May faces down Putin, but he has the upper hand

Over many years a tacit pro-Kremlin consensus has developed in Westminster – across the political spectrum.

May Russian spy poisoning
British Prime Minister Theresa May said it is "highly likely" that Russia was responsible for the nerve agent poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia [Reuters]

Britain is not inclined to admit we are susceptible to state capture by foreign powers – but we are.

On March 11, the Sunday Times newspaper published a front-page story on how the Conservative Party had accepted millions from Kremlin-linked political donors – over 3 million British pounds ($4.2m) from suspect Russian figures channelled to the Conservatives since they took office in 2010. Ministers were increasingly concerned about the effect this would have on May’s policies.

Less than a week before the investigation was published, in the medieval city of Salisbury, southern England, a Russian man called Sergei Skripal and his daughter had been mysteriously poisonedThe pair are still in critical condition in hospital.

The crime was carried out using a rare form of nerve agent – a chemical that was only available from Russian state-owned laboratories.

The Soviet-era Russian chemist who invented the nerve gas chosen by the assailants said it will likely leave the Skripals needing close medical attention for the rest of their lives, if the gas does not kill them outright.

The British army also had to be deployed to Salisbury, to collect evidence, identify further threats, and eventually realise there is a chancethat dozens of British civilians have also been affected. 


The primary target of this obvious Russian state hit was a former Russian special forces soldier turned senior intelligence officer in the Russian military intelligence directorate GRU, who had been talent-spotted by Russian spy chiefs while serving on the front line in eighties Afghanistan.

Eventually though, over many years, Skripal accepted money from MI6 for information on Russian espionage networks and was finally caught in 2004 and exposed as a double agent.

When he was arrested for passing these secrets to the British, FSB officers dragged him by his hair from his apartment, and presented his straining face to national TV cameras as a form of humiliation. He would spend the next six years in a penal colony.

In 2010, Skripal was one of four spies swapped in return for the so-called “Anna Chapman ring”.

Skripal reportedly begged not to be released precisely because he feared assassination. He decided to move to Britain.

He had been living in Salisbury since then. The poison was likely administered in the quiet town – in an Italian restaurant, riverside pub or at his family home. He was still co-operating with elements of the British intelligence community; he was “one of ours”, who Theresa May had a duty to protect, both as home secretary when she oversaw the domestic intelligence agencies, and as prime minister. 

It is not just Skripal that is now near death though. Two days ago, the body of Nikolai Glushkov, the closest aide of former anti-Putin oligarch Boris Berezovsky was found at his house in London.

Speculation in the Russian emigre community is that he was either poisoned or strangled. The suspected murder is now being investigated by the same police looking at Skripal’s death.

The same was said of the mysterious death in London of Glushkov’s old boss, Berezovsky, when he was found hanged in his British home in 2013.


The problem of Russian assassinations being carried out on British soil is not rare, then – it is systemic.

Buzzfeed published late last year, that 14 British and Russian citizens had been potentially assassinated in Britain since 2006. As of the past 10 days, that figure has nearly risen to 16. All the fourteen cases identified by Buzzfeed have now been re-opened.

The UK has been chosen as Putin’s killing ground for so many years – through five prime ministers and four governments – not just because plenty of exiled Russians live here in London, but because Putin holds so much influence in post-imperial 21st-century Britain. Executing people is illegal under Russian law – but Putin has found a way around this rule, by executing dissidents when they flee abroad, in a jurisdiction that allows him to get away with it.

A pro-Kremlin consensus

The three most influential political forces in Britain – left-wing Labour, right-wing Conservatives, and the alt-right UKIP movement – appear almost totally compromised by the Kremlin’s agenda.

Following an investigation I and a colleague published for openDemocracy, the Electoral Commission is now investigating whether a key financier behind UKIP, a shady entrepreneur called Arron Banks, was the “true source” of money given towards the Brexit referendum, or he was only “acting as an agent”.

