and Nazik Ibraimova. At the end of 2016, Veruscript was alleged to have been involved in Russian attempts to influence the UK intelligence community via the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar that the published had financially sponsored. They, of course, denied it but the journal closed down anyway. There is no evidence, but too many resignations as conveners of the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar make denials somewhat shaky.
Among those resignations we find Sir Richard Dearlove, the ex-chief of the Secret Intelligence Service and former master of Pembroke college; Stefan Halper, who was a senior foreign policy adviser at the White House to presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan; and Peter Martland, a prominent espionage historian, have resigned. The seminar had been established by Christopher Andrew, well known and respected as the official historian of MI5 and former chair of the History Faculty at the university. People attending the seminar included Mike Flynn, president-elect Donald Trump’s choice as US national security adviser, who was forced to resign as National Security Advisor after information surfaced that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the nature and content of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, after just 24 days in office, and Sir Simon Fraser, the recently retired permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office.
From Russia with love, I fly to you
Much wiser since my goodbye to you
…as the words of the song go. Just like Ian Fleming’s books, there is a beautiful, mysterious Russian woman. In this case there are links between the seminars and some of the main actors in this intriguing story through a mysterious but lovely Russian woman, Svetlana Lokhova . In February 2014, whilst in Cambridge, Flynn and Lokhova were introduced to each other during a dinner attended by 20 guests including Sir Richard Dearlove and Professor Christopher Andrew whilst Flynn was still the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). In the wake of all of this, a Whitehall security official stated that although authorities could not comment on specific investigations into covert Russian meddling, they were on the other hand alert to the fact that suspicions such as those brought about by the Cambridge seminars, resignations and closing down the journal were “the kind of thing that we are aware of being of concern”.
Bear in mind that Neil Kent is not actually implicated but it is interesting that he was the speaker on 2 November as a guest of a Russian hosted seminar. The whole story is now being haunted by the spectre of the Cambridge five during the 1950s and yet again Cantabrigensians shouldering the blame for it all. Kent was, however, the editor of the journal published by the Russian digital publisher that is at the centre of the whole story.
Нет ды́ма без огня́ or, there is no smoke without fire.
Back to Flynn and Lokhova, who remained in contact to the point that he invited her to accompany him on an official visit to Moscow to assist with simultaneous translation. He did not report that to US officials, which would have been expected of him, thus just a few weeks later he ‘resigned’ as director of the DIA, ostensibly because of phone calls with the Russian ambassador. Svetlana Lokhova had originally worked for the London branch of Russia’s state-controlled Sberbank as an equity saleswoman. In 2015, she was awarded £3.2million by an employment tribunal in London against Sberbank for sexual discrimination and harassment for being unjustly referred to as ‘crazy Miss Cokehead’. She then seems to have transmuted from that Russian banker into a UK historian with an extensive expertise in GRU espionage and, somehow or other, atomic weapons in the USA. Exactly how this metamorphosis happen, especially so quickly, remains a mystery. Ms Lokhova, who now has both Russian and British citizenship, is a postgraduate student of Professor Andrew. Her expertise was focussed on British film critic Cedric Belfrage who had passed secrets of to Russia during WW2. He had worked for a branch of MI6 in New York after a career in Hollywood but went undetected by MI5 after his conversion to left wing politics which is said to have begun during a trip to the Soviet Union. Belfrage was an important Soviet spy in the view of Christopher Andrew, a view supported by his student at Cambridge who had also claimed the same of the WW2 spy, Svetlana Lokhova, who claims to have unique access to previously classified Soviet era GRU material that according to intelligence experts is normally not possible. Flynn has also been listed as a referee to endorse a book in which she planned to detail how Russian spies penetrated the USA’s atomic weapons programme, highly secret information that is normally not available. Flynn and Lokhova are now out of the picture but Professors Andrew and Kent are not.
