For the last few years, the corporate media narrative has presented Russia as the USSR evil step-child. Vladimir Putin is often put forward as a megalomaniacal, James Bond style villain, with his finger twitching on the nuclear button.
A recent headline in The Sun exclaimed:
‘VLADIMIR SHOOTIN’ Russian president is gearing up for atomic war with the West by building top-secret nuclear shelters, security experts fear.
But this line contradicts the cosy business ties that Britain has with Moscow; they never ceased even when Russia annexed the Crimea and supposed sanctions were declared. Looking forward, in both Brexit-Britain and Donald Trump’s US, each new leader talks of a rapprochement. But did these friendships behind closed doors ever really end?
Another ‘special relationship’?
This is not to say we should ignore Putin’s human rights atrocities and military aggression inspired by imperialist grand designs. Not least, the Russian Federation stands accused of committing war crimes in Syria. But if you look at some of the Britain’s firmest allies – Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US itself, examples from a longer list – these nations’ human right abuses or aggressive military track-records rarely get in the way of Britain’s most special of relationships. The problem is the corporate media barrage, that so often gets melodramatic about Russia, ignores its cosy business relationship to Britain. Simultaneously, it downplays and ignores the anti-humanitarian and imperialist actions of Britain’s other closest military-business allies.
The latest frosting of relationships between Russia and the West supposedly came when the former annexed Crimea in early 2014. Britain and the EU followed the US lead to apply sanctions in March 2014, with further harsher sanctions imposed throughout that year. These included a ban on oil extraction technology put into force on 31 July 2014. The sanctions were tightened and then extended in 2015.
Announcing the first round of sanctions, David Cameron said the annexation of Crimea was “a flagrant breach of international law, and something we will not recognise. This behaviour belongs to the Europe of the last century, not this one. It cannot be ignored, or we risk more serious problems in the future”.
All is not as it seems
Tough words. But completely contradicted by a sharp-eyed photo-journalist. On 3 March 2014, The Guardian published Steve Back’s photo showing a confidential and internal Downing Street document. It showed the government’s line: Britain will not stop Russia’s access to City of London banks. Remember, City of London banks are not about storing money in high security vaults nestled somewhere deep below the Central Line. London has it fingers in many pies, including arms, oil and other parts of the Military Industrial Complex.
Scisco Media’s Political Editor Steve Topple published on Scottish media site The CommonSpace in February how British banks are indirectly funding the Russian nuclear programme. HSBC and Barclays give financing to the Russian state-controlled Vnesheconombank bank, which in turn funds the company Sevmash, which makes Russia’s nuclear submarines. In May 2011, this bank secured the largest ever loan for any Russian bank – given by many City of London banks, including HSBC and Barclays, brokered on a three year deal and lasting into the period sanctions were invoked.
Topple also revealed how British banks support the Russian Military Industrial Complex more widely, including Barclays who are partners with Novikombank. They in turn fund Rostec State Corporation, “an umbrella company for 663 other organisations, mostly relating to the military”.
The UK government did, however, take some stringent action. In early April 2015, it applied pressure on Russian owned oil and gas company L1, to sell its North Sea oil assets. Its rationale was that sanctions on Russia could lead to these gas fields being impacted.
The BBC report about L1’s reaction:
At first, Letter One said it would fight the ruling. But, Lord Browne [Chairman of L1 Energy] tells me, they have now decided that good relations with governments – any governments – are more important than technical battles over legal rights. Letter One has now agreed to sell the North Sea fields.
The input of Lord Browne should sound alarm bells. In a parallel world, where the mainstream press acted with consistency, it would be easy for them to have a field day about his move to Russia. Lord Browne jumped ship from a high profile British government role to become chairman of L1 Energy. His appointment was made on 2 March 2015, when sanctions against Russia had expanded and increased. By this point they included banning the sales of oil technology, but seemingly not the transfer of those responsible for managing it.
Browne’s previous roles included UK Government Lead Non-Executive Director; at the same time, he was a leading proponent of fracking as Chairman of Cuadrilla, the first company to try push shale extraction in Britain. Fracking, left to its own devices, is a serious threat to Britain’s ecological security. Surely within the mainstream hysteria about Russia, it is easy to imagine Browne’s move to Russia constituting a security threat. The industry’s main pusher – with all his insider knowledge – had ‘switched sides’.
Against this idea, there is a counter-argument that L1 energy is not beholden to Putin. Bloomberg makes the case that Mikhail Fridman is not “one of Putin’s cronies”. But if we requote Browne’s words, “good relations with governments – any governments – are more important than technical battles over legal rights,” it still seems questionable that Browne’s shift from Westminster to Russia’s oil industry passed like ships in the night.
Analysing press coverage surrounding Lord Browne’s business/political careers also deserves more attention. John Browne’s first high profile gig was managing director of BP during 1995-2007, a period that was hardly without issue. In 2001, Browne told Forbes magazine about his aim to push deep-sea oil drilling, as it had “the largest untapped reserves and the lowest-cost means of extraction”.
Browne’s gamble cost the Gulf of Mexico dearly in the BP 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. The New York Times highlights Browne’s willingness to take risks and cut corners on safety – profits at any costs – leading to the world’s worst oceanic oil spill. Another important influence of Lord Browne that is often ignored and happened during his BP tenure, was that BP (and Shell) had high-level discussions with the British government before the Iraq invasion in 2003. The lobbying aimed to share in the spoils of war.
Fingers in many pies
In 1998 Browne was knighted and three years later became a cross-bench Lord taking the title Baron Browne of Madingley. In 2009, New Labour gave him the responsibility of reviewing higher education. A year later the coalition government gave the oil baron the role of the government’s Lead Non-Executive Director.
This time it was not without controversy or social damage either. Browne’s report on higher education meant that tuition fees were tripled and opened the door for the corporate takeover of education. To the fracking and oil industry’s benefit, these industries often sponsor ‘research’. It may come as no surprise that these ‘Frackademics’ write reports that fracking is safe. On a similar controversial note, Browne’s government role meant he was in charge of hiring key positions, who in turn would oversee the British state’s drive to push fracking.
Despite this track record, corporate media controversy washes off Browne like water off a duck’s back. Imagine if the mainstream media scrutinised his impact. It might be harder for Browne to cleanse his reputation than wash crude oil off a seabird in the Gulf of Mexico.
A relationship that never froze
Another concerning omen is that Lord Browne is now in charge of Arctic drilling in Norway.
Previously he said Arctic drilling was too risky and too expensive, when competitors Shell were planning it in 2015. But he has since u-turned. Now he thinks it will be a place to drill for a long time into the future. When he was pushing fracking in Britain he claimed that too would be safe. His confidence or hubris when pushing his own projects has echoes of what he said about deep sea oil drilling.
Looking more broadly at British-Russian relations, and its potential dangers, it seems the press can use a great deal of imagination creating worst case scenarios. But in these visions of doom they completely ignore the impact of the so-called ‘1%’. Russia’s human rights abuses and imperialist ambitions need attention. But it is essential to also show how Russia is a capitalist oligarchy that has never really got out of bed with the City of London. We also need to remember there are other states and politician-cum-businessmen who also threaten both people and planet.