The West’s relationship with Russia is even more complex than the India-Pakistan equation. Although one appears to love to hate the other, all may not be what it seems. Donald Trump’s election campaign suggested that West-Russia ties may sometimes allow for covert cooperation – albeit limited and motivated – on selective issues.
Outwardly, the “Reds under the bed” phobia dies hard in Britain and the US even though Russia long ago became capitalist blue with a vengeance. Last week this column discussed how the release of papers relating to John F. Kennedy’s assassination was reviving speculation about a global conspiracy involving the former Soviet Union and Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Now, a British Conservative MP blames the Kremlin for the sex scandal that is threatening to bring down Theresa May’s Conservative government. He may even be right in a way no one yet suspects!
At the heart of the controversy is a dossier detailing allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour by Conservative leaders which has been circulating in Westminster for some time. Many of the mostly unverified charges refer to private acts between consenting adults. Others are strongly denied. However, some of the claims are serious. Several cabinet-level politicians are in the list. So are three women politicians.
One senior figure is said to be “handsy at parties” while another is described as “perpetually intoxicated and very inappropriate with women”. Some are accused of harassing researchers and junior members of staff, with one MP allegedly attempting to take three female aides away on holiday. One minister, Mark Garnier, has already admitted to asking a member of staff to buy sex toys for him, while also referring to her as “sugar t—-,” while Stephen Crabb, a former minister, has admitted engaging in “sexual chatter” with a 19-year-old job applicant.
Ministers and MPs are accused of attempting to conceal the revelations. One former minister is accused of paying a woman “to be quiet”, while another allegedly pressured a woman into having an abortion. The list includes a number of alleged affairs between members of the government as well as alleged “odd sexual acts” by senior figures. A video of one of these acts is said to be circulating in Westminster.
Intriguingly, Mrs May refuses to divulge when she first heard of sexual harassment allegations against her party MPs. Nor will she comment on the charge that government whips compiled a “black book” of the complaints made to them and used it to exact obedience from party members.
Those Conservatives who are trying to dismiss the whole affair as the Kremlin’s handiwork may be more accurate than they know. Claims that Russia holds kompromat, or “compromising material,” on prominent Western figures are not new. The two homosexual British diplomats, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who spied for Moscow may have been pressured at a time when their sexual proclivities could have led to criminal prosecution in Britain. John Profumo, defence minister under Harold Macmillan, had to quit when it emerged that the 19-year-old Christine Keeler with whom he was sleeping was also sleeping with the Soviet military attaché. Similar charges have been levelled on the other side of the Atlantic. Christopher Steele, a former MI6 agent who served in Russia in the 1990s as an intelligence officer, cites highly placed Russian sources to accuse Mr Trump of gathering intelligence for the Kremlin on Russian businessmen in the US. He also says the Trump team knew of a Russian hacking effort to smear Hillary Clinton. Mr Steele’s dossier was commissioned by Mr Trump’s political opponents,
Vladimir Putin surprised everyone by springing to the American president’s defence when rumours were circulating that the Russian security services were blackmailing Mr Trump with a sex tape filmed in a Moscow hotel when he visited the city in 2013. The story was “nonsense”, Mr Putin said, and the people behind it were “worse than prostitutes”. His defence was that Mr Trump was unlikely to use prostitutes in Moscow because as patron of the Miss Universe beauty contest he was accustomed to being surrounded by attractive women.
“He arrived here and immediately ran off to meet Moscow prostitutes?” Mr Putin asked mockingly. Ridiculing the notion of Mr Trump falling for a honey trap even if one had been laid, the Russian president added, “This is an adult and, moreover, a man who for many years has organised beauty contests. He socialised with the most beautiful women in the world. I can hardly imagine he rushed to the hotel to meet our girls of lower social responsibility – even though they are the best in the world, of course.”
According to Mr Putin, the US is “witnessing an ongoing acute political struggle” aimed at undermining Mr Trump’s legitimacy. Those indulging in it are “doing enormous damage to American national interests”. Earlier, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, branded Mr Steele a “swindler” who traded in “absurdities”. Mr Steele has been in hiding since his explosive report was published. After he left the spy service, he supplied the US Federal Bureau of Investigation with information on corruption at FIFA, the Swiss-based body that governs international soccer and organises the World Cup tournament. In fact, American officials believe it was his work on corruption in international soccer that lent credence to his report on Mr Trump’s entanglements in Russia. The evidence suggests that in the summer of 2010, members of a New York-based FBI squad assigned to investigate “Eurasian Organized Crime” met Mr Steele in London to discuss allegations of possible corruption in FIFA. Mr Steele’s British-based company, Orbis Business Intelligence, formed in March 2009, had been hired to investigate FIFA by Britain’s domestic Football Association. The Football Association was then hoping to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cup matches.
Clearly, Mr Putin and Mr Lavrov both hope to strike a more cooperative relationship with Mr Trump than Russia had with Barack Obama. Even if the Steele dossier’s claim of close ties between Mr Trump and Mr Putin are not true, some of their global aims may not be as contradictory and conflicting as they might have been if Mrs Clinton had been elected. Mr Lavrov’s promise to invite Trump administration officials to Russian-Turkish brokered peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups in Kazakhstan could be a straw in the wind of change. Playing the game, Mr Trump reciprocated by saying the US might ease sanctions against Russia in exchange for a nuclear arms reduction deal.
Mr Steele says the Trump and Putin intelligence forces work together. Who knows, it might emerge one day that the Kremlin compiled the British dossier to help Mrs May by embarrassing her opponents. Instead of being under the bed, Reds might sometimes be in bed with the high priests of global capitalism.
The writer is the author of several book and a regular media columnist