Ambassador Andrei Kelin’s interview to the Daily Mail, 4 August 2020
There have been two developments this week, one about the hacking of former Trade Secretary Liam Fox's email – the papers said that basically Russian hackers had gone into his emails and taken US-UK trade documents. What is your response to that? Did your government hack into Liam Fox’s email?
I have only read about this in the newspapers. What surprises me is that UK political forces have felt themselves targeted and being very much under attack. The recent parliamentary report on Russia states that wealthy Russians living in the UK have supported the Conservative Party, while at the same time there are statements that ostensibly we support the Labour Party. It is hard for me to understand which side are we on, which only proves that all these accusations are farfetched. If there is any background behind them, we would be eager to know it. Otherwise they are senseless and false.
On Liam Fox’s emails, is it something that Russia would investigate itself, is it something that you’re looking at?
I do not see any point in that. It is an issue between UK and US, and it is none of our business.
The other point is on Evgeny Lebedev being given peerage. It seems that he is the first Russian passport holder to be a member of the House of Lords. Is that a good thing? Do you think this is significant?
It might be a good thing because, in my view, the House of Lords, as well as the British Parliament in general needs to have a variety of views, alternative opinions to have a broader picture of things. I have had several and plan to continue conversations with British parliamentarians, which is another way to deliver our point of view for this better understanding. Otherwise, they will not be aware of the truth on what is happening in Russia. It is like an education process.
Is Evgeny Lebedev a friend of President Vladimir Putin?
I do not think so, as he was too young when he moved to UK and has lived almost all his life here in London. He is the owner of The Independent newspaper as well as several other media, so in my opinion he has and deserves his place in this society.
Going on to onto the Russia Report, there is a part where it says that Russia is trying to influence the House of Lords. Is that something that you recognise?
To think that Russia is trying to influence any part of the British society is a big exaggeration because UK itself exaggerates its place in Russian thinking and politics. Though I do understand why it is doing so. NATO has chosen to exercise a policy of deterrence of Russia. This policy has a military component which is pretty large and a political one. The way I understand is Great Britain wants to take up leadership in this deterrence, as apparently they feel targeted. The fact is that UK’s place in Russian politics is not that big, we have other problems of much larger magnitude.
The report also mentioned the so called laundromat of Russian money in UK. Do you think that Russian money in the UK is very significant?
I do not know the scope of Russian money here. In fact, a bulk of wealthy Russians living here have simply escaped Russia because they are being prosecuted there for tax evasion, fraud and other criminal activities. We would only be glad if the British authorities decide to take action against them. So far we have sent numerous extradition requests for these people but majority of them have been left without response. If the UK provides us with any information on them or positively responds to our requests, we will only greet this and it will benefit our bilateral relations.
What should Britain do then, should it be welcoming this money or clamping down on it, what should the government be doing? What is your viewpoint on that in general?
UK has traditionally been an asylum for those who wanted to escape from the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation, and has welcomed these people.
Would you welcome these people from a specific sector of society being investigated? Should they not be welcomed in Britain? What is your view?
Whether or not to welcome them here is solely up to UK to decide. I can only say that I do not consider them being a specific sector of British society, they are individuals, living in different parts of Britain, and I do not believe that they are connected in any way. By nature of their presence here they should be by themselves.
Is it wrong then to suggest that these people have links to Russia’s President because often they are described as oligarchs?
In no way are they connected. This is a story that is 20 years old when we had oligarchs. Oligarchs are rich people who can influence the powers, for example, the President or the Administration. We can call Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky such oligarchs, but the last time they had any influence on Russian authorities was about 20 years ago.
Do you have an opinion on whether Britain makes it too easy to evade tax? There is a lot of criticism here about it.
I have absolutely no idea how to evade tax in the UK. I do know that there are whole books about this in the US, so I am sure that these books also exist here. As for Russia, we are fighting tax evasion ourselves, we are trying to close offshores. In fact, just recently we have announced the decision to cancel the agreement with Cyprus on the avoidance of double taxation.
Just a bit more about the Russia Report then. It said that Russia had the potential which could have impacted on Brexit. What is your response to that? Did Russia meddle in the Brexit vote?
No, because we have no political interest in this, and for us it does not matter which side wins in this decision-making process. In the event that Britain stays in the European Union we continue to work with it as we were used to and this is normal. Should Britain leave the EU it would have to make trade agreements with the US, the EU, Japan, and likewise it is supposed make agreements with Russia because we also have bilateral trade as well as other relations. We will simply deal with this new phenomenon normally. So for us there is no sense to choose any side in it.
There were also comments on interference in the Scottish referendum. What is your answer?