The seminar on 2nd of November at which Kent presented was part of the Westminster Russia Forum, which calls itself “the United Kingdom’s premier exponent of neutral and positive relations between the UK and Russia”. In fact it appears to be a forum which one call the UKIP-Kremlin sessions. It was formerly the Conservative Friends of Russia, which disbanded in 2012 after a number of MPs resigned from its board because of claims that it was effectively a ‘Tories for Putin’ group. Nigel Sussman, Westminster Russia Forum’s commercial director, is a member of ukip’s national executive along with several senior figures from the campaign for the UK to leave the EU, although no MPs. Its membership director and chairman of the campaign committee is Andrew Barrand, theformer deputy campaign director of Vote Leave, who was once election agent for Philip Hammond, now chancellor, and at present is a staff member for a Tory MP. The political director, Morgan Brobyn, was deputy director of Vote Leave in Wales. Sussman is not only a member of ukip’s national executive abut also a former parliamentary candidate for the party. This spring Sussman took an official trip to Russian annexed Crimea. He returned to make a positive report of how the occupation by Russia was justified and that Crimeans had “always considered Russia as their motherland”, adding that Russia is a “democratic country” that is being “demonised”.
Dirty dancing for Trump in the web of deceit
All of that so far has been the easy bit. Now for the complicated web of deceit that the indictment that Trump’s former aide George Papadopoulos admitted regarding his contacts with Russia during the Trump presidential election campaign has brought to light. Follow the strands of this web and we arrive back at the UK and Brexit.
At the plea bargaining meeting, Papadopoulos said he was offered thousands of emails of ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton by somebody with high level Russian government contacts during April 2016 at a London hotel. That offer is said to have been made by Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese academic at the University of Stirling in Scotland who denies the claims. The other source of dirt is Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, also based in London. During final campaigning for the US presidential election, WikiLeaks published thousands of damaging emails hacked from Clinton staffers’ accounts. US intelligence claims that was part of a Russian plot to ensure Trump’s victory. The CIA director, Pompeo, said WikiLeaks is a “hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia”. Trump’s campaign contacted Assange through third parties. In now appears that Cambridge Analytica, the data-mining firm that worked for Trump, approached Assange to release of further Clinton emails, which he says he turned down, toward the end of campaigning. About the time they claim that the approach was being made, Nigel Farage, former ukip leader, visited Assange’s at the Ecuadorian Embassy in March with a producer for LBC and claims it was a journalistic mission, despite no journalism ever having resulted from that visit. That may be coincidental of course, but the strands are there.
Cambridge Analytica says it can construct exact ‘psychographic profiles’ of individuals through their social media posts and internet use thus claiming they were influential in Trump’s victory by identifying supporters, persuading undecided voters and motivating people to turn out to vote. They are based in London with a chief executive, Alexander Nix, who is an Old Etonian and former vice-president Steve Bannon, who has been called the godfather of the alt right, was also Trump’s campaign director and is the former White House chief strategist. It is largely owned and funded by Robert Mercer, the wealthy hedge-fund executive and key Trump donor who introduced Bannon to Trump. In February 2016 Nix says that Cambridge Analytica “teamed up with” Leave.EU, the ukip linked Brexit campaign, and had “already helped supercharge Leave.EU’s social media campaign”. Furthermore, a Cambridge Analytica executive, Brittany Kaiser, was on the panel at Leave.EU’s press launch in October 2015. Leave.EU’s communications director, Andy Wigmore, said that Cambridge Analytica had been happy to help them. It would seem that the Brexit referendum was used as a test of the approach for the Trump campaign. As Wigmore said: “We shared a lot of information because what they were trying to do and what we were trying to do had massive parallels.” Both Cambridge Analytica and Leave.EU have denied their connection, with the former now insisting it has “never been retained by Leave.EU or provided any services, paid or unpaid, to Leave.EU or any other of the [Brexit] campaigns”. Nonetheless, the Electoral Commission is investigating whether Leave.EU accepted donations, including services that are not permitted, adding that there are “reasonable grounds to suspect that potential offences under the law have occurred”.
