Russia “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” said Boris Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill in a famous quote that ends: “…but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
And that key could prove to be the end and undoing of Johnson himself as his government today accused Russia of interfering in the UK’s democratic process and trying to steal its coronavirus vaccine research.
Today’s Russian revelations and finger pointing by the government immediately – and very effectively – shifted the media’s attention from a story itself so layered it could be likened to one of those dolls that opens up and reveals another doll, that opens up and reveals another doll, and so on.
The big doll in this case is the long awaited and hugely anticipated Russia Report into meddling in the UK’s democratic process that the government has been sitting on since October last year.
‘Playing ducks and drakes’
Downing Street’s most recent reason for the report’s non-publication was the delay in appointing the intelligence and security committee (ISC) – “one of the most important committees in parliament, overseeing seven agencies and departments involved in UK intelligence.”
Johnson wanted three-time former-secretary of state ‘Failing Chris Grayling’ – so-called because of his ministerial record – to chair the intelligence and security committee (ISC). Grayling’s appointment was believed to be a rubber-stamping formality causing outrage and consternation for many.
Including it transpires, one of Johnson’s own Tories and newly picked ISC member Julian Lewis –twice chair of the Commons’ defence select committee and Conservative MP for New Forest East from 1 May 1997 until 15 July 2020.
Because last night he was kicked out of the Tory party, for, as Jacob Rees-Mogg later called it in the Commons, “playing ducks and drakes with the Labour party”.
The nine ISC members vote for the chair and Lewis –as one of five Tory members – was supposed to vote for Grayling. Downing Street had texted the five earlier in the day to confirm they would be voting for “the prime minister’s preferred candidate”.
“I considered it an improper request,” said, Lewis, who had in fact put himself forward for the position and received the votes of the other four members to take the chair from under Johnson’s nose.
While some commented that only “only Grayling could lose a rigged election”, others looked at the fall-out from, and consequences of, Lewis’ coup – not just his immediate sacking but more importantly what his chairmanship will mean.
We haven’t had to wait long. Today the ISC, chaired by the expelled-Tory MP, announced the Russia Report will be published next week and as the media readied to speculate on that – and continue feasting upon all the ins-and-outs of Lewis’ betrayal, his expulsion from the party and the PM’s apparent breach of the 2013 Justice and Security Act (which explicitly removes the PM’s right to choose the ISC chair by giving it to the committee members) – the government tried to seize the agenda.
Raab – ‘Russian actors interfered, successfully’
Out stepped Dominic Raab to state “Russian actors” tried to interfere with the 2019 “Get Brexit Done” general election, his comments coming in tandem with the accusations that the Kremlin is behind attempts to steal the UK’s coronavirus vaccine research.
“It’s almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019 general election through the use of illicitly acquired government documents,” the foreign secretary said, referring to leaked documents posted on Reddit last year that eventually “found their way” to the Labour party.
BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera said Raab’s “very carefully worded statement” – carefully worded because of an ongoing criminal investigation – alleges that Russian “actors” were involved in” illicitly amplifying and leaking” UK-US trade talks documents.
The documents were seized upon by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party as clear evidence the NHS was “on the table” as part of a post-Brexit trade deal with Donald Trump’s US. For several days the story dominated election coverage.
Raab’s intervention is significant because until now the government has always responded to questions about foreign states interfering with British democracy by saying “there has been no successful interference“.
Cozy Bear trying to steal UK’s coronavirus vaccine
Clearly now, today, less than a week before the ISC publishes the Russia Report, the government has decided there has been successful interference with Raab explicit in “carefully” alleging that these documents were successfully “spread and amplified” by Russian “actors”.
And more. Because the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), it was also announced today, has informed the PM it has “the highest level of confidence” the Kremlin is behind an “ongoing” cyber attack to steal the UK’s coronavirus vaccine research.
The group behind the attack is called APT-29 – aka Cozy Bear and/or The Dukes – and it has, for the first time, been described as part of the Russian intelligence service. Cozy Bear has been targeting researchers at Oxford University and Imperial College London since the onset of the global pandemic. Canada and the US have both verified the NCSC’s findings and outrage has been expressed.
The NCSC said Russian knowledge of the attacks “is at the highest levels”, pointing the finger directly at Vladimir Putin. The biggest of all Russian dolls.
So the PM should be wary of Churchill’s advice given the key to Russia is its own national interest. Which means, in 2020, Putin’s interest.
If, as has been speculated, that interest is to secure Russia by further destabilising, dividing and distracting the West and take advantage of the resulting weakness to, for example, annex Crimea, crackdown on dissidents at home and launch a chemical attack on defectors in Salisbury, the riddle seems to be working, particularly if the last 24 hours around Whitehall is any kind of measure.
Next week’s publication will reveal far more about how far Russia was “successfully” involved in interfering with the UK’s democratic process and that particular Russian doll could have all sorts of implications for the prime minister, and perhaps even Brexit.