Unshaven, unaccompanied, rumpled even by his standards: the photo of Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary, at Perugia airport in April 2018 raised eyebrows when it was published in 2019. It wasn’t just his appearance that caused concern. It emerged that Johnson had been staying at a chateau owned by Evgeny Lebedev, son of Alexander Lebedev; Evgeny is the proprietor of the London Evening Standard, Alexander a former KGB agent and now an oligarch who has British citizenship. Johnson had long stonewalled questions about the visit, but in early July at an appearance before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, he finally admitted he “probably did” meet Alexander Lebedev on his own during that visit.
“I have certainly met him without officials,” Johnson told the committee. “I met him on a very few occasions.”
That poses a risk to national security, says the intelligence expert and former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, who is calling for an investigation. Best known for the dossier alleging a Russian conspiracy to help Donald Trump win the 2016 US presidential election, Steele is now raising the alarm about the security risk from Russians in the UK – in particular the contacts between Johnson and the Lebedevs.
“[The unaccompanied visit to Italy] raises all sorts of issues,” Steele told the New Statesman over a video call, “not least the physical security of the foreign secretary, in a foreign country without proper bodyguards or protection. That’s at its most basic, but obviously conversations that may have taken place, which aren’t properly recorded and witnessed… There are very serious concerns that things might have been said, or information divulged and so on, which was not authorised. The foreign secretary is not in a position himself or herself to decide what they should or shouldn’t divulge.”
The timing of Johnson’s conversation with Alexander Lebedev in Perugia is key: it was just two days after a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels. There, discussions had centred around how to deal with Russia in the wake of the Salisbury poisonings, when the former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were attacked with the nerve agent novichok. The two Skripals recovered but a local woman who came into contact with the novichok, Dawn Sturgess, died months later.
Alexander Lebedev has been sanctioned by Canada as a close associate of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. Lebedev has never hidden his past life as a spy; in his memoir he wrote that he left the security service in 1992. However, Steele says the networks formed around the KGB and its successor agencies retain a prominence in public life that would never be the case in the West.
“The nature of the regime in Russia is that no one who has a substantial interest still in the country is able to operate entirely freely,” he said. “That’s the nature of an autocracy and particularly a Russian autocracy, where intelligence services and intelligence work have always been very prominent in terms of power – perhaps like the military is in other countries, but the military actually isn’t in Russia. It’s the intelligence and security services that have tended to call the shots.”
Johnson is friends with Evgeny Lebedev, and in July 2020 nominated him to a seat in the House of Lords, where he is now Lord Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation. Johnson has denied allegations, first reported by Tortoise Media and the Sunday Times, that he intervened to override warnings from UK security services against the appointment. The government was supposed to release the confidential advice by the end of April, following a vote by MPs, but it withheld the documents on grounds of national security, publishing only limited information.
Lebedev has responded to the criticisms of his appointment by describing himself as a proud British citizen and not a security risk. He has used his platform as proprietor of the Evening Standard to oppose Russia’s war in Ukraine. His activity in the Lords has been minimal: his record shows that his maiden speech was his only one so far. Nevertheless, Steele believes what really matters is the informal access: “Conversations take place, meetings take place, friendships take place. And it’s an essential part, actually, of running government and running policy that those things happen. It’s just a case that what is divulged in such environments is very difficult to discern and very difficult to police and very difficult to regulate.”
Since the 1990s the UK has welcomed Russian investors; under a “golden visa” system hundreds of wealthy Russians have been granted residency, leading to the nickname “Londongrad”. However, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the government has imposed sanctions on more than 1,000 people and 120 businesses.
Alexander Lebedev first came to London in 1988 as an employee at the Russian embassy, working under diplomatic cover. He has said that his main job was to read the UK papers for evidence that capitalism was failing.
Steele is sceptical of the level of scrutiny applied to high-profile Russians in the UK; he wants the vetting system for appointments, such as those to public bodies, to be tightened up. “I’ll go on saying it till I’m blue in the face, the threat from Russia does not just take the form of intelligence officers working under the cover of the embassy or whatever. It’s the broader establishment elite in Russia, which is so interwoven with the regime and with the intelligence services and others. We have to have a broader net cast and include things like a foreign agent registration act, which takes that fully into account, and isn’t too narrow in its definitions.”
A similar act in the US, first passed in 1938, requires certain agents engaged in political or other specified activities “to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal”. Until 2019 it was hardly used; recently Washington has employed it to target lobbyists working for foreign governments, and social media disinformation campaigns. As the level of disquiet around the activities of some Russians in the UK increases, so too do the questions around Johnson and his relationship with the Lebedevs.