Although the US-Russian relationship continues to deteriorate in the face of a vengeful Kremlin ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans, Vladimir Putin is still pursuing a strategy of influencing—and infiltrating—European political establishments. Given the amount of capital that Russia and her billionaire oligarchs have invested in the continent, this policy is as much defensive as it is self-interested. The European Commission’s deadly-serious investigation into Gazprom’s monopolistic practices, the beginning of the end of German Ostpolitik, and the ongoing dispute with Russia over the Syria crisis hint at an imminent confrontation between Moscow and EU countries. And while state-owned media outlets turn out anti-American propaganda to match equivalent policy measures, for the time being, Russia is still very much committed to swaying European opinion by using both transparent economic appeals (especially in the energy sector, the Gazprom case notwithstanding) and also the kind of Le Carré–esque skulduggery that was supposed to have vanished with the Cold War.
One recent episode of Moscow’s see-through machinations involved a London-based lobby group Conservative Friends of Russia (CFoR). Launched in August 2012—in the garden of the Russian ambassador to Britain, no less—and shut down in December, CFoR’s brief existence might have gone unnoticed but for two developments. The first was the number of Tory parliamentarians who joined its governance, including Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Margaret Thatcher’s former foreign minister and the current chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee in the House of Commons. The second was the way CFoR, which presented itself as a “neutral” talk-shop about British-Russian relations, followed slavishly the talking points of the Russian Foreign Ministry. The chairman of CFoR, Richard Royal—a communications specialist at Ladbrokes, the world’s largest retail bookmaker, and a former aide to Tory MPs—even gave an interview to the founder of a notorious neo-Nazi group in Russia in which he spoke about the Caucasus, Russia’s counterterrorism policies, and other matters high on the agenda of any chauvinistic ultranationalist.
Several Tories I spoke to, including one of the MPs formerly attached to the organization, told me they had felt all along that CFoR was little more than a serially embarrassed front for “useful idiots” (his words). Sure enough, the final act of public relations seppuku came on November 23rd when CFoR sent out a press release clumsily attacking Labor MP Chris Bryant, who heads the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Russia in the House of Commons and who’s known for his tough line against the Kremlin. A photo Bryant posted on an online dating site ten years ago showing him in his underpants was leaked to the tabloid press. Without mentioning his hardheadedness on Russia’s lurch toward totalitarianism, CFoR deployed that image in a press release attacking Bryant’s stewardship of the APPG, which was up for renewal the following week. (He handily won reelection.)
The reaction was swift and devastating. Bryant accused the group of acting at the behest of the Russian Embassy and of conducting a homophobic smear campaign against him. Within hours, Sir Malcolm Rifkind resigned from his position as “honorary president” of CFoR, his spokesman telling the Daily Telegraph that the sophomoric hit on Bryant was the “final straw” in a string of revealing pro-Kremlin activities and ensuing embarrassments that had defined the infant lobby since its formation.
More defections from the CFoR board soon followed, including those of MPs Robert Buckland and Nigel Evans. Then came the hammer-blow: a Guardianexclusive, written by former Moscow correspondent Luke Harding (who was famously expelled from Russia after reporting on WikiLeaks’ disclosures about the Putin regime), confirming Bryant’s suspicion that CFoR was indeed being orchestrated by the Russian Embassy in Kensington Gardens.
Harding cited an e-mail exchange between Sergei Nalobin, a first secretary at the embassy, and Sergei Cristo, a Russian émigré familiar in Tory fundraising circles, which established that Moscow had been looking for ways to strengthen the “cooperation” with British Conservatives at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and to get Britain to lower the volume on its complaints about the erosion of political freedoms and human rights in Russia.
Harding told me that CFoR’s website was taken offline after he charged that it was a Russian front in a conversation with the organization’s chairman, Richard Royal. Sources in the Conservative Party have since confirmed that the organization was shuttered as of November 30th, though the party refused to say so publicly in the hopes that the story would simply disappear from an otherwise sluggish December news cycle.
CFoR relaunched itself recently as the “Westminster Russia Forum,” importing all of its prior members automatically, according to the new group’s press material. However, there is no publicly available information regarding the Forum’s new governance, or whether any parliamentarians are still affiliated.
That Richard Royal and his colleagues at CFoR were, at best, dupes and, at worst, cynical agents of influence for the Kremlin is no longer newsworthy. What is of interest, however, is the role that Russian Embassy First Secretary Sergei Nalobin has played cultivating contacts in the British Conservative Party and raising suspicions that his official diplomatic role might not be his only job in the UK. Sources have confirmed that it was Nalobin who arranged for CFoR to have its barbecue launch party in the garden of Russian Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko’s home in August, where glowing biographies of Vladimir Putin were distributed. Nalobin also invited Royal and two CFoR executives on a ten-day Potemkin tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg, with all expenses paid by the Russian state cultural agency, Rossotrudnichestvo.
