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The Johnson-Lebedev Letters: A Back-Channel to Vladimir Putin?
Letters obtained by Byline Times last year reveal how the son of a Russian oligarch and former KGB officer built such a close relationship with Britain's former Prime Minister
As Byline Times reports today, a new Channel Four documentary has shed further light on Boris Johnson’s extraordinary determination to hand a peerage to the son of a KGB agent, despite multiple warnings against it from the UK security services.
In this piece first published last year, we reveal correspondence between the two men showing how Johnson built such a close relationship with Lebedev and the deep impact it had.
“I am proud to call him a friend”, said Boris Johnson of Evgeny Lebedev back in 2011, adding that “this great city of ours would be a lot poorer without him”.
The Prime Minister’s close relationship with Lebedev has long been a curious one.
It began shortly after the young Russian bought the then struggling Evening Standard for just £1 in 2009. The newspaper had already fiercely backed his first campaign for London Mayor and Johnson was keen to build an even stronger relationship with its new, young and deep-pocketed owner.
Lebedev was certainly a willing courtier.
Until that point, he had mostly lived in the shadow of his father, the charismatic oligarch and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev. However, his purchase of the Evening Standard and the Independent newspapers instantly made him a significant player in the British establishment and one who Johnson was keen to get to know.
Correspondence I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that the two men met frequently for meetings, lunches, dinners and parties during this time.
In one letter sent by Johnson to Lebedev in 2010, he thanked Evgeny for what he said was an “excellent lunch” together, before setting out an “aide memoire” of their conversation. After again detailing his proposals for the city, Johnson added that “clearly all of these things require publicity and we would be thrilled if we could interest the Evening Standard or the Independent“.
Johnson was certainly successful in gaining that interest. The Evening Standard became even closer to Johnson and the Conservatives under Lebedev’s ownership, despite London voters progressively moving away from the party.
The Standard strongly backed Johnson for re-election in London, and then continued to back him as he re-entered national politics.
Lebedev would later make Johnson’s Conservative colleague George Osborne the Evening Standard’s editor. When Osborne – whose own links to the now sanctioned Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska had previously caused controversy – left the daily title, Lebedev replaced him with Emily Sheffield, David Cameron’s sister-in-law.
Even the Independent, which had traditionally been a left-leaning newspaper, was drawn in, backing Johnson’s party in the 2015 General Election – to the anger of many of its readers and staff.
Unhappy sources at the paper told me that the Independent endorsement had been down to a “personal diktat” by Lebedev who had become “closely involved in the editorial line” during the election.
Lebedev has always had a close involvement in the Evening Standard and has often made appearances in its pages. On one such occasion he was joined by the then Mayor himself, with both men pretending to sleep for the cameras on the streets of the capital as part of the newspaper’s campaign against rough sleeping.
Less well-featured in the publication was the news that rough sleeping had more than doubled in London while Johnson was Mayor, despite his pledge to eradicate it and despite his night together on the paving stones with Evgeny.
The close relationship between the two men continued long afterwards, with Johnson celebrating his landslide victory in the 2019 General Election by attending Alexander Lebedev’s 60th birthday party.
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Johnson saw other opportunities in his relationship with Lebedev.
At one point early in their friendship, he arranged a personal presentation for the media mogul on the subject of his ultimately doomed plans to build an international airport on a floating island in the Thames Estuary.
In one letter, he attached an article written by his then aide Kit Malthouse proposing that the new airport should replace Heathrow. Johnson added that he was “not sure I advocate closing Heathrow”, which he belatedly thought better of. He crossed it out and replaced it with “I am against closing Heathrow”.
On another occasion, Johnson appealed directly to Lebedev’s pocket and requested direct funding for London’s annual Russian cultural festival. As Byline Times has previously reported, the festival ultimately received substantial funding from the Russian Government.
BACK-CHANNEL TO PUTIN?
Evgeny Lebedev was also keen to get Boris Johnson on board for his own pet projects, repeatedly urging him to fund his plans for a Russian arts festival in the capital.
Johnson expressed interest in the project and even arranged a meeting in City Hall with Lebedev and senior aides to discuss it.
Minutes from the meeting show that the festival was aimed at “transforming global perceptions” of Russia.
The two men discussed funding, which Johnson said he was unable to supply. However, Lebedev appeared unfazed and told Johnson that he would instead personally “lead discussions in establishing further substantial support from the Russian Government”.
This wasn’t the only time that the Lebedevs boasted of their links to the Kremlin.
In 2018, following the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, Evgeny’s father Alexander reportedly offered to serve as a back-channel to the Russian President for Johnson, according to the investigative news website Tortoise. The idea was apparently vetoed by Foreign Office officials.
Lebedev junior has since sought to distance himself from Vladimir Putin.
Following the onset of the war in Ukraine, the Evening Standard published an open letter urging the Russian President to bring the conflict to an end. He later wrote an editorial insisting that “I am not a security risk” or an “agent of Russia”, adding that “the editorial coverage in the Evening Standard and the Independent, of which I am also a shareholder, of Russia and its activities over the time of my involvement in those titles makes that clear”.
However, despite this attempt to distance himself, opinion pieces and tweets sent by Lebedev over the past decade show him often mirroring the Kremlin line.