Investigators are yet to formally draw a conclusion, but both Banks, a huge personality within alt-right social media, and his sponsored pet-leader, Nigel Farage, have frequently praised Vladimir Putin.

Farage has also been named as a “person of interest in the investigation into Trump-Russia collusion.

Then you have the left-wing Labour Party – whose chief party strategist has historically argued in favour of Putin’s annexation of Crimea. In October 2014, Milne was invited to the Kremlin-sponsored Valdai Discussion Club, including being invited to chair the session where Putin was interviewed.

Corbyn has told Twitter followers in 2011 that the Kremlin-run propaganda channel RT is “more objective on Libya than most”. Over the past few days, he and Milne have repeatedly questioned the validity of evidence gathered by crime scene investigators, to outrage from his own MPs and to the delight of Russian state news broadcasters.

The Conservatives, in power for nearly eight years, like Tony Blair’s Labour Party before them – have wooed wealthy Russians to London regardless of their potential criminal pasts or closeness to the increasingly anti-Western Kremlin. These oligarchs and exiles have made London their personal, business, political, and sometimes criminal, playgrounds.

The Russian-speaking former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is now foreign secretary and took great care to cultivate the Russian oligarch community while running the capital. He advocated several times that the UK should work with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and Russia to defeat ISIL.


George Osborne, the former chief finance minister and now editor of the Russian-owned Evening Standard, was keen on rich Russians, in particular, coming in to beef up the economy after the 2008 recession.

Accordingly, he kept money laundering and tax evasion provisions light to ensure the Russian oligarchs weren’t tempted by Geneva or Monaco.

In 2012, Conservatives were finally caught out when a lobbying organisation calling itself “Conservative Friends of Russia was revealed as a Russian government front. The group simply rebranded and re-named after it was exposed – and still exists today.

What should May do?

Prime Minister Theresa May must now choose what to do, with a party behind her and donors who sympathise with Putin, a party opposite whose leadership think the same, and a strident radical tone in British politics which the Russian premier has already attempted to enflame via social media propaganda and fake news.

So May has so far announced that only 23 Russian diplomats will be expelled in retaliation. She will not strip RT of its broadcasting license as expected.

She has said that rooting out Russian espionage networks will be a higher priority. This is much needed. The domestic intelligence service was under May’s ministerial responsibility before she became prime minister, continuously from 2010 to 2016. The latest figures show MI5 has just 18 percent of its budget dedicated to “hostile state activity and protective security” with the rest allocated to the relatively minor threat of terrorism.

Despite her post-Brexit international isolation, May faces an historic choice. Uniquely in the world, she controls the two critical levers of Putin’s continued power – the wealth of his oligarch supporters, and prospects for the Russian economy overall. No other country threatened by Putin can claim these.

Firstly, she could properly seize the billions in assets that Putin’s personal friends and key political allies hold in London, and in British-controlled tax havens around the world, including cars, houses, televisions, motorbikes, jewellery, bank accounts, British passports and visas. This sanctions hit-list should be selected based on people who are not just commercially or politically close to Putin – but also personally. Putin will face internal revolt at the highest levels if Britain seizes these ill-gotten assets owned by his greedy inner circle.

Secondly, after Cyprus, Britain, combined with the Bahamas, Bermuda, and the British Virgin Islands (all under ultimate British jurisdiction), provides the second-largest amount of foreign direct investment in Russia, even after sanctions hit in 2014. Without even a portion of this money – impaired by real sanctions, the Putin regime could collapse.

Putin kills people in Britain because he can, because he has before and because he knows there will be no reaction. He kills people at home, too – journalists, politicians, activists, lawyers and ordinary protesters. Abroad, ask Chechens or Syrians: Putin can be immeasurably more brutal.

May could well yet act and announce new measures to truly punish him – but surrounded by those so chronically compromised by the Russian state – will she?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.