Scotland’s relationship with Russia has come under the microscope
Scotland’s relationship with Russia has come under the microscope in recent weeks.
On 4 March, a 66-year-old man and a 33-year-old woman were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping centre in Salisbury. The pair were taken to hospital and remain in a critical condition. However, while foul play was immediately suspected, it turns out this was no ordinary crime.
The man, Sergei Skripal, is a former Russian military intelligence officer who was jailed in his country for allegedly betraying Russian agents to MI6 and moved to the UK in a spy swap in 2010. The woman was his daughter, Yulia.
Investigations found they had been exposed to a nerve agent of a type the UK Government said was developed by Russia.
In the subsequent weeks, Prime Minister Theresa May said Russia was “culpable” for the poisoning and ordered 23 Russian diplomats to leave the UK.
Meanwhile, Moscow denied all involvement and in response, expelled 23 British diplomats. The Kremlin is also closing down both the British Council in Russia, which promotes cultural ties between the nations, and the consulate in St Petersburg.
On 14 March, Theresa May told parliament: “There is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter – and for threatening the lives of other British citizens.”
Later that day, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave her backing to May.
The Russian Consulate in Edinburgh responded by saying it is “absolutely unacceptable and unworthy of the British government to seek to seriously aggravate relations further in pursuit of its unseemly political ends, having announced a whole series of hostile measures, including the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from the country”.
It added: “By investigating this incident in a unilateral, non-transparent way, the British government is again seeking to launch a groundless anti-Russian campaign.
“It is with much regret we have to note that the Scottish authorities have unequivocally provided their full support to this hostile standoff with Russia.”
Meanwhile, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford focused on calls for a crackdown on the abuse of shell firms, especially Scottish limited partnerships or SLPs.
Blackford said: “One SLP registered in Glasgow was used last year to transfer £160 million out of Russia.
“Yet this is just scratching the surface given it is only one of thousands of SLPs set up over recent years, which need not register for UK tax or provide financial reports if conducting business abroad.”
And while all of this may read like the pages from a le Carré novel, its tentacles have reached into all parts of British politics.
While Sturgeon was being applauded for standing full-square with the Conservative PM, the spotlight fell on former first minister Alex Salmond, who has a weekly show on Kremlin-funded news channel, RT (formerly Russia Today).
Sturgeon has previously distanced herself from Salmond’s show. In November, she said: “I am sure Alex’s show will make interesting viewing – however, his choice of channel would not have been my choice.”
Opponents have claimed RT is merely a propaganda unit for President Vladimir Putin and Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton called the former FM a “useful idiot” for the Putin government and demanded he quit the broadcaster.
Ofcom has said it could strip RT of its broadcasting licence if the UK Government concluded that Russia was behind the poisoning.
However, while condemning the attack, Salmond launched a staunch defence of his show.
He said: “No-one has tried to influence the content of this show in any way, shape or form whatsoever.
“By definition, RT has not been a propaganda station because it is regulated under a UK licence by Ofcom.
“Yes, it has had breaches of the Ofcom code, but so have Sky, ITV and the BBC.”
Salmond added that closing down RT would send the message that “your standpoint is so uncertain that you must exclude other perspectives”.
He said: “To censure would make a travesty of the concept of nation speaking unto nation, a mockery of freedom of speech and it would portray an image of a country lost in self-doubt.
“Liberal democracies don’t succeed in international confrontations by sacrificing their dearest held values – their freedom of speech.”
Just last week, Cole-Hamilton filed a motion in the Scottish Parliament condemning Russia and Russian-backed media outlets for denying Russian involvement in the attack in Salisbury.
He has also encouraged Scottish politicians and businesses to distance themselves from Russian state-backed media companies.
He said: “There’s a cold irony in Alex Salmond driving traffic to his show on Russia Today for his reaction to the Skripal poisoning.
