Britain’s opposition Labour party has called on Boris Johnson to consider sanctions on Alexander Lebedev after the former KGB officer, whose son sits in the House of Lords, was placed under sanctions by Canada.
The move by the Canadian government is politically challenging for the prime minister, given his close links to the Lebedev family. He attended Lebedev’s 60th birthday party the night after winning the 2019 election and has since ennobled his son Evgeny Lebedev, the co-owner of the Evening Standard and Independent news organisations.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said anyone with links to the KGB should face sanctions.
“The Conservatives have been so slow and too soft in issuing sanctions to those with links to Putin. There is now an extremely strong case for Alexander Lebedev to face sanctions from the UK and the government must now urgently look at the evidence,” she said.
Johnson has previously been criticised for pushing for the younger Lebedev’s peerage despite concerns from the security services.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief of staff, has claimed: “I was in the room when the PM was told by Cabinet Office officials that the intelligence services and other parts of the deep state had, let’s say serious reservations, about the PM’s plan.”
The prime minister has regularly attended parties at an Italian mansion owned by the media magnate’s family, including when he was foreign secretary.
Canada’s foreign minister, Mélanie Jolie, announced a fresh list of sanctions on Friday that hit 14 Russian individuals and banned the import of Russian vodka and diamonds — taking its total sanctions to more than 1,000 individuals and entities.
“The Putin regime must, and will, answer for their unjustifiable acts,” she said. “Canada, together with our allies, will be relentless in our efforts to maintain pressure on the Russian regime until it is no longer able to wage war. We are unwavering in our support for Ukraine and its people.”
Evgeny Lebedev in 2014 defended Putin’s invasion of Crimea in a BBC interview.
However a few weeks ago he issued an appeal to the Russian President to stop the Ukrainian invasion: “As a Russian citizen I plead with you to stop Russians killing their Ukrainian brothers and sisters. As a British citizen I ask you to save Europe from war. As a Russian patriot I plead that you prevent any more young Russian soldiers from dying needlessly,” he said.
The older Lebedev was a senior banker in the 1990s, after leaving the KGB, and before making a fortune in other industries including aviation. He is involved in the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Before the 2008 financial crash he was estimated by Forbes to have amassed a fortune of £3.1bn — putting him 39th in the Russian rich list — but after the crash he told The Guardian: “My stocks were worth $1bn. They’re now worth $300mn. OK, so what?”
Lebedev senior said Canada’s move proved western politicians did not understand Russia.
“I have been an opposition figure for a decade, spent a year of a trial on trump[ed] up charges expecting a seven-year sentence, didn’t leave my country, lost all the money and assets I had as well as my cause,” he said.
This month the British government resisted calls by Labour to release the advice given to Johnson by the security services before the prime minister nominated Evgeny Lebedev his for a peerage.
Ministers released nine pages of documents relating to the process, some heavily redacted, but they excluded confidential advice from the security services.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis released a separate document describing Lebedev as a “man of good standing”, but said any further details must remain secret to “protect national security”
Documents at Companies House suggest the Lebedev family has sustained losses far in excess of £100mn since 2009, even after profits from selling the I newspaper as well as stakes in the Independent and the London Evening Standard.
The free sheet, which is popular with the capital’s commuters, was particularly hard-hit by the Covid pandemic as workers stayed at home, and it has made losses almost every year since its acquisition.