A University of Cambridge intelligence forum has severed connections with digital publishing house Veruscript, amid allegations that it may be have been compromised by receiving money from a Russian donor with ties to Putin.
It follows the group resignation of three convenors of the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar (CIS), an academic forum for the intelligence community known for its regular Friday afternoon events at Corpus Christi College.
A report in the Financial Times (FT) last week suggested that the members had left as a result of concerns that the Russian government may have attempted to use Veruscript, a digital publishing house which has provided sponsorship to the forum, to covertly influence seminar debate on national defence and security – a claim that was extended in The Times today. No paper has substantiated the allegations, or specified the manner in which discussion may have been influenced.
The resigning convenors were Sir Richard Dearlove, a former MI6 chief and ex-Master of Pembroke College; Stefan Halper, a former White House policy adviser; and Peter Martland, an acclaimed espionage historian at the University. According to the FT, the three stepped down before the beginning of Michaelmas term.
The Times claimed that Dearlove, Halper and Martland left as a result of discovering Andrey Cheglakov, a Russian billionaire and former Formula 1 team owner, had been financing the forum indirectly via Veruscript, an academic publishing platform. It quoted a source a saying the resigning members “were simply not prepared to take Russian money.” Mr Halper said he had stepped down due to “unacceptable Russian influence on the group.”
Cheglakov is the father of Veruscript co-founder Gleb Cheglakov. Speaking about Andrey Cheglakov’s potential influence, an unnamed source told The Times: “You don’t get to have a couple of billion pounds and live in Moscow without being broadly acceptable to Putin — so there is an issue.”
The seminar – established by Professor Christopher Andrew: official MI5 historian, Corpus Christi fellow and the founder of the CIS – is well respected in its field. Professor Andrew, who resigned last spring over matters he claimed were unrelated to Veruscript, has been close friends with Dearlove for 20 years.
Although it continues to deny that its activities had been influenced by Veruscript, the CIS terminated its relationship with the company on Tuesday.
Professor Neil Kent, editor-in-chief of the Veruscript-published Journal of Intelligence, also announced that he will be stepping back from his role in the forum, whilst remaining skeptical of the allegations.
Professor Kent’s resignation is particularly significant, coming after comments he made to the FT, in which he claimed that Russian influence was “inconceivable”, saying “Cambridge is a wonderful place of conspiracy theories but the idea that there is a Machiavellian plot here is ridiculous…it’s real Reds under the bed stuff”.
The CIS runs seminars intended to provide a forum for students, academics and notable figures alike to debate and discuss espionage and spycraft in the West. Recent attendees and speakers include Michael Flynn, US President-Elect Donald Trump’s nominee for National Security Adviser and the former Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, and Sir Simon Fraser, the recently-retired permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office.
Veruscript have strongly rebuked the claims, describing them as “serious and wholly unfounded” in a statement released on Tuesday.
“Veruscript is one of a number of sponsors of the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar,” they said. “It is standard practice for academic publishers to support relevant research conferences and seminars. This is recognised marketing best practice in media and other sectors.”
They went on to say that “Veruscript has absolutely no, and has not sought any, influence or involvement in the organisation, content or speakers at the seminar,” and that sponsorship given to CIS had amounted “to no more than £2,000 in the history of our partnership.” They added that Andrey Cheglakov had no influence in the operations of Veruscript.
Gleb Cheglakov and co-founder of Veruscript Nazik Ibraimova also released a joint statement, saying: “We are personally both very upset by these unwarranted allegations. We chose this country as our primary residence in which to bring up our young family, because of its values of freedom, tolerance and justice. We are disappointed that elements of the British media appear to have fallen short of these values on this occasion.”
Professor Andrew, remains convinced that the allegations are “absurd”, telling The Daily Telegraph that Veruscript sponsorship “could not conceivably influence anyone, not least in a university city which has home-grown a dozen billion pound businesses in as many years, and enjoys perhaps the best endowment of any European university.”
Former Russian double agent and current Life Member of Clare Hall College and Chartered Physicist, Dr David Gosling, told The Daily Telegraph that he had seen no evidence to support the influence of Russian intelligence on the University.
He stressed that national intelligence services commonly cooperate and collaborate, stating: “I think it is possible, but we must not go back to the old John le Carré or early days of James Bond as things have changed and the public needs to remember that.”
The University of Cambridge declined to comment on the story.
Reds under the bed? Claims of Russian influence across UK academia
Fears of Russian espionage have come to the fore in a number of arenas recently, with politicians and security services on both sides of the Atlantic alleging involvement by its government in the US presidential election last month, and June’s Brexit referendum.
UK higher education has also been highlighted as a potential point of influence for the Kremlin. The Russkiy Mir foundation, run by a former assistant to the head of the KGB, aims to build up links with elite British universities through a networks of academic centres specialising in Russian culture, but some have questioned its motives.
An event at the Dashkova Centre at Edinburgh University, which accepted £221,000 from the foundation in 2013, was promoted as analysing “military news and entertainment videos...some [of] which warn of the coming ‘Third World War’ started by the US and Nato.”
At St Antony’s College, Oxford, the foundation funded a programme of seminars including one entitled “Cultural memory in Sevastopol — Ukraine’s city of Russian glory”, delivered a month before the annexation of Crimea. In 2015, the University of Oxford was encouraged to reject a £75 million donation from Cambridge benefactor Len Blavatnik, due to his alleged connections to Putin.
This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Len Blavatnik's connections to Putin are alleged
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