The same applies here in terms of choosing sides. Personally, I think that it would be economically difficult for Scotland to stand alone in this world and in Europe. History shows that small nations, like the Baltic nations, become depopulated after they get independence. For example, Lithuania has lost a third of its population in the last five to seven years.
Where did the people go, to Russia?
Partly to Russia, partly to Poland and other nearby countries. Out of an over three million population they have lost more than one million.
So if Scotland was to stand alone, do you think that it would cause an exodus of people?
I can imagine this happening, especially with younger people who are less motivated to stay in a small country. This is my personal view, as I did not go into deep studies of any specific research in Scotland’s economics should it gain independence, but this is what I see in Europe.
Can I also ask you about space? The UK and US have accused Russia of firing a missile-like weapon into space. What is your view of that? Were you threatening peace by sending this projectile into space?
As for space, one should understand that there is only one treaty about space and it is dated 1967, which prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in it. Russia is, as did Soviet Union in the past, standing for prohibiting deployment and development of any kind of weapons in space. The problem is that US has a variety of military programmes on space, China as well has military satellites, and it is extremely difficult to establish prohibition of weapons in space. We do have satellites launched by the Ministry of Defence. As to the July 15 events, like our Ministry of Defence has stated, this object is a satellite inspector. It was deployed from our satellite to make examination from the outside of the satellite with its special equipment. This data has been sent back to Earth and will be used to make repairs at other objects. That is what kind of a test this was. Similar programmes are carried out by the US and China as well.
Has the UK done such test firing?
To my knowledge, the UK is far from this and now only has plans to make its own launching system, by the way from Scotland as I understand, plus there are a few satellites. In terms of the accusations, and I have asked our specialists in this sphere, the UK does not even have the capabilities to detect such activity in space, so it simply joined what the US was saying. First you need to have capacities to detect what has happened and then make such accusations.
So, is the UK behind in the space race?
Let me not make this conclusion. It is up to you.
What is your view about space in the future? Is it a potential new battlefield as it has been described?
This is what we are fighting against very strongly. We do not like the idea which is promoted by the United States that the US needs to have dominance in space. I am sure this will never happen. What is most important is to have this prohibition of turning space into some kind of a battlefield or launching weapons in it. Space provides a lot of possibilities for use. We do believe that in the near future space can be used for having small satellites which will help with Internet connection and Earth observation. This is exactly what your company «One Web» which has gone bankrupted recently started to do but then lost. This is what Elon Musk is doing. And this is what we are doing in Russia with the navigation system called «Glonass». It is an alternative to GPS.
So, you are developing your own similar GPS?
You mentioned that domination will never happen. Do you mean that US will never dominate?
I don’t think so. It is in our own interests. We started earlier than the US, we have many expensive programs on the exploration of Moon, Mars and Venus. Yet we prefer cooperation in space. For example, we have the International Space Station which we have been sharing with the US for a number of years.
Speaking about dominance, you mean in terms of exploration? You said that Russia is ahead in terms of exploring space.
This summer the US has launched a concept that everybody should help Americans explore space. Russia on the other hand has a bilateral program with the UK on exploring the Moon to be launched in 2027.
On the Treaty side that you mentioned was dated 1967, do you want it updated? Is it about anything else specific or do you want it to be more specific?
It is specifically about prohibition of weapons of mass destruction in space, nothing else. Meanwhile, we would like it to be about prohibition of deploying any kind of weapons in space.
The Americans and British said that they wanted that too, so why don't we just have it?
Because they do not want for many of their programmes to have some limitations on exploration.
And you do not want any military type stuff in space at all?
This is a goal. Like the concept of denuclearisation of Earth.
Let us talk about the Skripal case. What is going on in terms of your investigation of what had happened in Salisbury?
We do not conduct any investigation because we do not get any information from British authorities.
So, you do not feel like pursuing it?
We do not have anything to pursue. We have sent more than 60 diplomatic notes to the British authorities requesting for at least some information of where the Skripals are and what has happened. We did not get answers to any of these questions. Nothing new is happening here.
And what about two people Britain identified? Do you have any contact with them? Do you know where they are?
These people have been contacted and we showed them on Television. They have given an interview, their surnames are Boshirov and Petrov. That is all I know about it. This situation strongly damaged the relations between our two countries but really we are not aware of what has happened.
I know that after Salisbury Britain expelled Russian diplomats and Russia did the same. What has been the impact of you losing these diplomats?
The impact is that together with the British side we are trying to reestablish normal functioning of both of our Embassies. I discussed this issue with the British Ambassador to Russia Deborah Bronnert during our meeting last week.
Since 2018 have you been able to grow up in the number of staff again?
