Just hours before the British public was set to go to the polls to elect a new Government, Global Witness was hosting an important and timely discussion on the global influence of Putin’s Russia in the UK.
From Russian troll factories to the spread of misinformation, accusations of Russian interference in global democratic processes have increasingly come to the fore. At the same time flows of Russian money, obscured by anonymous company ownership, have been at the centre of countless money laundering scandals. And from Alexander Litvinenko to Sergei Skripal assassination attempts on Russian nationals in the UK have regularly hit the headlines.
But what do these phenomena all have in common? They all represent different tools used by the Russian state to exert influence around the world, according to a panel convened by Global Witness in London on 11th December 2019.
In 2017 the investigative wing of Buzzfeed News published a seven-part story, looking at the assassinations of 14 individuals on British soil – all with links back to Russia. Heidi Blake, the author of a new book “From Russia With Blood” led the team looking into these stories and was amongst the panel addressing a packed out audience on a wet December evening.
Blake described “targeted assassinations” by the Russian state as a “deeply Soviet form of statecraft” designed to “restore Russian greatness in the world”. According to Blake the impact is two-fold, both to eliminate and silence critics, as well as sending a message to Western leaders that those who challenge the rise of Russia will be stopped.
It’s a warning well-heeded by the UK Government, according
to Blake, who said that all 14 assassinations her team documented were treated
as “unsuspicious” by the UK authorities, who failed to properly investigate a
single case. She even went as far to say that it’s not just the UK Government
did nothing – they in fact shut down investigations.
Blake described the recent accusations against Boris Johnson of suppressing a report on Russian interference in UK politics as being part of the same pattern seen in the UK’s attitude towards these assassinations.
Peter Pomerantsev is a Soviet-born British journalist and has given testimony on the subject of information warfare and media development to the US Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and the UK Parliament Defence Committee. So who better to talk us through the use of misinformation by the Russian state to maintain power and control?
Pomerantsev begun by outlining the relationship between corruption and misinformation, being “two sides of the same coin”. He said like corruption, misinformation thrives in a world without transparency where “where words aren’t what they seem” and in a world where “lies travel faster than the truth”. He added that very often misinformation is use by the corrupt to cover their crimes.
When considering what can be done to address this phenomenon, Pomerantsev described the difficulty in balancing liberal values of freedom of expression with censoring the blatant spreading of lies. He argued that the concern is not isolated individuals but rather the “mass non-transparent coordinated behaviour”, such as troll factories designed to sow unrest, spread misinformation and undermine democratic societies.
Oliver Bullough, is an award-winning journalist and author who gave the audience an insight into both the rise of Vladimir Putin and how this was coupled with a rise in Russian kleptocrats, who use a secretive global financial system to launder wealth into places like London.
The title of his most recent book “Moneyland” describes what
he said many others call “offshore” but is essentially a world in which
financial secrecy allows individuals to anonymously move money around,
obscuring their identities from public scrutiny and law enforcement.
Bullough referenced Global Witness research that has found £100 billion worth of properties across England and Wales owned through offshore anonymous companies . Global Witness investigations have repeatedly shown how criminals and corrupt politicians can use the UK property market to hide or clean dirty cash, and to secure safe haven for themselves and their families. And they’ve shown how London can be used by anyone wanting to hide their identity behind complex networks of companies and properties.
Ava Lee, our Senior Anti-Corruption Campaigner and Chair of the event, outlined that the introduction of a public register revealing the real owners of overseas companies that purchase UK property would significantly help in combatting this problem. She said this first introduced by David Cameron in 2016, but we have yet to see a bill in Parliament to make this register a reality. And that in the most recent Queen’s Speech, the Government mysteriously left out such proposals.
With a new Government new in post, Global Witness will be campaigning to end anonymous company ownership in the UK.