UK has approved over £200 million worth of exports with potential military use to Russia since the Salisbury poisonings

By Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis, Declassified UK, 23 July 2020

In the two years since a British citizen died following a chemical attack by Russian military intelligence officers in southern England, the UK government has licenced £232-million worth of controlled equipment to Russia, Declassified UK has found.

Former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the city of Salisbury in March 2018. Two local people, one of whom died, were later exposed to the nerve agent used in the attack, which evidence suggests was carried out by Russian military intelligence officers. 

But new figures show that in the two years after the attack, from April 2018 to April 2020, the UK government licenced £232-million worth of dual-use controlled exports to end-users in Russia. Such exports are defined by the government as “items which can be used for both civil and military purposes”.

British ministers have approved 609 export licences to Russia for goods on its controlled list over the same period. Among the most frequent and controversial exports is “information security equipment”, including goods for “cyber defence”.

In 2019, the year after the Salisbury incident, UK ministers approved more controlled export licences to Russia than to UK allies like Germany and France. Russia had the fifth-highest number of British export approvals in the world.

The Department for International Trade, which oversees the licencing regime, would not provide Declassified with details on how many licences were destined for end-use by the Russian government. 

European Union sanctions on Russia, which the UK also imposes, restrict the export of items which can be used for military purposes. But the number of export licences for dual-use goods to Russia refused by ministers in 2019 was lower than in the year before the Salisbury attacks, suggesting that the poisonings failed to affect government decisions. 

“This data raises important questions about dual-use licences and how they are regulated,” said Andrew Smith of Campaign Against the Arms Trade. 

He added: “Dual-use licences allow for the transfer of equipment that can be used for civilian purposes, but also equipment that can be used for repression. Putin’s regime has an appalling human rights record and a very aggressive foreign policy. There must be a full investigation into what has been exported to Russia, who that equipment has gone to and how it can be used.”

The revelations are likely to add to criticism of government policy towards Russia following the long-awaited publication of a parliamentary report into alleged Russian interference in Britain. 

The report accuses the British government of welcoming Russian oligarchs and their money to the UK, “providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’ ” and establishing “connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures”.

Exports in 2020

Britain has been supplying Russia with controlled equipment throughout the period in which prime minister Boris Johnson has controversially refused to make the parliamentary report public.

Government figures show that in the first quarter of this year, ministers approved £61.4-million worth of dual use products to Russia. The costliest items involved nine licences for information security equipment worth £53.7-million. Such equipment includes technology to provide computer and network security, including secure “email systems”, “file/disk encryption” and “SMS”. 

In 2019, 304 licences were approved for Russia worth £88.9-million. Some 43 of these, worth £41-million, were also for information security equipment, including for “cyber defence”. Such exports are especially controversial given evidence that Russia is engaged in offensive cyber operations against the UK.

The use of sensitive equipment by corporations in Russia could pose a national security risk to the UK, as some companies in the country are assessed as working closely with the Russian state. The Russia Report concluded that “it is widely recognised that Russian intelligence and business are completely intertwined”.

The end-user is not always outlined in the government data but may include the Russian government, given that other licences are specified as being for “commercial” or “academic” use. 

In the third quarter of 2019, the UK government approved a licence for a controlled “virus” for use by the Russian government in its “medical research”. That year, three other licences were also granted for other controlled “viruses”, on these occasions to Russian academic research.

British government approval of controlled exports to Russia contrasts with other official enemies such as Syria. In 2019, Syria was granted just two licences worth £105,580. 

Trade minister Liz Truss, who has overseen UK exports of controlled goods since taking up her position in June 2019, last year posted a picture of herself with Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Russian billionaire Vladimir Chernukhin, who once served as Russian president Vladimir Putin’s deputy finance minister. 

Lubov Chernukhin joined then prime minister Theresa May and cabinet ministers for dinner in April 2019 after she donated £135,000 to the Conservative Party. Chernukhin is reported as being the largest ever female donor to the Conservative Party, giving £1.7-million.

During the 2017 British general election, the Russian embassy in London appeared to endorse the then Conservative leader Theresa May. 

Business interests

Around 600 British companies operate in Russia, with trade worth £15.3-billion in the year to June 2019. “The UK’s business community shows great interest in continuing normal relations with their Russian partners and is maintaining a constructive approach,” the Russian embassy in London states

The UK is among the top 10 investors in the country with assets worth £18.5-billion. “GDP has been increasing in Russia since 2016,” reports the UK government. “This should…benefit UK exporters.” British companies have particular “opportunities” in the life sciences, oil and gas, agri-technology, education and fintech sectors, the government adds.

While tensions have grown in recent years, notably since Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea in 2014, the British government previously fêted Vladimir Putin. The former head of MI6, Richard Dearlove, has said Britain’s external spy agency helped Putin get elected in 2000. The agency instructed then prime minister Tony Blair to attend the opera in St Petersburg with Putin in 2000, only weeks before the Russian presidential election that he won. 

In 2003, Blair invited Putin for the first state visit by a Russian premier to the UK since 1864. At the time, Russia was engaged in a brutal military campaign against secessionist forces in Chechnya, also involving attacks on civilians. 

The UK now invokes Russia under Putin as a military and cyber threat and has expanded its military presence in Eastern Europe, near the Russian border, while increasing its offensive cyber capacity.

The British government is likely exaggerating the extent of the threat posed by Russia to develop new military technology and ensure high spending on the military and intelligence services.