Welcome to Paradise
The Paradise Papers have raised the names Mercer and Bannon again. An offshore vehicle was part of a network of companies in Bermuda led by Mercer, patron of Bannon, whose contributions helped Trump to become president and supported the revival of the Republican right. He was also a major investor in Breitbart News, the influential rightwing website that Bannon led before joining Trump’s campaign and that he returned to after he was fired from the White House staff. In an extraordinary recent email, Mercer distanced himself from Bannon and announced he was selling his stake in Breitbart to his daughters.
Bannon delivered the opening salvo in the remorseless Republican campaign to portray their Democratic opponent as corrupt about 18 months before Trump won the election when in 2015 he produced a book in accusing Hillary Clinton of trading favours for donations to her charitable foundation. The central and clearly dubious charge regarded the sale of a uranium company to Russia that has recently become the subject of a House of Representatives enquiry and heated discussion on conservative media. Now the truth about the roles Cambridge Analytica and Breitbart as vehicle for ‘fake news’ are emerging, implicating people who through the chain of contacts at one end or the other link with Russia.
Introducing Arron and the mysterious millions
The head of and chief funder of Leave.EU, Arron Banks, claims to have given or loaned more than £8m to the Brexit cause, however there are nagging questions about where his money comes from. An investigation by Open Democracy has established that Banks was in financial trouble in 2013 but during 2014 his financial problems appear to have been completely resolved without it being exactly transparent how. Farage met with the Russian Ambassador in London in 2013, just about the time that Banks’ fortunes apparently turned around. Labour MP Ben Bradshaw has raised Banks’s wealth in parliament as a question about widespread concern over foreign, particularly Russian, interference in western democracies. Attention has been drawn to the fact that Banks’s wife, Katya, is Russian and her father is a Russian government official. Her former husband, also a UK citizen, was at one stage questioned by Special Branch. Banks retorted by dismissing any notion of links between Russia and Brexit as “complete bollocks from beginning to end”. However, the Electoral Commission has now announced a second investigation into Banks and to establish whether or not he was the ‘true source’ of donations and loans to Leave.EU.
So-called ‘dark money’ was one of the key funding sources for the leave campaign. A Glasgow based organisation, the Constitutional Research Council (CRC), donated £425,000 to the Democratic Unionist Party, of which a large part was used to purchase leave advertisements outside Northern Ireland. At that time political funding in Northern Ireland was not subject to the same disclosure requirements as the rest of the UK. The CRC refuse to say where the money came from, however Scotland, because of the independence movement, is always of interest for Russia to the point that the Kremlin’s news agency, Sputnik, set up its UK headquarters in Edinburgh rather than London.
Social media messing things up
There was also a suspicious level of social media activity during the Brexit referendum, although social networking companies are less forthcoming about the UK than they are being forced to be about the US. City University in London researchers found 13,500 fake Twitter accounts that tweeted constantly and explicitly about the referendum, mainly in favour of leave but then disappeared almost immediately after the vote. It has been established that a Russian ‘troll farm’ that set out to undermine the US election also tweeted referendum related content as well. Meanwhile, back in the intricate web we find Westminster Russia Forum’s deputy chairman and technical director, Slava Jefremov, works for Google, also owns a data-mining consultancy which might be simply be a coincidence. Recently the Electoral Commission have officially asked Facebook, Twitter and Google whether they know of or have evidence of Russian attempts to influence UK politics through their platforms. Banks’s claim that “artificial intelligence won it for ‘leave’” with some quite clear evidence of the impact on Brexit and the US election results came about when people who do not normally turn out to vote were disproportionately influenced by the internet and social media in election studies both sides of the Atlantic.
Now George Papadopoulos has admitted contact with Russia during the US election campaign which brings the question back to asking who is paying for the large amount of political campaigning on Facebook that has undermined rules on constituency spending limits, donor declarations and the television advertising ban that were put in place to limit the influence of money in elections. In support of the idea that it is Russian influence, Bill.