In a long phone interview, Russian émigré Sergei Cristo told me that he first became familiar with embassy officials in the mid-2000s as the vice chairman of the Fastrack Donor Club, which was founded to raise money for the Conservative Party. This was before the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB officer who fled to England, became a consult for British intelligence, and was murdered by poisoning from radioactive polonium in 2006. “I organized a Christmas party at the Russian Embassy where [now London mayor] Boris Johnson was a guest speaker. So from then on, there was some correspondence between the embassy and myself around that time, which they seem to have kept. I guess they saw me as useful as a Russian living in the UK involved with the Tory party.”
According to Cristo, shortly after the United States’ June 2010 arrest and expulsion of an eleven-person Russian spy ring that had “gone American” over a ten-year period, Nalobin rang him up. “He said, ‘My predecessor recommended you to me. I’d like to meet up and chat about the Conservative Party and politics.’ I stalled. Since the Alexander Litvinenko murder, I had lots of concerns and took part in various campaigns, one against the BBC Russian Service, which had a few pro-Kremlin journalists on its payroll who were soft-pedaling [the news of] Sasha’s [Litvinenko’s] final hours in hospital.”
Undeterred, a month or so later, Nalobin again phoned Cristo on his cell, requesting a face-to-face meeting that finally took place at the Carlton Club, a recherché salon for Tories since 1832, and was mainly confined to superficial chitchat. The most pressing question Nalobin asked was whether or not there really was a personal rivalry between David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Two more meetings followed. “[Nalobin] was very curious about when I was going back to Russia, which got me slightly worried,” Cristo told me. He also apparently lamented the state of the Russian Embassy’s intelligence-gathering in the wake of so many embarrassing spy scandals. “At one point he told me, ‘No one wants to talk to us anymore: we have to write all our reports from the British newspapers. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, you poor thing!’”
Without going into specifics, Nalobin alluded to ways for Russian companies to make donations to the Conservative Party. But Cristo was spooked because, under British electoral law, this would be illegal. He became more disturbed after talking to his friend Oleg Gordievsky, Britain’s legendary double agent who served as the KGB’s station chief in London before being exfiltrated by MI6 in 1985. Gordievsky didn’t like the looks of Nalobin’s professional résumé, Cristo said. For starters, he had a security pedigree, being the son of Nikolay Nalobin, a former KGB general who was second in charge of the Division of Economic Security in the Federal Security Service, the KGB’s successor organization in which Litvinenko once worked before defecting to England. (“I remembered this name from when Sasha complained about his work,” Litvinenko’s widow Marina told me. “He said it was a not proper job because the economic crimes unit was being paid to protect businesses rather than to investigate them. Sasha said [the elder] Nalobin would allow his men to make extra money as a krysha [“roof,” slang for protection] from these businesses.”) Sergei Nalobin’s brother, as Harding disclosed, also worked for the FSB.
Furthermore, the diplomat held a series of eyebrow-raising positions before alighting in London. From 2001 to 2004, he was stationed in Caracas just as Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez was facing off a sustained challenge to his rule. (In 2011, Venezuela became the largest importer of Russian arms for ground forces.) Nalobin also served for five years as a “special adviser” to Vladimir Titov, Russia’s current deputy foreign minister, who is himself the son of the former head of the KGB’s foreign intelligence service.
In an e-mail sent to Cristo on April 25, 2011, Nalobin wrote, “We’ve received instructions from Moscow to discuss the perspective of co-operation between British Conservatives and United Russia in the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. With whom would it be best to discuss this question?” This was the seed, Cristo said, that led to CFoR’s eventual fruition, and e-mails (in English) he showed me between himself and Royal confirm that Nalobin was the latter’s intermediary at the embassy. The diplomat also sought to have the British Conservative Party officially registered as a “sister” party to United Russia, which would, inter alia, make the latter eligible to send representatives to the annual Conservative Party conference.
I e-mailed Sergei Nalobin asking him if Cristo’s accusations about arranging donations to the Tory party were true and if he had ever served in the FSB, SVR, or GRU (Russia’s military intelligence apparatus). He never replied.
After the gay-baiting attacks on Chris Bryant accelerated the demise of Conservative Friends of Russia, Nalobin’s personal Twitter feed underwent a makeover. Having formerly described himself in what was supposed to be taken as self-parody as a “brutal agent of the Putin dictatorship,” he now chose a more statesmanlike seriousness: “Focus on British politics. Russian embassy, London. All tweets are mine, non-official.” The embassy, meanwhile, has behaved to form in hysterically replying to Luke Harding’s Guardian exposé with an unintentionally hilarious press release, which Nalobin tweeted, comparing Harding’s scoop to the British media’s “critical part in engineering the unnecessary Crimean War.”