In one 2013 tweet, Lebedev sought to cast doubt on the Kremlin’s responsibility for the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London, suggesting that it may instead have been conducted by MI6.
“Certainly more to it than the generally accepted Putin link,” Lebedev wrote.
In one piece written in 2014, during Putin’s annexation of Crimea, Lebedev sought to defend the Russian President’s actions, writing that Russia had reason to act following the ousting of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
“Those who overthrow governments have their faults too,” Lebedev wrote, adding in words that mimic those being used by Putin to justify his current invasion of Ukraine that “it is not surprising that the far-right elements of this Ukrainian revolution will worry Russians, and that must worry their President”.
Lebedev also pushed for the UK to ally itself to Putin in Syria, writing in the Independent in November 2015 that “Britain must make Vladimir Putin an ally”.
Boasting about his “senior” Russian connections, Lebedev wrote: “I have no doubt, based on conversations with senior figures in Moscow, that the Kremlin wants to make an ally rather than an enemy of Britain.” He added: “I also believe that it is in Britain’s best interest… to work constructively with Moscow.”
Johnson appeared highly receptive to this argument. Just weeks after Lebedev wrote this article, Johnson wrote a remarkably similar piece for the Daily Telegraph in which he argued that Britain must “deal with the devil” and work with Putin.
Johnson continued to take a similar line to the Russian President during the Brexit campaign, during which he was branded a “Putin apologist” after blaming the European Union for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Days later, he doubled-down, comparing the EU to Adolf Hitler in terms which could have easily been made by Putin himself.
Throughout this time, Johnson dismissed warnings about Russian interference in UK democracy and repeatedly sought to suppress and delay the publication of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security report into the matter.
Lebedev too mirrored this dismissal of attempts to link Russia and Brexit, tweeting in the run up to the 2016 EU Referendum that claims that Putin wanted Britain to leave the EU as “idiotic”.
Boris Johnson and Evgeny Lebedev quickly became close friends.
Transparency records I obtained in 2012 revealed that Lebedev had paid for Johnson to be jetted out for a “personal” trip to his Italian villa. The Evening Standard’s then editor Sarah Sands (who went on to edit BBC Radio 4’s Today programme) picked up the tab for his taxi from the airport.
Asked about the first of these trips, which had not appeared in his official diary, Johnson’s spokesman initially told me that he had attended Lebedev’s retreat in order to “relentlessly promote his vision for London”.
However, when I later requested information on the cost of the trip, Johnson’s spokesman then suggested that the flights, which they estimated as being worth £1,696, had been laid on for a “purely personal” trip for Johnson.
Exactly what happened during these trips is contested. However, Johnson certainly seemed to enjoy them.
Transparency records show that they became an annual event until he left office in 2016 and then continued once he re-entered Parliament and became Foreign Secretary under Prime Minister Theresa May.
On one of these trips, in 2018, Johnson was spotted stumbling through San Francesco d’Assisi airport on his way back to London. One fellow passenger told the Guardian that “It was a surprise to see him” and that “there was nobody with him and he didn’t appear to have any luggage”.
“He was such a mess,” he said. “He was quite dishevelled and his trousers were twisted and creased. He looked like he had slept in his clothes.”
The newspaper reported that Johnson was asked for selfies before shuffling into a corner of the departure lounge to fall sleep.
It later emerged that he had attended Lebedev’s party, which Italian news reports described as “X-rated”, without his security guards, prompting concerns that the then Foreign Secretary may have become compromised by his hosts.
As a former Russian spy, Alexander Lebedev is well versed in the art of gathering so-called kompromat on individuals, and claims to have been a victim of such an operation himself.
There is no evidence available to suggest that the Lebedevs actually do have such information on Johnson. However, what we do know is that the Lebedevs’ repeated hospitality and support for him helped to gain his loyalty.
In 2020, Johnson made Evgeny a member of the House of Lords, despite being advised that he may be a security risk. As John Sweeney first reported for Byline Times, the advice, which was relayed by the security services to the House of Lords Appointment Commission, was later dropped following a meeting between Johnson and Lebedev.
After the meeting, the contents of which were not recorded by officials, the security services mysteriously dropped their objection to Lebedev receiving his peerage. His full title is “Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation”.
Johnson has since denied this and accused anyone seeking to question his relationship with Lebedev of “Russophobia”. However, despite the current wave of sanctions and crackdowns on prominent Russian oligarchs, Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny have so far escaped the attention of Johnson’s Government.
Press interest in their relationship is now finally starting to emerge, with The Sunday Times last week belatedly making a splash with the news – first reported by Byline Times some years previously – about Johnson overturning security service advice in order to hand Lebedev a peerage.
The questions about how that peerage was allowed to happen, and the extent of Lebedev’s continued influence on the Prime Minister still remain unanswered. However, the questions are now at least finally being asked.
As the Labour MP and long-term campaigner on this issue, Ben Bradshaw, told Byline Times: “What is encouraging is it’s finally being being reported widely and I would hope investigated more widely. When these stories first emerged, very few people appeared particularly interested because it was all portrayed as some sort of anti-Russian, ‘Remoaner’ grievance campaign. That’s changing now.”
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