How Putin Helped Johnson Win Brexit and No 10

There is a small ticking time-bomb that keeps British Prime Minister Boris Johnson more awake than the crying of his new baby boy, Wilfrid.

The Skripal attempted killing in Salisbury, now a gripping 3-part BBC series, was bungled, though a small bottle of Novichok the nerve agent killer was left behind and killed a harmless woman. Putin however wants to do more than punish MI6 or M15 for suborning one of his agents from the security agencies he was promoted from to begin his rise to the Kremlin. He is keen to see his friends like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, or Boris Johnson - populist nationalists opposed to international rule of law, open societies and economies - do well.

For Putin, the entry of ex-Soviet colonies like Poland, the Baltic states, East Germany or the Czech Republic into full membership of the European Union meant the final expulsion of the Russian state as central to the ruling system in half of Europe.

As long as the EU was there and attracting the support and participation of all of Europe up to the borders of Belarus and Ukraine, Putin knew his hopes of restoring Russia to its post-1945 or even 19th century might and presence were forlorn.

That is why he so strongly welcomed the prospects of the UK leaving the EU and weakening the strength of European unity which had proved so attractive to European citizens who no longer wanted to live by the Kremlin’s rules.

In a powerful new book Shadow State. Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West, the journalist and playwright Luke Harding burrows into the details of Putin’s support for Brexit.           

Putin hates Britain, even if the UK is full of what Lenin called “useful idiots” - the unwitting promoters of Russian state interests. In modern times this has been the City, corporate lawyers who hide the illegal wealth of Kremlin-approved oligarchs, arrange their divorces and the luxury end of the British economy which welcomes Russian money with open arms to buy £10 million flats in Kensington, football clubs, or keep Eton and other private schools afloat.

In 2012 Putin told the Russian Embassy to set up a group of MPs called “Conservative Friends of Russia”. The Russian Ambassador held a launch party in the Russian embassy attended by Carrie Symonds, then a Tory party press officer, now mother of Johnson’s latest baby and Dominic Cummings.

Harding details the Kremlin’s efforts to support Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU, which was financed by an £8.2 million donation from Aron Banks, after the Europhobe insurance mogul became heavily involved with the Russian ambassador in London and with offers of business deals in Moscow.

A great deal of the details of Russian meddling in British Tory politics and support and involvement in the Brexit campaign are in a report compiled by the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). As soon as he became Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, moved to find reasons to stop the report’s publication.

They succeeded in delaying it until after the December 2019 election, arguing it would be inappropriate to publish a politically explosive report in the election weeks. Since then they have adopted other delaying tactics. London observers reckon that party managers in the Commons can spin out for as long as possible the full constitution of the ISC until after the summer recess and almost certainly until after the US election. Harding’s book is as much about Donald Trump as it is about Brexit, with a clear and convincing evidence-based narrative on how Putin played Trump and the illegal activities of the White House in Ukraine or covering up Trump’s financial and property dealings in Russia.

Putin’s political annus mirabilis was 2016, when his bets on Brexit and Trump paid off handsomely. He may lose Trump but as long as Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings dominate in Downing Street Putin wins Brexit and a weaker Europe.

But as more and more questions are asked about Johnson’s fitness for office and his judgement on so many key issues, the ISC report - which while it may not land a killer blow - will be powerful new evidence of how Putin helped the Brexit campaigner-in-chief, now Britain’s Prime Minister.

During the Corbyn years it was not surprising that the pro-Kremlin entourage in LOTO did not bother to criticize Putin, or link the Kremlin to Brexit, as many had been hostile to the EU over the years. The interesting question for the new Labour leadership team is whether they will continue this policy of omerta on Russian anti-European meddling in British politics or speak out.

By Denis MacShane - former Labour Minister of Europe. His latest book is “Brexiternty. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” (IB Tauris-Bloomsbury)

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