Meanwhile, down at the laundry
Browder, the British American financier and anticorruption campaigner, used leaked documents to show how stolen Russian money has been laundered through a network of banks, companies and purchases in a dozen countries that include the UK. Eleven countries have begun criminal investigations and have already frozen assets that are under suspicion, but according to Browder, the UK has refused to act. He said: “Every single time we have filed a complaint, nobody has responded,” furthermore that “They have always found excuses not to investigate. This country is levitating off the flow of dirty money. If that money was stopped, certain people would find themselves without businesses and I think those people have some political weight in this country.” So far only the City of London police have opened an investigation into stolen money discovered by Browder. One of his sources, Alexander Perepilichny, was found dead in 2012. Police have said that foul play was not involved although an expert found signs of poison in his stomach and intelligence agencies across the West are fairly certain it was an assassination. He was one of 14 people opposed to Putin to have died mysteriously in the UK over recent years. US intelligence sources have claimed that there is evidence that all were assassinations by Russian state security or mafia groups yet none has been treated as murder by UK police which has made some of the UK’s closest allies very angry. It is possible that the USA have a UK version of Papadopoulos on offer. Early this year George Cottrell, one of Farage’s closest aides during the referendum campaign, received only an extraordinarily light sentence when caught offering to launder drug money in the USA. He went to the Republican National Convention in Ohio with and was arrested in the company of Farage at Chicago Airport as they were about to leave the country. The charge was money laundering but he pleaded guilty turning ‘state’s evidence’ in order to get a shorter sentence then was deported on release. We know from his plea bargain that he provided unspecified information to the US authorities, which suggests the possibility that some kind of deal may have been made secretly.
Some of the strands in the vast web of influence between Russia, the USA and UK seem tenuous but whilst one may occasional stumble on the slow trek through it, there are so many links that fall into place that are less obvious than Farage and Trump, so take Flynn and his links to the White House via Bannon but also the Russian links that are very clear. It has been very well known for several years that Russia has sought to bring about the breakup of the EU which is a serious economic and political revival. Trump was clear that he saw the EU as a threat from the outset of his campaigning, something that justified his friendship and overt support of Farage and ukip. The Brexit referendum was used as a pilot for his campaign methods, thus placing Trump alongside the Kremlin wishing to see the UK prompt the demise of the EU by leaving it. Since then Trump has been less anti-EU but rhetorically supportive of Brexit whereas Putin has been relatively quiet as the EU continues to thrive and grow whilst the UK’s negotiations to leave the EU become more and more embarrassing and no doubt warrant any support or funding. Meetings such as the 2 November seminar continue, people who are often identifiable as either pro-Brexit and friends of Russia or right wing, including to the extremes of the alt right and aggressive nationalism are often involved. It was public knowledge in France that the Front National was funded by a Russian bank loan and similar strands lead down the same kind of strands in other countries. The UK has been both the meeting place for Russians and whoever happened to be part of particular networks that brought them together with Russians whose interests are still the domination of the west including bringing down the EU. Now some of that is out in the open, much more is to come. The EU, for all of that, shows neither any sign of crumbling before Trump nor being pulled down by Brexit. This time Russia is not on the winning side, but the game still has long to run.
Just my luck, along came another spider. Boris Johnson, who just last month was photographed with Joseph Mifsud, the Maltese professor who appears to be the man who tipped off former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopolous that the Russian government had ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton, in the form of ‘thousands of emails.’ early last year. The shot appears to to have been taken on 19 October at a Conservative Party fundraiser in Reading, just eleven days before court documents revealing Papadopolous’s guilty plea were unsealed. Mifsud suddenly became the focus of international attention. Johnson claims he never “knowingly met this person, planned to meet this person, or indeed ever heard of this person.” Alok Sharma, a Conservative MP who worked with Johnson at the Foreign Office until June, confirmed that he had spoken to Mifsud at the event where Johnson was a featured speaker in The Observer.
The web gets bigger and stickier by the day. Meanwhile, Trump met Putin, said that he does not believe in the Russian electoral influence just when confessions and other evidence are saying otherwise, so it seems that a few more flies will soon be stuck in it.