LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended meeting a Russian oligarch with a KGB past, saying “as far as I am aware” no government business was discussed at the 2018 get-together.
Johnson, who quit as Conservative Party leader July 7 after months of ethics scandals, is facing questions about his relationship with Russia-born newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev and his father, Alexander. The older man is a businessman and former Cold War-era KGB officer who has been sanctioned by Canada for his alleged role in enabling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In April 2018, Johnson went to a party at Evgeny Lebedev’s Italian mansion that was also attended by Alexander Lebedev. Johnson, who was British foreign secretary at the time, was not accompanied by any officials.
The event was held as Johnson returned from a NATO meeting, and weeks after former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury. A police officer and two local people were also sickened, one of whom, Dawn Sturgess, later died.
Britain blames Russia’s GRU security service for the Salisbury attack, a charge Moscow denies.
Johnson told a committee of senior lawmakers that his meeting with Alexander Lebedev “was not a formal meeting, nor something that was pre-arranged.” He said it was normal for Britain’s top diplomat to attend a “private, social occasion” without officials or security staff.
He said in a letter published Tuesday by Parliament’s Liaison Committee that “as far as I am aware, no government business was discussed” at the party.
Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Johnson’s “mealy-mouthed statement raises more questions than it answers.”
She said Johnson “apparently still cannot recall whether he discussed government business or not. This letter suggests the Prime Minister has something to hide.”
Evgeny Lebedev owns Britain’s Evening Standard and Independent newspapers. In 2020 was given a noble title — Lord Lebedev of Siberia — and a seat in Parliament’s House of Lords by Johnson’s government. British media have reported that U.K. intelligence agencies had expressed concerns about the appointment.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Johnson’s government has sanctioned hundreds of wealthy Russians and moved to clamp down on money laundering through London’s property and financial markets.
Opposition politicians and anti-corruption campaigners say Johnson’s Conservatives have allowed ill-gotten money to slosh into U.K. properties, banks and businesses for years, turning London into a “laundromat” for dirty cash.