Boris Johnson has made a special request to Evgeny Lebedev and a Kremlin-linked Russian dignitary to circumvent security checks when he met them as mayor of London in 2015, the Guardian has learned.
Johnson’s friendship with Lebedev has been under scrutiny in recent weeks, including the prime minister’s decision to sentence the Russian-born media owner, despite concerns expressed by intelligence and security services.
Official documents show that Johnson had a meeting in his city hall office in 2015 with Lebedev and Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Russian State Hermitage Museum, who has ties to Vladimir Putin.
According to an e-mail published under the Freedom of Information Act, Johnson’s office described the two men as “VIPs” and added: “The mayor specifically asked that they not be required to go through airport security.
No meetings or written notes from the meeting were preserved, but a report to City Hall later said they were “discussing cultural perspectives in London”.
Labor said Johnson’s request was a sign that his “careless attitude to British security is deep in his bones”.
Lebedev, owner of the Independent and Evening Standard and the son of a former KGB spy, has always denied any ties to the Kremlin and condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Piotrowski is a significant figure in Russian culture, as director of the State Hermitage since 1990, and in politics, as one of 75 people asked by Putin to help revise Russia’s constitution so he can stay in power.
He was a member of the Duma, was awarded the Putin Order of Friendship in 2016 and was a member of the board of state television Channel 1.
Piotrowski was a staunch supporter of Russia’s return of Palmyra to Islamic State Syria, saying it was important for cultural preservation. In 2016, Johnson admired Putin’s “ruthless clarity” in providing military support to Bashar al-Assad’s troops to save the city’s archeology.
In 2015, Britain’s relations with Russia were already difficult due to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, but Russia had not reached its current status of outcast in the West, and political channels remained open.
A Johnson spokesman declined to comment on what the 2015 meeting with Lebedev was about or why he demanded that the usual security measures be lifted.
“As mayor of London, Boris Johnson met with a wide range of relevant people, media and businesses, all of whom were declared as required,” she said. “This government and the Conservative Party have held Russia accountable all along and have been some of their harshest critics internationally, from our response to the Salisbury poisonings to the decisive action we have taken since Putin’s recent illegal invasion of Ukraine.
Asked what the meeting was about and why the guests were allowed to pass the security, Lebedev said: “It is news to me that the oldest curator in Russia was allowed to bypass security checks.
“It seems that the mayor of London is courtesy of a rising figure in the art world and is trying to make him feel as comfortable as possible by saving him a metal detector and entering the system.
Angela Raynor, the Labor’s deputy leader, said it was a “pattern of behavior dating back years. He puts personal friendships above the public interest. ”
Labor also claims that Johnson “has never been serious about taking the austerity measures needed to eradicate Putin’s influence in Britain”.
Contact the team securely: create a Protonmail account and send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org; or use Signal Messenger or WhatsApp to message +44 7824 537227.
Controversy has eluded Lebedev since the House of Lords’ appointment committee expressed concern about his nomination and asked Downing Street to reconsider in March 2020, following advice from British spy agencies. The appointment came only after it was resubmitted amid pressure from Downing Street.
The chairman of the commission that advised Lebedev’s appointment has now been called to testify before lawmakers when parliament returns next week.
Paul Buh, an Irish historian, will appear before Parliament’s Public Administration Committee on Wednesday to answer “very serious questions” about Downing Street’s role in the appointment.
“We will hold a session to prove the role of the House of Lords’ nomination committee with Lord Beau,” Conservative committee chairman William Ragg told Raynor in a letter. He said members would raise some of the issues regarding Lebedev’s promotion to the session.
The spy agencies have informed the commission that the issue is related to Lebedev’s father Alexander Lebedev. During the end of the Cold War, Lebedev Sr. worked undercover at the Soviet Embassy in London. His real employer was the KGB’s foreign intelligence, and he left in 1992 with the rank of colonel.
Johnson has known Evgeny Lebedev for years. The prime minister was a regular guest at parties organized by Lebedev in London and at his rebuilt castle in Perugia, Italy. After one such event in April 2018, while Johnson was foreign minister, he was seen at a nearby airport looking as if he had slept in his clothes, apparently present without his usual security records.