Ambassador Andrei Kelin's interview with Sky News, 21 July 2020
Q: Thank you Mr Ambassador for speaking to us today. My first question is have you seen the report today, have you read it, what do you think?
A: Yes, of course, I’ve seen it and and I have read it this morning. My first impression is that the Shakespeare’s phrase is very much applicable to it: much ado about nothing. The report is called “Russia”. But if you put the name of any other country, it will be the same, because this report is not about Russia. It is about the relationship between different intelligence agencies inside the UK.
Q: You say it’s not about Russia, but it talks about what it says Russia wants. It says that Russia seems to have a foreign policy as a zero-sum game. Anything that damages the West is fundamentally a good thing. What do you say to that?
A: I would say that the UK role is extremely exaggerated in this report, in my opinion. Russia does not have the UK as a special target. Russia exercises its cooperation policy with countries which are willing to do the same. But if the UK does not want to exercise that policy and be friendly with Russia, then OK, we will turn to other countries.
There are two types of accusations here. One is cyber. Cyber is an extremely complicated world. Russia is also suffering from cyber attacks. Just yesterday it was announced that since the beginning of this year about a billion of cyber attacks have taken place against Russian critical infrastructure. As regards attacks from the territory of the United Kingdom, I can say that during the recent referendum on the Constitution, we experienced about 500 thousand DDoS attacks against the website of the Central Electoral Commission on the last day of voting only. It is a big figure. I do not attribute those attacks to governmental actors. We do not know what kind of actors are behind them, but it is a remarkable thing.
There is one positive thing about the report. On cyber, it says that we should use the United Nations and its Security Council in order to establish rules of engagement. This is exactly our policy, because we would like to set up a normal order, under the UN auspices, probably a convention, which would provide for easily understandable rules of cooperation. Otherwise there will be a cyber chaos.
Q: People may find it strange to hear you say this, as the report talks about Russia’s cyber capability being a matter of grave concern and posing an immediate and urgent threat to the UK’s national security.
A: This is exactly what I have said. Capabilities of countries are growing. Instead of starting to think of possible cyber offensive forces, as it is proposed in the report, we should define terms. We should have consultations and establish proper rules of behaviour under the auspices of the United Nations. This is our position, and it is the only point in which it coincides with the positions expressed in the report.
Q: But you are completely denying though that Russia’s cyber activities pose any kind of threat to the UK?
A: I cannot deny that cyber attacks exist in the world. As I have mentioned, we have experienced many cyber attacks from the territory of the United Kingdom. At the same time, we have seen a growing number of attacks from the US territory, or else from Singapore territory. This is striking. The cyber world is extremely complicated, but attribution of cyber attacks to the government of any country is very dubious.
Q: Last week we had the UK specifically calling out Russian intelligence agencies as being behind cyber attacks against vaccine research centres. They were very specific and highly confident. What do you say?
A: It is very strange to me. Perhaps the people who made those accusations do not read the press. The day before yesterday a prominent Russian institution together with the Ministry of Defence announced that they had finished testing a Russian-made coronavirus vaccine. We have also established cooperation with Astra Zeneca and we have already made a contract on supply of their vaccine to be produced at Russian factories. So those accusations are about nothing.
Q: A large section of the report is about disinformation and defending our democracy. The report says there are credible claims that Russia was involved in trying to interfere in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, because it is a part of that foreign policy of undermining and dividing other countries. What do you say to that?
A: In the report, I have found one or two lines that mention Scotland, but they don’t provide any facts. My personal opinion is that a Scottish withdrawal from the United Kingdom would be very difficult for Scotland because of economic problems. Experience shows that small countries in Europe soon become depopulated, like Lithuania for instance that has lost 20 per cent of its population. I do not wish the same to Scotland. We do not wish that Scotland leaves the United Kingdom. It is not in our interest at all.
Q: So you say that it is simply untrue that there has been any Russian disinformation operation to try to support Scottish independence.
A: I have no idea. It does not make any sense to do this kind of operation. The issue of Scottish independence belongs to the people of Scotland and to the United Kingdom. Independence of any country – we have dealt with these processes, we know how difficult they are and we are not favourable towards disintegration processes in Europe.
Q: It is part of the alleged policy of Russia that anything that damages a Western country is seen as positive.
A: We would like to make friends, we would like to do business with Western countries, and we have no intention to damage Western countries, because Europe is our natural partner. The bulk of our trade belongs to the European Union and wider Europe. You do not damage your partner if you want to do business with him.
Q: So we have moved to Europe and to the EU referendum. In the report, parliamentarians are attacking the government for not trying to look into and investigate the potential meddling of Russia in that referendum. They looked at the US presidential election in 2016 where US agencies have come out very strongly accusing President Putin and the Kremlin of meddling in that election to support Donald Trump’s presidency against Hillary Clinton. They described it as a game-changing moment, they quote an official saying that. And that should have been a wake-up call for the UK. Did Russia try to interfere in the EU referendum?
A: In the United States, as everybody is aware, the “involvement of Russians” into internal politics has become a national game. As for the United Kingdom, I fully understand that this government is now facing extremely difficult tasks. They need to settle relations with the European Union, and they need to settle relations with their next biggest partner, the United States. They have spoiled relations with China – I don’t know why. And perhaps it’s a good escape to talk about Russia, to bring it into the public attention. It may be a good way out for them.
Q: Can you answer the question though: did Russia interfere in the Brexit referendum?
