Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during a meeting in January. (Photo by Alexei NikolskyTASS via Getty Images)

A damning report

For Americans, the UK’s Russia report is the proverbial canary in the coal mine

Artillery Row

The inquiry into systematic Russian interference prevalent in British life and politics that we have all been waiting for has finally been published. Along with every other Russian analyst, journalist and observer of Post-Soviet politics, I have been waiting for the release of the report with great anticipation. It did not disappoint. Compiled by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee amid storied political infighting, the subject of intense political jockeying, the report has already caused as much chaos and damage as we had expected. It commences by judging the aims of the Russian state to be “fundamentally nihilistic”. The report does seem to give credence to accusations that British intelligence services truly did not want to get involved in its preparation – they prefer to avoid getting involved in such politicised matters at all cost – but the issue of whether they had been told to stand down for political reasons remains unanswered. 

Did British leaders play tennis with agents of influence while British citizens were being murdered?

Did successive British leaders prefer to play tennis with agents of Kremlin’s influence while British citizens were being murdered on British soil by (sometimes hapless) hitmen sent by the Russian security apparatus? Was the report kept under lock and key in order to protect a series of Tory governments which had systematically denied the realities of Russian interference in British life as British financial institutions became ever more dependent on Russian money? 

Was the report’s release really delayed for more than a year in anticipation of the parliamentary elections? Is Prime Minister Johnson personally too close to people who are Russian plants? Did Russian money or disinformation sway the voting in either direction during the Brexit 2016 referendum? 

My friends in the British press who have been waiting for the report to become public have told me that it contains exactly more or less what they had expected for 18 months, and my British colleagues can provide better answers to those questions. As a Russian-American who has spent the last decade reporting from Eastern Europe I am more interested in what lessons Americans might imbibe from London’s experience.

Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee Julian Lewis leaves the committee offices in central London on July 16, 2020. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The influence of Russian money and influence in London has been a topic of  discussion in Washington and New York for the better part of a decade. If we avoid the puerile pastime of scoring points against successive Tory governments (amusing as that can be, it is in any case a British problem) the publication of the report proffers up a perfect opportunity for starting a vigorous public debate by American policy makers and the general public on this issue. That is before our own situation becomes as seemingly hopeless as that of London. My American colleagues, including everyone who works in the burgeoning think tank field of “kleptocracy studies” in “Kleptocracy Institutes”, have been waiting for the British to get their house in order for years. Perhaps it is already too late, and the British economy is too tightly interwoven with Russian money and influence. Incidentally, the aforementioned “Kleptocracy institutes” do themselves routinely get into trouble with minor scandals for accepting contributions from disreputable Post-Soviet characters. The problems of Kyiv and Moscow all too quickly arrive in London before touching down in New York and Washington D.C.

For Americans, London is indeed the proverbial canary in the coal mine. The US Congress is nowhere as deeply compromised – or not yet anyway – as the House of Lords has become. But the British experience of the penetration of its elites has been – or at least should be – instructive to Americans. Former United States Senators routinely lobby on behalf of Russian oligarchs and causes, while former Attorney Generals and high level Justice department officials retire into private practice and represent those same oligarchs in court. Part of the problem is that there remains no post-Cold war consensus on where the moral and legal red lines for Anglo-American elites. Both the fine print of the law and the social norms and etiquette are entirely opaque. What constitutes acceptable behaviour remains a subjective question, to which different people will have different, and often self serving, answers. This of course projects a debilitating lack of cohesion back to Moscow (and also Beijing) and further strengthens the the feedback loop of ever more flamboyant probing and coercive influence operations against our democratic institutions. 

The bloodsport I enjoy most is keeping track of which Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs hire which D.C. lobbying firms against one another

Even after an entire term of President Trump’s administration, we had expected the improbable events of 2015-16 to spearhead massive reform, but FARA violations remain so selectively prosecuted as to render the process to be almost arbitrary. Which in effect undermines the intended deterrence effect. Indeed whenever I am asked if I follow any sport, I typically respond that the bloodsport competition that I most enjoy is keeping track of which Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs hire which D.C. lobbying firms against one another.

Likewise, the New York City and Miami property markets are nowhere near as distorted by Post-Soviet cash flows as the London market is, but it is a real issue and a metastasising one. It is also a genuinely confusing one for the general public. President Donald Trump’s real estate business engaged in the same sort of squalid business practices of selling apartments to Post-Soviet kleptocrats for cash as everyone else had. It was very much an industry-wide phenomenon that everyone at the upper echelons of New York real estate had engaged in. The numerous conspiracy theories centring on Trump’s relationship to Moscow, many of these based in large measure on his disreputable business activities over the course of decades, and which were spread like infectious diseases by the American media, were at least on the karmic level, an outcome of the way that he had behaved for decades. “Russiagate” was a tremendous farce and squandered a great deal of public trust in our media as an institution, but it underlined Washington’s bracing need for a similar sort of commission. The Mueller report de facto played the role of such an investigation, but its scope and remit were far too politicised and narrow to really do justice to the problem. The rest of the world is starting to understand what those of us who follow Russian politics have known for a long time. London has numerous problems, but admirably enough, a lack of capacity for lucid analysis and self criticism are not among of them.

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