Russian Money in UK Politics
In The Godfather, Part II, mobster Hyman Roth is asked by reporters why he moving to Israel.
“I’m a retired investor living on a pension, and I wished to live there as a Jew in the twilight of my life,” Roth explains.
Sergey Kopytov is a retired Ukrainian politician living out the twilight of his life in eastern Europe. Like the fictional Hyman Roth, Kopytov invests in hotels. Except Kopytov’s hotels are not located in Cuba, but rather in the Crimean Peninsula, where he served briefly as finance minister in the pro-Russia Ukraine Party of Regions.
The Hyman Roth of the Godfather Part II was looking for a man who wants to be president of the United States. Roth had the cash to help elect him. “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel,” Roth says.
The very real Sergey Kopytov may been looking for a man who wanted to be the UK Prime Minister. And like Roth, Kopytov had the cash to help make it happen.
A $630,225 donation to the UK’s Conservative Party in February 2018—money helped install Boris Johnson in the prime minister’s office at 10 Downing Street—came from Kopytov, according to a bank alert sent to the National Crime Agency.
The bank alert, which tracked the flow of funds from Russia to Britain, was first obtained by The New York Times. It also was detailed in the latest issue of the UK magazine, Private Eye.
“We were able to trace a clear line back from this donation to its ultimate source,” an official at Barclays Bank wrote on January 2021. That “ultimate source” was Sergei Nikolaevich Kopytov.
If true, this raises troubling questions about Russian influence in UK elections. As in the United States, UK political parties are barred from accepting contributions from foreigners. The Conservative Party donation, however, was given a sheen of respectability. It was made in the name of Kopytov’s son-in-law, Ehud Sheleg. The Israeli-born Sheleg is a UK citizen and owner of a posh London art gallery, and a former treasurer of the Conservative party.
“I believe that the flow of funds which began with a $2.5 million payment from Kopytov to his daughter Liliya, and which ended with the $630k donation to the Conservative party was designed to conceal its origins from an impermissible donor and therefore the people responsible for designing the flow of funds committed an offense which potentially qualifies as a criminal offense,” the Barclays banker wrote in the alert. Sheleg’s wife, the former Liliya Kopytova, is a former Miss Ukraine 30 years his junior.
“Kopytov can be stated with considerable certainty to have been the true source of the donation,” the alert states. It adds: “Kopytov is a Russian resident and there is no indication that he has a UK passport or is on the UK electoral roll.”
It’s part of a pattern of Russian money and influence flowing into the UK Conservative Party. Boris Johnson played tennis in 2014 with Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a Russian former minister, in exchange for a £160,000 donation. Chernukhin donated almost £2 million to the Conservatives.
Even as the Kremlin meddled in UK elections and sent assassins to kill two former Russian spies living in England, Boris Johnson defended his decision to take questionable money connected to Russia. “It’s very important that we do not allow a miasma of suspicion about all Russians in London—and indeed all rich Russians in London—to be created,” Johnson told the BBC. The future prime minister made those remarks in March 2018, one month after Sheleg’s donation to Johnson’s party and mere days after the poisoning of retired military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal.
A lawyer for the Shelegs told The New York Times that the couple received millions from Kopytov in the weeks before the 2018 donation. But that was “entirely separate” from the campaign contribution. The explanation given was that Kopytov’s money, which derived from a property sale, repaid a loan made to Sheleg by his family’s trust.
In May 2018, Ehud Sheleg gave another £750,000 donation to the Conservative party. (That donation was not covered in the bank alert.) He was named co-treasurer of the party three months later, and took over sole responsibility for the job the following year. Sheleg stepped down as the Conservative treasurer in 2021, a few months after Barclays filed its suspicious activity report. His representatives say there was no connection between the two events.
Sheleg was one of the biggest single donors to the Conservative party. In total, he gave £3.6 million to the Conservative Party, which got him knighted by the queen.
It remains unclear why nearly three years elapsed before Barclays filed its suspicious activity report about Sheleg’s 2018 contribution.
The $2.5 million that made its way to Sheleg began its journey in Kopytov’s Russian bank account. It then passed through Austria’s Raffeisen Bank, according to Private Eye. Raffeisen has the greatest exposure to Russia of any foreign bank, with €22.9bn of assets at risk. Readers of my book, Trump/Russia, will not be surprised to hear this as there’s a long history of dirty Russian money flowing through Raiffeisen. An infamous 2006 US State Department cable released by Wikileaks stated that that Raiffeisen served as a front for the Russian gangster Semion Mogilevich.
It took weeks for the $2.5 million to land in the Shelegs joint bank account in Britain. The day after it arrived, Sheleg made his contribution to the Conservative party.
The Barclays bank alert that sounded the alarm about Sheleg’s contribution states “that sources, including a Private Eye article note Ehud Sheleg’s close relations with Moscow… [and] connections with organized crime figures.”
Sheleg’s connections with Moscow including hosting the Russian ambassador to the UK in 2015. His organized crime ties relate to a franchise of his Halcyon art gallery in Cyprus. One of the men involved, Rustem Magdeev, is accused in UK court documents of having connections to organized criminals, a charge he denies.
The role of treasurer of the Conservative Party is often a springboard to the House of Lords, the upper house of British parliament. Seven of the last 10 treasurers were made barons.
An elevation to life peer may now be out of Sheleg’s reach. Questions have arisen in parliament about Sheleg and Kopytov. “Exactly what current and former links do the Sheleg-Kopytov family hold with key actors in the Russian state? Finally, has electoral law been broken and, relatedly, has our national security been compromised?” the chair of the Labour Party asked on the floor of the House of Commons last month. Stephen Kinnock, a Welsh MP who was threatened with a libel lawsuit for questioning Sheleg’s ties to Russia, asked when the former Conservative Party treasurer should be labeled a foreign agent.
In The Godfather, Part II, Hyman Roth’s plans to take over Cuba were foiled by Fidel Castro. Exposing Sergey Kapytov as the “ultimate source” of a Conservative Party donation may have foiled his plans as well.