A: On which side? With the Brexiteers or with those who wanted to stay in the EU? For us, it doesn’t matter. Whatever happened with the United Kingdom would mean a new task for us, to establish a new pattern of relationship, whether inside or outside the European Union. The chances are equal. Having the UK inside the EU, we would have the current pattern of behaviour and the current pattern of trade. With the UK outside the EU, we need to change the pattern, and we are prepared to do that. But all in all, it is equal.
Q: But the claim is that Russia could back either side in order to amplify the division. So did Russia amplify the division during the Brexit referendum?
A: We have no means to amplify anything. As for the division, division is bad. To amplify it is also bad. We didn’t do anything that could amplify the division because it is not in our interest.
Q: RT and Sputnik are the two state-backed media outlets that are being accused in the report of spreading disinformation. Is that not true either?
A: RT and Sputnik are providing an alternative point of view. This is one of the principles on which modern journalism is based. You cannot call an alternative view ‘disinformation’. It is just a view. This is one of the Helsinki principles on which international law and order is based.
Q: And on Russian financing – another section of the report speaks about Russian oligarchs and expatriates here, especially those with close links to President Putin, and talks about the spread of Russian influence across politics and business and media, in a malign way. They describe it as Londongrad and they say that illicit financing is being recycled through the City of London, and describe it as a laundromat. What do you say to that?
A: It is a very interesting section, so misleading. Yes, there are some Russians, even many Russians, wealthy Russians who have poured money into the British economy – they have mainly escaped from Russia because they were prosecuted, they had problems with domestic laws. We have sent many requests for extradition of some of those Russians, because domestically they have committed crimes, and we have not had a response from the UK authorities. But if authorities here start to go after some of them for laundering or for unexplicable wealth, this would only be good.
The report is also saying that there are many people living here in the UK, such as financial agents, lawyers etc., who by the nature of their activities are working for the Russian government. This is absolutely unexplicable. They are working for themselves. They are just using this dirty money for their own benefit.
Q: A lot has been reported about how the Russian state and organised crime have merged together so that there is an ill-defined line, and that’s why there is suspicion that the Russian government is influencing these elite Russians in the UK in terms of their activities and their ability to influence the Conservative Party for example. Is that just nonsense?
A: I simply cannot imagine this. If there are those who have committed financial crimes in Russia and who are wanted for extradition – how can they at the same time be working for the Russian government? Do you see any logic in this? I do not.
Q: But there are elite Russians here who haven’t committed offences in Moscow, and they are also included into the picture when people are talking about suspicions of Russian influence and Russian money infiltrating the UK politics and perhaps trying to get the Russian policy in favour…
A: I’ve heard a couple of names that were mentioned in anticipation of this report, although they are not mentioned in the report itself. But tell me: if these were German names or Jewish names, would it be foreign influence? For instance, if some Germans were donating money to the Conservative Party, would it mean that Germany is intervening in the British politics?
Q: All foreign influence can be described like that. I think the concern is they look at President Putin’s priorities that don’t align with the UK perhaps, and they see Russia as a hostile actor, and that underlines and reinforces the concern about any influence.
A: It is up to the authors of this report – especially advisers of this report, and there are four people who were called as advisers for this report, some of them I know perfectly. It is Mr Browder who is a criminal who has committed several crimes in Russia and is now hiding in the UK, the US…
Q: He would disagree with that.
A: It’s up to him of course. It is Chris Donnelly whom I know personally as we have worked together at NATO – he has made fighting Russia the ideology of NATO.
Q: What’s the problem with him?
A: For thirty years, he was shaping the ideology of the existence of NATO. His task was to establish an ideology explaining why NATO should be against Russia. It is this type of persons that have contributed to the report. What do you want?
Q: The final allegation against Russia was about Russians that are living in the UK that are viewed as enemies, or traitors, by Moscow, such as Sergei Skripal. The concern is that they could be at continued risk. We obviously still have the Sergei Skripal and Yulia Skripal case hanging, and the UK has clearly accused Russian nationals as being behind that plot and the Russian state as being behind it. What do you say to that?
A: What is your question precisely? Indeed, some Russians who are in the opposition live in the UK. But if you take the 19 th century, there were many Russians who were living in the UK, in London, and were in opposition to the government. The same was true in the beginning of the 20 th century, before the Revolution. Many Russians were living here, including Lenin and others, opposing the Imperial regime in Russia. What’s new about that? Those people leave Russia, they feel that they can live and work here, just like the Russians that you have mentioned before, the wealthy Russians who allegedly try to intervene. I am not aware how large the Russian community here is. Some say it’s about a hundred thousand, some say it’s two hundred thousand. People are different. Let people feel free and live here. Of course, if they have dirty money, we will not be against the British government finding ways to pursue them.
Q: What about sending assassins into the UK to kill them?
A: These are James Bond-style spy stories. I like some of them, but not very much. They are very outdated.
Q: Just finally, you have now been the Russian Ambassador here for almost a year. What do you want from the UK-Russian relationship? Do you see it increasingly getting hostile or do you hope there may be a way to come to some new rebuilding of relationship?
A: I’ve been here for just over six months. But I have seen the end of this report, and it’s really bad. It says that Britain should not be friendly with Russia, and moreover, it asks others, allies and friends, not to become closer with Russia. And this is the worst thing about the report.
Q: What do you want?
A: What do I want? I want politicians in Britain to be realistic. They should look at Russia with open eyes and try to learn what’s happening in Russia, try to learn what’s happening in Crimea, try to learn about our economic development, as these are business opportunities and we are open for business with British businesspeople. Try to have normal relations. It will be for the benefit of Britain, especially at these difficult times that Britain is going through.
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