29.09.2022

The Kremlin, the oligarch, the former minister and his Tory donor wife

On Sunday evening, a group of media outlets published articles based on new leaks from the US Treasury’s financial crimes enforcement unit. The previously unseen papers, which detail suspicious international banking transactions, shed new light on suspected criminality in far-flung lands. But among the most shocking revelations are matters closer to home — in particular, the murky relationships between Moscow, super-rich political donors in the UK and the British political establishment.

One of the transactions showed Suleyman Kerimov, a Kremlin-linked tycoon, transferring £6.1 million of funds to Vladimir Chernukhin, the husband of Lubov Chernukhin, a major donor to the Conservative party. The transaction takes on a particular edge given that Mr Kerimov has, since 2018, found himself on US sanctions lists. In its April 6 designation, the US government suggested that the oligarch belonged to a group of “individuals … benefiting from the Putin regime and playing a key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities”.

The transfer was earmarked for real estate investment, but brokers at Deutsche Bank considered it questionable enough to file in a suspicious activity report. The bank noted the political exposure of Mr Chernukhin, a former Russian deputy finance minister and state banker, and the lack of transparency about the financial vehicles being used.

Several experts and former government officials interviewed for this piece also noted it was inconceivable that Mr Kerimov, a longtime Kremlin associate, would have made such a transaction to an individual abroad without approval — implicit or otherwise — from those in charge.

It is unclear how the cash was spent: whether any of it helped pay for Ms Chernukhin’s £135,000 ticket to a “girl power” fundraiser with Theresa May and other Tory ministers in April 2019; whether it contributed to the £45,000 winning bid Ms Chernukhin paid to play tennis with Boris Johnson (admittedly this was down from the £160,000 paid in 2014 for a game with David Cameron); or whether it was converted into any of the estimated £1.7m of donations that Ms Chernukhin transferred to the Conservative party over recent years.

Lawyers insist Ms Chernukhin did not receive a penny from Mr Kerimov “or any company related to them”. Her donations to the Conservative Party have, moreover “never been tainted by the Kremlin or any other influence”. As a former investment banker, Ms Chernukhin certainly had access to wealth. But it is also true that her prosperity increased dramatically after marrying her politically exposed husband in 2007. The confirmation of a financial link between the Chernukhins and an oligarch from the Kremlin’s innermost circle also raises serious questions — not least about UK policy.

Born in 1966 in Derbent, Dagestan, Suleiman Kerimov reportedly dreamed of riches from an early age. By the late 1990s — when he first became a deputy in the State Duma — he seemed to have found an excellent way of getting there. Political connections led him to favourable loans from state banks, which were then invested in state gas companies — remarkably, just before share-dealing rules were liberalised. When the stock price boomed, Mr Kerimov saw his value soar. At one point in 2007, Forbes listed him as Russia’s richest man.

The Chernukhins have a rather different story to tell. On paper, they are misfits of the Putin regime — an exiled pair following Mr Chernukhin’s decision to flee Moscow for London in 2004. But while some outlets describe them as political dissidents, there seems to be little factual basis for this. If anything, Mr Chernukhin has kept a studious silence in his time in the UK.

There are hundreds if not thousands of Chernukhins walking around London. They haven’t been sent or recruited, but they have reason to stay loyal

Roman Borisovich, anti-corruption activist

The couple arrived in the UK at a time when rich Russians were being welcomed with excited arms. It was an era of easy money for the hosts, with Harrods, elite car distributors, lawyers and private health clinics all frantically hiring Russian speakers.

It was, in the words of Nigel Gould-Davies, the UK’s economic attache to Moscow at the time, an “open door, Wimbledon” policy. “We let everyone play here while arguing it might raise standards back home,” he said. “What we didn’t anticipate was that the direction of travel would flow the other way, and they might change our own standards in a negative way.”

It is unclear why Mr Chernukhin left Russia, and those interviewed for this piece offered differing accounts. According to the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, he left after becoming embroiled in a criminal case around the time Vladimir Putin dismissed Mr Chernukhin’s former boss Mikhail Kasyanov, the Russian prime minister between 2000 and 2004.

In brief comments to The Independent, Mr Kasyanov said he and Mr Chernukhin had not seen each other since 2004. But he added he had “no reason” to believe his former associate was acting for the Kremlin in London: “Mr Chernukhin had no relation to politics, and I would suggest he has none now.”

Others beg to differ. The former investment banker and anti-corruption activist Roman Borisovich argued that Mr Chernukhin was one of many rich businessmen who “remained dependent on the Kremlin” by nature of his former association.

“There are hundreds if not thousands of Chernukhins walking around London,” he said. “They haven’t been sent or recruited, but they have reason to stay loyal. They aren’t self-made men. Anyone who has made money in the way they did lives on the hook of the regime. The Kremlin knows what they have done, and they can use it against them at any time.”

Mr Borisovich, who has long campaigned against the UK’s open-door policy, expressed hope that a new era of scrutiny was beginning. The Russia report by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) of the UK parliament, published in July, had for the first time laid down the problems, he said: “The UK political class has finally recognised it was actively avoiding due diligence, though it will long regret its decision to lay down a red carpet to dodgy businessmen.”

Agreeing with the sentiment, Mr Gould-Davies suggested that the ISC report offered a “a step change” by framing financial crime as a security issue. At the same time, he cautioned, the Johnson government still appeared “uncommitted” to investigating the true extent of Russian subversive influence in the UK.

“They are still insisting there is no need for an inquiry,” he said. “But ask yourself this: if a burglar has broken into your home, and you see signs of forced entry, wouldn’t you want to investigate? How else will you know if anything has been stolen?”

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