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14 March 2022

Have Johnson and Trump been Putin’s great facilitators?

In sending mixed signals towards Russia over the years, the PM and former president may have been steadily emboldening the Kremlin’s actions.

By Martin Fletcher

In political jargon, a “useful idiot” is a credulous person manipulated to advance a cause. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seems pertinent to ask whether Donald Trump and Boris Johnson might have served as Moscow’s useful idiots – or worse.

The case against Trump is strongest, and summed up in a recent article by Craig Unger in America’s New Republic magazine. It asserts that Trump was cultivated by the KGB for four decades, used his property empire to launder hundreds of millions of dollars for Russian mafiosi and was repeatedly saved from bankruptcy by Russian operatives before winning the US presidency with Moscow’s help in 2016. He then proceeded to undermine Vladimir Putin’s foremost bête noire – Nato – from the Oval Office.

“When Biden was elected president,” Unger writes, “Putin lost perhaps the most valuable asset the Soviet Union or Russia ever had – a president of the United States who had been an unparalleled asset for 40 years. Trump had demonised Nato as early as 1987, provided a glitzy and luxurious home away from home for countless Russian alleged mafiosi and operatives for decades, was deeply indebted to the Russians financially and was, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee report in 2020, the subject of Russian kompromat [compromising information] about his intimate conduct within Russia.

“Trump was everything Putin could have wished for, but now he was gone. And so, in Trump’s absence, Putin invaded neighbouring Ukraine, thinking, apparently, that Nato was torn asunder [and] that Biden was crippled thanks to political divisions sown by Trump…” Trump called the invasion “genius”.

Back in 2018 I interviewed James Comey, the FBI director whom Trump sacked for refusing to halt a bureau investigation into Russia’s suspected support for the US president. I asked him whether Moscow could be blackmailing Trump. Remarkably, Comey did not scoff at the idea. “I can’t say it’s impossible,” he replied. “If you asked me that about Barack Obama I would say it’s impossible, but I can’t give you that answer [in Trump’s case].” 

There is no comparable evidence to suggest that Putin has compromised or corrupted Boris Johnson, but thanks to some sterling investigative journalism by the Sunday Times and Tortoise Media we now know a lot about his relationship with Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a former KGB spy-turned oligarch – and someone over whom British intelligence apparently had national security concerns as far back as 2013.

The two men met in 2009, when Johnson was London’s mayor. Lebedev offered Johnson the support of London’s Evening Standard, which his father had bought earlier that year. Johnson offered Lebedev access to London’s social and political elite. They became close friends despite Lebedev having been at the time an occasional Putin apologist. Johnson made annual all-expenses-paid visits to house parties in Lebedev’s 12th-century Italian castle. The night after Johnson won the 2019 general election the self-styled scourge of the “metropolitan elite” attended a lavish 60th birthday party for Lebedev’s father and financier, Alexander, at his Regent’s Park mansion.

Their relationship exemplified the British establishment’s shameless embrace of Russian oligarchs – no questions asked. London had become the laundromat-of-choice for dodgy Russian money. Lawyers, bankers, accountants and property dealers were gleefully cashing in. The Conservative Party was accepting handsome donations from dodgy Russians. 

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As mayor, Johnson encouraged all of that. He once declared: “I have no shame in saying to the injured spouses of the world’s billionaires, if you want to take him to the cleaners…take him to the cleaners in London. Because London cleaners will be grateful for your business.” He later played tennis with the wife of a former Putin minister in return for a £160,000 political donation.

Johnson did nothing illegal, but his shockingly poor judgment inevitably raises certain questions now that those oligarchs have fallen from grace.

Why on earth was Lebedev present when Johnson, Michael Gove and their wives dined at Johnson’s Islington home on 16 February 2016 to decide which side to support in the forthcoming EU referendum? According to Tim Shipman, author of All Out War, even Gove was baffled by Lebedev’s presence at such a hugely sensitive meeting.

Johnson chose Leave, and duly delivered Brexit four months later. For the EU – Putin’s second great bête noire after Nato – to lose its third-biggest member and leading military power was a priceless gift for the Russian strongman.

What really happened when Johnson, by then foreign secretary, visited Lebedev’s Italian castle in April 2018 – unaccompanied by any officials or security men? Tortoise’s Paul Caruana Galizia reported: “He arrived at the local airport two days later, without any baggage, looking like he’d slept in his clothes. One fellow passenger thought the British foreign secretary was going to be sick on the tarmac.” Caruana Galizia noted wryly: “The persistent rumour about these parties in Umbria is that they were bugged and used to collect kompromat on politicians.”

Why did Johnson award Lebedev a peerage in 2020? Why did he give the son of a former KGB agent a place in Britain’s legislature, in the proverbial corridors of power, despite this person having been flagged as a security risk by Britain’s intelligence agencies and House of Lords Appointments Commission? 

Keir Starmer, Labour’s leader, has demanded the vetting advice be published, saying: “It is important that the money and influence of those who support the barbarity of the Putin regime is removed from our politics.” (For the record, Lebedev – who initially wanted to call himself Lord Lebedev of Moscow – has publicly opposed the Ukraine invasion.)

Why did Johnson, as Prime Minister, refuse to publish the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report detailing Russian interference in British politics until after he had won the 2019 general election? Why did he fail to act on repeated warnings from Washington, and from the Commons intelligence and foreign affairs committees, to shut down the London laundromat? And why has he taken so long to sanction Russian oligarchs following the Ukraine invasion – and sanctioned so few of them?

But the most important question of all is this: did Trump’s connivance with Moscow and the readiness of the British establishment – led by the Prime Minister – to sell its soul for Russian money send a dangerously misleading signal to Putin? Or, to put it another way, did those shows of Western weakness and decadence encourage the megalomaniac in the Kremlin to believe he could invade Ukraine with impunity? 

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