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Greg Hands MP: What to do about Russia

Hands_greg Greg Hands, MP for Hammersmith and Fulham, worries about the power of Russia's intelligence apparatus.

Sitting in the Seven Stars pub on North End Road in Fulham, Alexei looked up from his beer, and asked me if I could get him a document from the House of Commons library, a statement made by the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on UK relations with Iran. It was then that it dawned on me that I was being approached by an intelligence officer to spy for Russia.

It all started in December 2004, when the Conservative donor club Fastrack held its Christmas Party at the Russian Embassy in Kensington. Boris Johnson was the guest speaker, and it was hosted by the then Russian Ambassador to London. It was the kind of event that many ConservativeHome readers have been to over the years. At the event, an official from the Embassy sidled up to me and my wife, introduced himself as being Alexei (whose name I have changed) from the embassy’s political section, and how he lived in Fulham, in the constituency I had been selected to fight at the coming General Election, which was widely expected in the following Spring. The official and I, in the convivial atmosphere of the reception, talked for a short time and swapped business cards. I have had a 20 year long interest in Russia, and have been a frequent visitor, and my wife is half-Russian, so conversation came very easily. I asked him if he was happy for me to add him to my list of constituents’ email addresses, and he was.

A few days later, Alexei telephoned me and asked to meet me. We agreed on my suggestion to meet half way between his house and mine, and I chose the otherwise non-descript pub the Seven Stars. After a few cancelled appointments, we eventually did meet. Towards the end of a pint of beer, and meandering small-talk, and conversation about Russia and Britain, Alexei popped the fateful question. I told him – correctly – that as a Parliamentary candidate I had no more access to the Library than he did, and that Jack Straw’s statement was probably online anyway. Shortly afterwards, I found reason to leave the pub, and never saw Alexei again. Asking people to steal or copy documents – especially those that one might be expected to have ready access to – is the stuff of espionage folklore. I went home and informed our own authorities about the incident, and I believe that Alexei is no longer in the United Kingdom.

The reason I write about these events more than two years later is not that I want to start a third career as a new John Le Carre, but to illustrate a wider point – that Russia has been behaving very strangely in recent years. For a man like Alexei to have quite openly – albeit rather amateurishly – gone about trying to recruit a soon-to-be MP in the public bar of a London pub shows a brazenness that is in some ways characteristically Russian but in other ways symptomatic of a country where the grip and power of the intelligence services is becoming very unhealthy.

I have just returned from a visit to Moscow, where I was one of a list of speakers lined up to address delegates to the Moscow School of Political Studies. The School is unique in Russia.  Its declared purpose “is to help establish in Russia an open society, based on the rule of law, sound democratic institutions, respect for human rights and a free media and a commitment to a market economy.” The school also carries the endorsement of President Putin, and attracts the best and the brightest of young Russian politicians, journalists, businesspeople and so on. I spoke and answered questions for an hour and a half, on the topic of Russian relations with the US, the EU and China in the former Soviet republics. You can read my speech by going to my website, but the gist of it is this – that Russian relations with the West are worsening rapidly, are at their worst point since the end of the Soviet Union, and that most of the cause for this has been Russia itself. Further, most of the confrontation points are in the former Soviet Republics other than Russia, like Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, all of which I have also visited before becoming an MP.

I also offered a positive agenda in my speech. I believe we need to do more to understand some of Russia’s concerns, especially over the status of the often large Russian minorities in these countries. I told the School that I believed that Russia would become a Western-style democracy with a full market economy. But most of all, I want Russia to join the EU. This won’t happen in the next ten years, but I believe that Russia should and eventually could join a Europe characterised by free trade and a very loose political arrangement that allows the Russian people control over their own affairs. In fact, Russia could feel at home in a Europe characterised by a British vision of the EU. I also support Turkish membership, for many of the same reasons. The only prominent supporter of Russian EU membership in recent years has been Silvio Berlusconi. I take the view that just because a politician has become discredited, it doesn’t mean all of his views are!

But for the present, Russia is moving in a difficult direction for us. We welcome its renewed prosperity and especially its new stability. Only seven years ago, Condoleeza Rice wrote that America’s security was “threatened less by Russia’s strength than by its weakness and incoherence.” Yet the moves against independent media, local and international NGOs, the unexplained murders of dozens of journalists, its willingness to use energy supplies as a weapon of foreign policy and its nationalisation of key companies and huge assets and the growth of the public sector concern me greatly.

One event more than any other troubles me, however, and that is the recent assassination of Aleksandr Litvinenko. No one in Parliament has asked more questions about it, or remonstrated more strongly that this was a gross and horrible crime than I have. I do not believe that he was assassinated on any orders from the Russian government, but I do believe that the guilty party or parties and their lethal murder weapon are either in the past or presently part of the Russian intelligence apparatus. Whatever one thinks about either Mr Litvinenko’s past as a Soviet intelligence agent, or about our asylum laws, he was a British subject, and as such deserved our protection. His murder reflects very badly on Russia, but also poorly on this country. The first duty of any government is to protect its own citizens, and here we were found wanting. Britain – and London in particular – has a long tradition of harbouring political dissidents, who so long as they don’t threaten this country, are protected here. Throughout the last three hundred years or more, we have given sanctuary to the French Huguenots, to Karl Marx, to German and Austrian Jews before World War Two, to the Polish Government-in-Exile after the War and so on. We do not necessarily agree with their views, but if we grant them asylum and especially citizenship, they deserve our protection, not sit idly by as they are casually bumped off in broad daylight over tea in a London restaurant or hotel.

The whole affair smacks of an intelligence apparatus dangerously out of control of itself, but increasingly in control of Russia. Compared to the Litvinenko assassination, my meeting with “Alexei” was almost trivial, but it is part of the same syndrome. Relations with Russia can and must improve, but serious attention will be needed by President Putin or more likely his successor next year to get the country back on track. Let us hope they succeed.


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