The news that police have launched a murder investigation into the death of Moscow businessman Nikolai Glushkov, so soon after the poisoning of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, brings into sharp focus the murky world of Russian oligarchs, spies and gangsters living in our midst.
But first let’s clear away some deadwood. Despite the Foreign Secretary’s claims, I remain unconvinced that the poisoning was masterminded by Vladimir Putin on the eve of his re-election, in an attempt to prove he is a “tough guy” – most people already know that.
Besides, when you’ve banned your main competitor, and most of the media are under your thumb, you hardly need to resort to murder to secure victory.
Nor do I know how much sense it makes for Russia – pretty big in the spying business – to disrupt the current system of “spy swaps”, which almost guarantee their agents safe passage back to Russia in the event of their being caught – though what sort of incentive that is remains in doubt.
What I do know is that in today’s Russia, the state, its agencies, big business and organised crime are intertwined, as portrayed in crime drama McMafia and as something I witnessed first hand a few years ago, when I found myself involved with the murdered Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko and his erstwhile “boss”, the also now-deceased Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky.
Litvinenko fled Russia in 2000 after denouncing Putin, and arrived clandestinely in London seeking political asylum. Enter hapless journalist, unknowingly paid for by Berezovsky, who was being asked to work with Litvinenko on his application for asylum, which had to establish that he would be in mortal danger if he was returned to Russia.
I spent a week in his solicitor’s office in London interviewing him or, as The Sun put it at the time, he was “being quizzed by Special Branch and Foreign Office officials at a secret address near the capital”.
Litvinenko described in detail his life as a “crime-buster”, where the worlds of the security services, mafia, gangsters and terrorists all collided. This happened most dramatically, he told me, in one particular incident that had grabbed international headlines – the bombing of a block of flats in Moscow which killed 293 people.
Putin blamed it on Chechen separatists and used it as an excuse to launch the second, very bloody, Chechen war. Litvinenko claimed that Putin was behind the bombing, but it soon became clear that in the lawless Moscow of 1999 that the FSB (the successor body to the KGB), Chechen separatists and Mafia elements, mostly funded by shady oligarchs, formed ever-changing alliances.
We had been advised by the Foreign Office to keep Litvinenko’s arrival confidential, so I was somewhat taken back when The Sun, under the headline “KGB SPY DEFECTS TO BRITAIN”, blew his cover.
I spoke with Berezovsky, who told me that the “the only person I have told was my friend Rupert”, and acted surprised when I informed him that Rupert Murdoch owned The Sun. Berezovsky was clearly more interested in embarrassing Putin than protecting Litvinenko.
And this was typical of Londongrad then, and probably now, where no one ever quite knew whose side this oligarch, spy or Chechen separatist was on. It was, and is, a place where successive British governments have allowed – indeed almost encouraged – fabulously wealthy Russians, many with very dubious backgrounds, to settle. London property offers a safe and lucrative place to hide ill-gotten gains.
Following the recent attempted murder of Skripal in Salisbury, Buzzfeed listed 14 people, identified by US spy agencies as being linked to Russia, who had died in mysterious circumstances, and in all cases the UK police had shut down inquiries.
The news that the police will now investigate the suspicious death of Nikolai Glushkov, a close friend of Berezovsky, is in marked contrast to the time when, under former Home Secretary Theresa May, it took 10 years to get a public inquiry into the death of Litvinenko.
Until now, we have welcomed the oligarchs and their money for crude economic reasons. I remember one very wealthy Russian telling me that they regarded London as “our playground, we can do what we like as long as we keep bringing in the cash”. Maybe those days are gone – or at least, are going.
We should welcome the many decent, hardworking Russians living in the UK, but we also have to recognise that we have been perhaps too welcoming to a panoply of Russian spies, oligarchs and gangsters who have brought to London their deadly games.
It’s surely time to make them unwelcome, to seize their assets and, in words that might appeal to Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, to just chuck them out.
Ivor Gaber is professor of political journalism at the University of Sussex