“This isn’t just some whodunnit for Salmond to joke about, as he did trailing his LBC show on Twitter, it’s a chemical attack on British soil and hundreds of British citizens could be affected in the weeks and months to come. If he has any decency he will make this his last show.
“I applaud the Prime Minister’s move to expel Russian diplomats and would urge all groups and individuals in Scottish public life to take a stand by refusing future invitations for interview and to end any commercial relationships with Russian state-backed media outlets immediately.”
In Scotland, Sputnik, the multimedia arm of Kremlin-run news agency Rossiya Segodnya, has been expelled from Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce.
In the wake of the poisoning, calls had been made for the chamber to reconsider any links to Sputnik. City of Edinburgh Council voted to ask them to “terminate its agreement with Sputnik forthwith” at a recent full council meeting.
A Sputnik UK spokesperson said it is a “discreditable moment” for the chamber.
They said: “We disagree with the decision which we believe violates the principles of an independent and non-political body that the Chamber of Commerce claims to be.”
Others have argued that focusing on Salmond and RT is deflecting attention from real questions about the investment of Russian roubles in British politics, or more specifically, in the Tory party.
Embarrassingly, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was forced to defend a £160,000 donation made to the Conservatives by a former Russian minister’s wife, in return for a tennis match with him in 2014.
Lubov Chernukhin had bid at a fundraising auction at a Tory event.
While the donation was in accordance with Electoral Commission rules, it still created an awkward moment for Johnson, who was quizzed about the donation on the Andrew Marr Show.
He said: “It’s very important that we do not allow a miasma of suspicion about all Russians in London – and indeed all rich Russians in London – to be created.”
Chernukhin is also, allegedly, the donor who paid £20,000 earlier this year to have dinner with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.
Speaking at First Minister’s Questions on 15 March, Davidson welcomed Theresa May’s “robust and proportionate measures”.
She added: “The attack could just as easily have happened on the streets of Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Glasgow. Yesterday, the United Kingdom Government announced a range of measures including further sanctions against Russia, the suspension of all high-level bilateral engagement between the UK and Russia, new powers to bar people suspected of hostile state activity from entering our country and the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats.”
When Sturgeon said in response that “a number of other issues also require to be looked at, such as the influence of Russian money in our society and, indeed, Russian donations to political parties”, Davidson said it is the duty of elected representatives to make their positions clear, and “I hope that I have done so in this chamber”.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has come under fire for failing to condemn the Kremlin directly following the attack.
Speaking in the Commons after Theresa May’s speech, Corbyn condemned the “deeply alarming attack” and said the events in Salisbury had “appalled the country and need thorough investigation”.
He added: “We need to continue seeking a robust dialogue with Russia on all the issues dividing our countries, both domestic and international – rather than simply cutting off contact and simply letting tensions and divisions get worse, and potentially even more dangerous.
“We’re all familiar with the way huge fortunes, often acquired in the most dubious circumstances in Russia, sometimes connected with criminal elements, have ended up sheltering in London and trying to buy political influence in British party politics. Meddling in elections, as the Prime Minister put it, and there has been over £800,000 worth of donations to the Conservative Party from Russian oligarchs and their associates.”
However, writing in The Scotsman, former Scottish justice secretary Kenny Macaskill said: “Rather than seeking to restrain what they have helped create, [Boris Johnson] and his kind have sought to benefit from it by actively encouraging Russian money into London and then asking few questions about its legitimacy.
“Cabinet ministers will castigate a few but connive with others, for the City of London and the post-Brexit Britain they dream of is dependent not just on Russian oligarchs’ funds, but assets from other despots the world over.
“Cold War rhetoric and a few scapegoats doesn’t mask the reality that it’s the Russian monster they helped create and the financial order that they seek.”
All in all, it creates the perception that our links with Russia are not as foreign as we might think and while the rhetoric ramps up over the return to a Cold War or worse, our relationship with Russia is worth some detailed examination.