We still do not have the acceded number of diplomats neither in Moscow nor in London. They are growing very slowly and it is a long process.
But there isn’t a ceiling, so you could bring more people than you have?
We did not extend the ceilings.
So, you got rid of those people, they got of those people and now you are both trying to boost the numbers?
Not very much. We do not want to boost the numbers, they usually depend on the volume of bilateral relationship. In this case it is very modest I would say. Speaking about political relations, I would not call it a zero but it is close to being frozen, although cultural and economic relations are going pretty well. This situation does not dictate increase in the number of diplomats.
Speaking about relationship with Britain, what is your main aim while you are here?
The aim of every ambassador is to improve relations but I cannot say that it goes smoothly. The goal is there but practicalities do not allow us to count on much better relations, for instance like we had before Salisbury.
Do you think Russia needs to change the way it goes about things? I mean if the UK government was correct speaking about Russian hackers, vaccine, about Salisbury, does Russia have any desire to change that and behave differently?
We cannot change that because from time to time British press is launching groundless accusations. I would say there is a lot of mud being thrown in our direction. This type of attitude does not provide much of an appetite in Moscow for improving dialogue and the relationship.
So you would like British government to change its attitude?
It depends on the British government. So far we see duality. On the one hand they are sending signals that they would like to have better relationship. On the other hand they are making groundless accusing statements against us. We are not in a hurry, we are patient and we will be prepared for a better relationship when the British government will be itself.
When you said they are sending signals for better relations what did you mean?
For instance, this desire was expressed during the conversation between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Victory Day celebrations.
Did the President give you a specific mission here about what should be done with the relationship?
No, I would not say so because there is full understanding in Moscow what is happening here, so we are acting accordingly.
Can we just talk about the vaccine? Is it expected soon?
Yes, one of our vaccines has gone through three stages of testing and, as I understand, we are expecting its production in three different factories. It is expected to be registered within ten days and we shall start vaccination in October. Also four or five other vaccines are in advanced stage of development, one of them being produced by AstraZeneca which has a commercial agreement with Russian partners. It will also be produced in Novosibirsk. Our specialists will have to see which vaccine is better for this situation, or each vaccine might be applied in different situations.
What do you mean by three stages of testing of the Russian vaccine? What has it gone through, human trials or anything like that? It has been developed so quickly.
There are three different stages. I am not a specialist in this but I know that it has been tested on animals and then it has been tested on people as well. I assume more than 300 people took part in that testing. It has gone through all necessary testing according to the international standards. Our people who have developed it and the institution are part of the international efforts. They are all placed in the World Health Organisation and they know how to do it and what are the international standards. So believe me it has been done in full compliance with rules and standards that are exercised in this area.
Are you going to give it to other countries?
I know that some countries are interested in cooperation in this field (among them are India, some Latin American countries, including, if I am not mistaken, Brazil). When we complete registration and start industrial production and vaccinations, I am sure we will share it with those countries who would wish so. If the UK does not want to have it, we will not impose our services.
How many people will be vaccinated at early stages?
My understanding is that production will begin already in October. The first to be vaccinated will be doctors, medics and aged people. After that we will move to the vaccination of the rest of the population and it will be for free.
So Russia can be the first country in the world to start the vaccination.
This is not a competition. We do not want to be the first country in the world. We would just like to implement this vaccination as soon as possible to stop the infection spreading across the country. But we are not interested in, as it is written in newspapers here, stealing secrets to become the first in the world. We stand for cooperation in this field, not for dividing lines and making alliances.
Do you deny the UK claims that Russia tried to hack into its vaccine research?
What is the sense of it if we have already developed it and are in a much more advanced stage of testing and are preparing for production, while the UK is just planning to start the production in the beginning of next year?
How important is the cyber domain for Russia?
Frankly speaking, we are experiencing a lot of cyber attacks in this area against banks, against critical infrastructure, against other things. As only one example I will tell you that recently we held the referendum on the amendments to the Constitution that was from late June (including early voting), and on June 28 we experienced 500,000 cyber attacks from UK territory alone against the website of the Central Election Commission. It was DDOS attacks to be precise. I am not accusing and I am not saying that the British government is behind this attack, because similar things have been exercised for instance from the territory of Singapore, US and Ukraine, though at a much smaller scale. Yet the bulk of attacks have come from UK territory. Still we are very sensitive about the trend to attribute these attacks to any kind of actors, because the world is complicated here. We only know that it has come from the territory of the UK.
Is it possible that Russian bots in these ‘bot-factories’ in Russia are carrying out cyber attacks against the UK but you would not know about it?
