The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report on Russia was provided to UK prime minister Boris Johnson on 17 October 2019. But he refused to publish it. It’s understood to examine claims of Russian interference in UK elections and the EU referendum, as well as funding of the Conservative Party by Russian or Putin-linked oligarchs. Now that the ISC is operational again following a delay after the 2019 general election, the report is due imminently.
Meanwhile, here is what’s already alleged.
The real interference
First, there’s the matter of donations. Late last year, The Canary conducted a search of the UK Electoral Commission database, specifically on donations by just four Russia-linked oligarchs, and found that the:
total donations came to a whopping £2,578,909.38 (or £2,768.909.38 if including what appear to be additional payments by Lubov Chernukhin). Nearly all the donations went to the Conservative Party or individual Tory MPs.
Here’s a breakdown of the figures gleaned:
- The largest donor of the four is Russian banker Chernukhin. Searches show she donated 43 separate sums, mostly to Conservative Party central office. The total came to £ , from April 2012 to 30 July 2019. She also famously paid £160,000 for a game of tennis with Johnson and former prime minister David Cameron (though Johnson said he would withdraw from the match). And she paid £30,000 for dinner with cabinet minister Gavin Williamson. Assuming those payments are not included in the Electoral Commission figures, this would mean her total donations came to £1,408,482.40.
- Search results show Ukrainian-born Alexander Temerko made a total of 69 donations to Tory MPs and Conservative Party central office. The total donated from February 2012 to 19 March 2019 came to £693,426.98.Temerko reportedly made his fortune in arms sales to the (Russian) defence division of the Kremlin. He is known to be a good friend of Johnson. As The Canary previously reported, Temerko appears to have had links to a ‘coup’ within the Tory party that saw then prime minister Theresa May replaced by Johnson. Reuters suggested that “Temerko’s allies” led this ‘coup’ and “are at the helm of Johnson’s campaign”. They allegedly included former defence secretary Gavin Williamson, political strategist Lynton Crosby, and “a group of East European businessmen”.
- Alexander Knaster is a former CEO of Russia’s Alfa Bank and is described as: “a Russian investor with an estimated net worth of $1.7 billion, as of March 2013. According to Forbes, he comes 882nd in a list of world billionaires and 328th in the Forbes 400 list”. Searches show Knaster made eight donations, again mostly to Conservative Party central office. These totalled £455,000 from May 2010 to 21 January 2015.
- Lev Mikheev, meanwhile, reportedly: “splits his time between London, the US and Moscow, where he has offices next to the Kremlin and is said to have made his money managing the funds of wealthy Putin allies”. Searches show Mikheev made 15 donations to the Conservative Party. These totalled £212,000 from April 2010 to 8 May 2019.
In a November 2019 article, openDemocracy claimed that Tories received at least £3.5m from Russian funders since 2010.
Johnson’s links with oligarchs
As The Canary previously reported, Johnson is closely associated with Evening Standard co-owner Evgeny Lebedev, whose father worked for the KGB (Russian secret service). Johnson is also known to have attended so-called ‘bunga- bunga’ parties at the luxury Italian villa belonging to Lebedev. That in itself could mean Johnson should be regarded as a security threat. Johnson reportedly visited the villa Palazzo Terranova four times, and sometimes flew there via Lebedev’s private jet.
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It’s claimed Russian Embassy senior diplomat Sergey Nalobin arranged the launch of the Conservative Friends of Russia (later renamed the Westminster Russia Forum). Nalobin, whose father also worked for the KGB, was subsequently ‘expelled‘ from the UK.
Jack Wakefield, brother-in-law of Downing Street special adviser Dominic Cummings, was reportedly a director of the Firtash Foundation, The foundation is named after Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian businessman. Firtash faces extradition to the US regarding claims he is linked to associates of Rudy Giuliani who were caught up in the Trump-Ukraine scandal.
The Guardian further claims that Nalobin targeted Matthew Elliott, who went on to join Paul Staines (aka ‘Guido Fawkes’) and others to develop a UK voter database. Elliott subsequently headed Vote Leave (the pro-Brexit campaign fronted by Johnson and cabinet minister Michael Gove) and Brexit Central.
Then there are claims of Russia-based bots, deployed in the lead-up to the 2016 EU referendum:
- A study by Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley identified Twitter accounts in Russia that “posted 45,000 tweets about Brexit within the space of 48 hours during last year’s  referendum”.
- In another study it’s claimed that 13,000 Twitter bots posted 65,000 Brexit messages in the month prior to the referendum.
And a study by Samuel C Woolley and Philip N Howard of the Oxford Internet Institute on the UK referendum says:
During the 2016 UK Brexit referendum it was found that political bots played a small but strategic role in shaping Twitter conversations. The family of hashtags associated with the argument for leaving the EU dominated, while less than one percent of sampled accounts generated almost a third of all the messages
Another 2016 study was also written by Howard, together with PhD student Bence Kollanyi of Corvinus University. It examined tweets between 5 and 12 June 2016. It showed that three times as many Leave-related hashtags were used in the lead-up to the referendum than Remain-related.
The study adds:
to evaluate the role of bots in generating traffic on StrongerIn-Brexit topics, we took a close look at the top 10 accounts by volume, and all of them seem to use some level of automation. It is almost certain that 7 of the 10 accounts are bots. One of them is a UKIP-curated account most probably with some level of automation. Two of them seem to be bots that get some small amount of human curation.
Collectively these studies offer a cogent argument that the EU referendum was significantly subject to interference from bots.
The ISC report is now expected to be published any day. Although it’s unclear if it will be redacted, as is often the case, and if so to what extent. However, it would not be unreasonable to argue that if any of the above is not addressed by the report, then it has either been censored or it has not been properly researched.
Regardless of what the report will say, it’s clear that Johnson and other senior Tories have many outstanding questions to answer. In particular, about links to Moscow, donations by oligarchs, and the alleged use of technology to influence UK voting behaviour. And with a likely no-deal Brexit scenario looming and an equally likely economic fallout, answering such questions takes on an even greater urgency.
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