Concerns have been raised that unregulated pro-Moscow lobbyists at the heart of Westminster are using their links to Tory MPs to gain influence and respectability.
Seth Thévoz www.opendemocracy.net
A group formerly known as the Conservative Friends of Russia (CRF) is advertising its first in-person conference for two years next week, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday.
Now called the Westminster Russia Forum (WRF), the group’s British organisers often appear on the Russian state broadcaster, RT. The WRF, which loudly echoes official lines from Moscow, has links with numerous Conservative MPs and other senior UK political figures.
The WRF did not respond to openDemocracy’s questions on whether the event on March 4 would still go ahead.
Sue Hawley, the director of Spotlight on Corruption, told openDemocracy: “It’s somewhat chilling that as the UK strikes a tough posture in relation to Russia it could leave such a blindspot at home.”
The WRF is one of a number of so-called Conservative ‘friends of’ groups that have tried to draw in high-profile MPs. The groups act as a conduit between the party and certain countries or regions.
It has existed in some form for a decade, yet is not required to register as a lobbyist, sparking fears that pro-Putin interests could be influencing opinion unchecked. Although the WRF calls itself a ‘think tank’, there is no record of any research ever published by the group.
Hawley added: “Friends of’ groups of political parties are alarmingly unregulated, and provide a back door for unofficial lobbying, access and paid influence. It is high time that these groups were brought out of the shadows, properly regulated, and that the public are able to have far greater insight into how they operate and who is behind them.”
The WRF has hosted events with Tory MPs such as Daniel Kawczynski, Caroline Nokes, John Redwood and John Whittingdale, as well as Labour’s former foreign secretary Jack Straw. Event attendees have included Carrie Johnson, the Conservative Party’s former head of communications and now the prime minister’s wife.
In just over a week, the group says it will hold a ‘Multilateral Relations Conference’ aimed at strengthening links between Russia and the UK. At previous such events, dozens of speakers have urged stronger ties to the Putin government.
Edward Lucas, a foreign policy expert on Russia, told openDemocracy: “This is about as badly timed as possible, to be relaunching their events just as the invasion of Ukraine starts.”
Lucas, a journalist who was involved in calls to dissolve the Conservative Friends of Russia in 2013, has called its return “a mushroom sprouting on top of a compost heap”.
But, he said: “This is the Monty Python end of Russian influence operations. The real problem is the Russian influence operation in the serious think tanks, [in] the City of London, and [in] the large amounts of money being made by bankers, lawyers and accountants who focus on pushing the Russian regime, including by donating large amounts of money to political parties.”
The forum’s organisers are overwhelmingly London-based, with business interests in Russia. Its chair, Nicholas Cobb, runs an energy communications firm focused on Russia and former Soviet republics, who has appeared on Russia Today as a pro-Moscow pundit.
Ben Wells, described by WRF as its ‘in-house counsel’, is a solicitor whose London law firm specialises in work for “Russian-speaking clients”. Ernest Reid, billed on the WRF website as its ambassador at large, has provided commentary for Russia Today and the WRF sympathetic to Russian foreign ministry objectives.
Debate in the WRF seems to be heavily one-sided. Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski – dubbed a “Putin apologist” by other MPs – addressed the group in 2016, complaining “There is very little debate in the House of Commons about Russia.”
Under its original name, the Conservative Friends of Russia, the group facilitated a ten-day, all-expenses-paid junket to Russia in 2012, paid for by the Russian tourist government agency, Rossotrudnichestvo. Guests included Conservative activists such as future Vote Leave chief Matthew Elliott.
The controversial trip attracted significant adverse coverage and, after a further string of scandals, a number of Tory MPs who had been patrons all resigned, including Robert Buckland, Nigel Evans and former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind. One Conservative Party guest on the Russia trip told openDemocracy that the forum’s current setup had “no meaningful connection“ to CFR – but despite its rebrand to WFR, the group today still refers to itself as having been founded in 2012.
openDemocracy has also obtained emails showing that in 2013, during the Tory coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Russian diplomat Sergey Nalobin attempted to organise a similar trip to Russia for senior Lib Dems. It is unclear whether the trip went ahead.
Nalobin, the son of a high-ranking spy for Russia’s Federal Security Service, was subsequently removed from the UK by the Home Office in 2015 in a spying row.
A new target
With MPs less likely to speak at the group in recent years, the WRF has turned its focus to working on public opinion. It has an active Twitter feed, echoing official lines from Kremlin-funded organisations – although it has been uncharacteristically silent since Putin’s movement this week of recognising the separatist ‘People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east of Ukraine, and since the start of today’s invasion.
Its last activity was a retweet of a report by Russian Foreign Ministry-owned broadcaster Russia Today on 20 February, stating that de-escalation of military tensions in Ukraine was underway.
Back in 2012, the Foreign Policy journal noted that “the website’s news feed…continued to feature only state-owned or state-subsidised outlets”. The CFR said this was “entirely coincidental”.
The government has announced the closure of the Tier 1 ‘golden visa’ scheme used by a number of oligarchs from Russian and former Soviet-bloc countries to relocate to Britain, as well as imposing sanctions against five Russian banks and three Russian oligarchs. openDemocracy this week revealed that more than 200 Russian millionaires had been given ‘golden visas’, despite an earlier government pledge to ‘clamp down’ on the practice.
The WRF’s ‘multilateral forum’ events have grown from 50 attendees at the first in 2015 to 170 in 2020, which drew 47 speakers on UK-Russia relations, and was overwhelmingly effusive on the need for strong ties with the Putin regime.
UPDATE: Following the publication of this story, the Westminster Russia Forum put out an overnight statement disassociating itself from the invasion of Ukraine and saying it had “suspended all planned events until further notice”.
Its chair Nicholas Cobb subsequently provided openDemocracy with a comment, stressing that the group was member-funded and volunteer-run. “We are in no way funded by either government,” he said, “receive no other support or direction, and are solely interested in promoting stronger trade, cultural and people to people ties.”
He also stressed that the forum was now non-partisan despite its Conservative roots, and said: “We rarely meet anyone from Parliament, our civil service or other political institutions, and have for some years now focused on promoting trade and softer areas of cooperation – none of which requires lobbying.”
The statement concludes: “We are aware that to some our views on promoting dialogue may appear strange but we are committed to doing what we can to promoting grassroots understanding and peace.”
UPDATE (9 March 2022): This article has been amended at the request of Ernest Reid to clarify his role within the WRF.