I am not a specialist in this area, so I cannot go into detail in this area. I have heard that this exists but I do believe that it exists all around the world. And if these bots are sitting in Malaysia, for example, it does not mean that every hacker is Russian.
Is it possible that Novichok is being developed in Russia and you would not know about it?
I do not think so because we are very strict about adhering to the Chemical Weapons Convention. This is a very serious instrument and we stick to our agreements. We have destroyed all of our chemical weapons, which is different from the US who still possesses quite a lot of chemical weapons and have not destroyed them. We destroyed everything.
When did you destroy everything?
I cannot tell you the exact year but we have fully destroyed our chemical weapons, and this has been confirmed after relevant inspections.
What is your response to the accusations in British Defence Ministry’s reports of British ships following Russian ships in English Channel, Russian submarines trying to cut Internet cables in the sea, RAF Typhoons being scrambled to follow Russian jets?
My response is very simple. NATO ships, including UK ships and especially US ships, are engaged in a lot of activities in the Baltic Sea, very close to the Russian border. The same UK and US ships are doing absolutely similar things in the Black Sea in the south. If we will all agree not to conduct this type of activities close to each country’s borders, we would only welcome that. But this activity happening in the Baltic and in the Black Sea is very disturbing.
So are you doing it as a tit for tat?
This question is to the appropriate ministries of defence but I think that it is normal for warships to be engaged in exercising activity at sea. Though, really it is not tit for tat. Perhaps it would be too much liberty for warships to just travel. Meanwhile, US activity in the Black Sea started when they conducted the first ‘Sea Breeze’ exercise with Ukraine way back in 1997.
The UK also said that there are a lot of Russian mercenaries in Libya trying to influence the politics there and also in Syria.
First of all, every big country has its own mercenaries, let it be the US, France or the UK. Mercenaries are being hired for certain operations all over the world. I do not know about mercenaries in Libya. Our point there is simple. After a lot of fighting in Libya we should put an end to it, freeze the military situation. Our experience shows that there will be victims but neither side, be it the army led by general Khalifa Haftar or troops led by the Government of National Accord, will be successful. The fighting should stop and political solutions found, with all parties to the conflict taking part in this process.
There were some accusations that Russia is selling general Haftar weapons. Is that true?
No, we do not support the troops of general Haftar.
What is your future ambition in Syria? It looks like people were disappointed when the British pulled away with the Americans. What is going to happen?
90 % of Syria is now liberated from ISIL and other terrorist forces. There are still two large areas that raise our concerns. One of them is Idlib, second one is the eastern part of Euphrates. Many terrorists still remain over there. Of course, we are supporting the efforts of the Syrian government aimed at total liberation of the country. That is Syrian territory and it should be free from any kind of terrorists. The political process in this country should go in parallel. Efforts to convene the Constitutional Committee have been delayed because of the coronavirus but we still hope that at the end of August the Geneva meetings of the Committee will resume and a general election will be held. This is our goal. On the other hand, there is the problem of sanctions against Syria and the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the country. We have appealed to the US and the European countries, which imposed these sanctions, to be more realistic, alleviate the pressure and provide more assistance to Syrians.
What about the terrorists in prisons in northeast Syria? Will you have any role in what happens to them in the future? For example, Russia has taken a lot of ISIL people back, women and children, whereas Britain has not.
I have no idea about that. I only saw some articles on this. It is a big problem, I agree, but I have no comment on that. There are also those who have come from Russia and fought on the side of ISIL. Now when ISIL has nearly been defeated, they are coming back and we have to deal with them.
Returning to UK-Russia relations, do you hope for a reset in them?
Our relationship has a history of about 450 years. We had ups and downs. During the Crimean War we were enemies, for instance, then allies during World War II. In the end, we are living on the same continent, so sooner or later we will have to come back to normalising the relationship. It is unavoidable.
Obviously one of the things that set off the relationship on a different trajectory was related to Ukraine. Is there still fighting there? What do you believe should happen next?
Fighting in the East of Ukraine has been stopped. Now we need the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, we need the political process, which will provide political guarantees for the Russian population in Ukraine. It is not only Russian-speaking people. There are a lot of Russian citizens living in Ukraine. We should protect and provide them with normal and politically granted living conditions.
Ukraine said that Russia has invaded its territory. Is there any suggestion of how Russia could pull back those people?
It is a problem. If we leave the people living there to their own destiny, we are afraid that it will lead to purges and many people will be pursued.
So that is why you have the Russian military there – to protect the Russian people?
There are no Russian military people there at all. There are locals who have mobilised themselves into a type of civil guard to protect the region and to avoid offences from the side of Ukrainian soldiers.
Thank you very much, Ambassador for your time.
Thank you for your questions.
4 August 2020