Friends of Russia or Friends of Putin?

Julia Pettengill

The recently-established lobby group Conservative Friends of Russia (CFOR) is doing little to dispel suspicions that its sympathies lie with the Russian government.

Last week it published an article on its website accusing the Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Russia, Chris Bryant, of “incompetence” over his failure to hold an annual general meeting at the required time. To accompany the piece, which has now been taken off their site, CFOR selected the snapshot of Mr Bryant in his underwear, originally posted on a gay dating site, which circulated in the tabloids years ago. The relevance of that particular photo to his stewardship of the APPG was not explained.

This most recent episode of sophomoric hackery has induced Honorary Chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind to resign his post, and Robert Buckland to step down as Honorary Vice President. According to the Telegraph, “A spokesman for Sir Malcolm said he was ‘very unhappy’ about the article and it was the ‘final straw’, adding to long-held concerns about the way the group was being run.”

Bryant has responded by accusing CFOR of engaging in crude, Kremlin-esque tactics to discredit him and force his resignation as the Chairman of the Russia APPG, and suggested that the group is acting at the behest of the Russian embassy: “I gather the Conservative Friends of Russia have covered themselves in homophobic glory,” and “clearly [they] would prefer a Putin patsy to run the all-party group on Russia. Did the Embassy pay for them?” CFOR chairman Richard Royal responded by accusing Bryant of using alleged homophobia as a “smokescreen [to] divert attention from the real issue”.

The group’s pedantic and vociferous attack on Bryant is an odd departure from the fuzzy aims listed on the group’s website: “We welcome anybody with a genuine interest in its [Russia’s] history, politics and culture, as well as those who want to learn more and those who want to teach others about what they know. CFOR is politically neutral regarding Russian political parties and candidates, but does seek to encourage open debate on issues such as international diplomacy, energy security and internal political systems.”

The Henry Jackson Society noted its concern about the CFOR’s aims from its inception, pointing out the absence of any apparent interest in democratic reform in either the group’s online content, the location of its launch party at the Russian Ambassador’s residence, as well as the early provision of news content derived almost exclusively from the pro-Kremlin Pravda newspaper. (The news section has since been varied.)

Yet, as my colleague Michael Weiss argues in this excellent piece published last week in Foreign Policy, the CFOR has done startlingly little to engage with members of the Russian opposition, preferring instead to mix with Kremlin-approved groups and politicians under the guise of “engagement.”

Michael notes that the Chairman’s decision, for instance, to submit to an interview conducted by a former neo-Nazi Ilya Goryachev should have raised a few alarm bells, and certainly makes it unsurprising that Sir Malcolm has finally seen fit to withdraw from what is at best a decidedly naïve outfit, willing to engage some of the more noxious elements in Russian politics whilst ignoring the pro-democracy forces seeking genuine political reform.

Julia Pettengill is the Co-Chair of the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society 

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