It bears mentioning that Nalobin is a member of the embassy’s political section, known by British Russia junkies as a landing post for active staff field operatives of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence apparatus. The most recent case of cross-identity was that of Mikhail Viktorovich Repin, who arrived in London after the Litvinenko assassination under the official heading of “Third Secretary of the Political Section” but was in fact an operative of the SVR, apparently tasked with talent-spotting and cultivating agents. MI5’s A Branch, which surveils foreign diplomats, expelled Repin in December 2010. Details of the case were only leaked to the press a year later, whereupon the Sunday Telegraphdisclosed that Repin had “attempted to win the trust of officials he met at the House of Commons and defense and security think tanks in Whitehall.”
Greg Hands, MP, now the assistant government whip in the House of Commons, has even recalled how in 2004, when he was the Tory contender for the constituency of Fulham in that year’s general election, he had been introduced to “Alexei,” a Russian diplomat at a Russian Embassy function. A few days later, Alexei invited Hands to a pub and asked him to procure a document from the House of Commons library related to British-Iranian relations. (Since Hands hadn’t yet been elected, he didn’t have access to the library, and anyway, the document in question was a statement made by then British Foreign Minister Jack Straw and was likely in the public domain.) “It was then that it dawned on me that I was being approached by an intelligence officer to spy for Russia,” Hands later recalled.
According to Cristo, the Russian spy who tried to recruit Hands was Alexander Kashytsin, still another member of the Russian Embassy’s political section. He was expelled in 2006 after making a series of “suspicious approaches” to Tory activists. Around the same time, MI5 quietly expelled another SVR agent, Roman Khatkevich, again formally posted to the political section, whom Cristo described as someone who mingled easily at Conservative functions, “looking for contacts who could be helpful to the Russian government at some time in the future.”
MI5 believes that Britain is now the “highest priority target” for Russian intelligence, because of the country’s involvement in NATO and the European Union and also because the Russians are anxious to engage in scientific and industrial espionage. Britain’s domestic security service estimates that anywhere from thirty to fifty agents operate from within the walls of the Russian Embassy’s Kensington Gardens compound. This synchs with what former KGB-man Gordievsky surmised in December 2010, when Repin was being told to pack his bags, that “if anything, the overall Russian espionage presence in Britain is now bigger and more active than in my time.”
Adding to the international intrigue of the CFoR scandal and what it revealed about the Kremlin’s Tory outreach strategy is a further irony regarding that nasty hatchet job on MP Chris Bryant. CFoR had negatively compared Bryant’s leadership of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Russia to the past performance of the APPG under its former head, Liberal Democrat Mike Hancock, MP. A bearded left-wing Russophile, who had served on the House of Commons Defense Select Committee, Hancock made headlines in 2010 after MI5 accused his researcher, twenty-five-year-old Ekaterina Zatuliveter, with whom he’d been having a four-year affair, of being a Russian spy. The two had met while Hancock was at a conference in Moscow in 2006; thereafter she moved to London and he helped pay her tuition for a master’s degree while employing her as a compensated intern in the House of Commons, to which she obtained a coveted aide’s pass. One MI5 agent testified in court that the sixty-year-old womanizing MP would have been “marked out to [Russian intelligence] as a good candidate” for becoming ensnared in a honey trap. He further alleged that Zatuliveter had passed top-secret information to her SVR handler, known only as “Boris.” (The special immigration appeals commission that heard Zatuliveter’s deportation case in November 2011 rejected MI5’s accusation, though it corroborated the grounds for suspecting her of espionage.)
The Tories’ damage-control efforts in the wake of the CFoR implosion were not helped by two unfortunately timed events in Britain. The first was the official visit to London in late November of several United Russia deputies, including Alexey Pushkov, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the State Duma, for two closed-door conferences with MPs in the House of Commons, one on bilateral trade, the other on human rights. (Robert Buckland, MP, and John Whittingdale, MP, both former CFoR board members, participated in the latter panel.) I’ve also been informed that the entire delegation’s visit was a consolation prize for not being allowed to invite United Russia to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham last October (technically only sister political parties of the Tories could attend from other countries).
January also saw the disclosure of the mysterious death of Alexander Perepilichny, a former member of the Russian organized crime syndicate known as the Klyuev Group. Consisting of mobsters and Interior Ministry and tax officials, this parastate mafia cell was responsible for the $230 million tax fraud that Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky uncovered in 2008. The seemingly healthy, forty-four-year-old Perepilichny, who was discovered in late December on a roadside in Surrey, England, was the informant feeding inside information pertaining to the Klyuev Group’s criminal activities, including bank documents, to William Browder of Hermitage Capital, Magnitsky’s former client, as well as to Swiss prosecutors. A toxicology report is being conducted to determine Perepilichny’s cause of death, but if it turns out that he was the victim of foul play, then Westminster will have another Litvinenko affair on its hands—and Moscow’s blundering efforts to deny that it is no longer trying to infiltrate European political institutions will be that much harder to believe.