Senior SNP figures have held talks with Kremlin-linked organisations in a bid to ease tensions between the UK and Russia.
Jim Sillars, the party’s former deputy leader, last year set up a new group - “Edinburgh-Russian Conversations” - whose members travelled to Moscow to meet institutes and think tanks. He said First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was not informed.
Sillars also said Nationalist MSP Alex Neil helped organise a meeting at Holyrood last month which was attended by the grandson of the Soviet Union’s former foreign minister and supported by Vladimir Putin’s state diplomatic service.
However, the SNP leadership maintains a tough anti-Putin stance and there is scepticism in the party about the Sillars group.
Party defence spokesman Stewart McDonald, an arch critic of the Russian state’s human rights record, said: “Fellow independence campaigners need to remember that President Putin and his government is no friend of small, independent nations - quite the opposite.
“I hope that any engagement includes meeting with NGOs such as The Mothers of Russia, LGBT rights campaigners and civil rights activists who have to look outside of Russia for support and solidarity.
“If, however, it is simply to foster warm personal relations with the government of Russia and avoid these conversations because they might be awkward, then it is at best a missed opportunity and at worst an assault of the values that we in Scotland hold dear.”
It can also be revealed that another SNP MSP, Richard Lyle, had discussions with one of Putin's diplomats about re-constituting a cross-party group (CPG) on Russia at Holyrood.
Relations between the UK and Russia are at a low after a series of aggressive actions in Britain and overseas by Putin’s authoritarian state.
Russia’s military action in Ukraine in 2014, which led to the occupation of Crimea, was condemned by former Prime Minister David Cameron and led to international sanctions.
Tensions escalated after Russian agents tried to kill one of their former military intelligence officers, Sergei Skripal, with the novichok nerve agent in Salisbury.
The assassination bid came 12 years after Russian hitmen murdered another exspy, Alexander Litvinenko, by poisoning his tea in an upmarket London hotel.
Skripal and his daughter Yulia survived, but the execution attempt led to the UK/
The SNP’s leadership has offered staunch support to Theresa May’s government on the issue, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon backing the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats. Ian Blackford, the SNP Westminster leader who used to sit on Westminster's Intelligence and Security Committee, described the Salisbury attack as an “act of state terrorism”, and McDonald is a consistent critic of Putin.
However, experts believe that Russia has tried to meddle in Scottish politics over the last few years as a way of de-stabilising the UK through spreading misinformation.
Radio channel Sputnik, set up by the Russian government-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya, set up a satellite office in Edinburgh.
Alex Salmond. the former SNP leader, provoked fury after agreeing to front a show for RT, a station that is funded by the Russian Government. Ex-Nationalist MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh also works on the programme.
A Herald on Sunday investigation has now established that SNP veterans are part of a group who have opened up a dialogue with Russian organisations in the hope of paving the way for improved relations between the UK and Russia.
Sillars, one of the SNP’s most famous figures, is the vice chair of ‘Edinburgh-Russian Conversations’, which he helped set up in the spring of last year.
Joe Farrell, an SNP member and emeritus professor at Strathclyde University, is chair, Scottish Socialist Party co-spokesperson Colin Fox and Dr Tom Walker, a non-SNP member who campaigned for Brexit during the EU referendum, are also involved. Former SNP MSP Jim Eadie is also part of the group.
The name of the group was inspired by the “Edinburgh Conversations”, a shorthand description for a series of meetings that took place during the Cold War between Western political and military leaders and their Soviet counterparts.
The central figure in the 1980s talks, which alternated between Edinburgh and Russia, was British historian John Erickson, an expert on the second world war.
Sillars and other group members travelled to Moscow and St Petersburg last year to meet Russian organisations including the Gorchakov Fund, a think tank established by decree in 2010 by the then President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev.
A press release at the time stated: “The fund is being organised by Russia’s Foreign Ministry acting as its founder on behalf of the Russian Federation. Its property and assets will be formed through allocations from the federal budget, voluntary contributions and donations, and other sources, in accordance with Russia’s legislation.”
Sillars, Fox and Eadie, amongst others, were present at a dinner last year at Edinburgh’s New Club with Andrey Pritsepov, who is the Russian Consul General in Scotland.
According to the Gorchakov Fund’s website, a “series of meetings” also took place on June 18 this year with a group of “Scottish experts” in Edinburgh. This involved a Chatham House rules roundtable, followed by a session at Holyrood.
The Fund’s website stated: “The main topic of the discussion was [sic] current state of Russian-British relations and prospects of their improvement in different areas (politics, economy and public diplomacy).”
UK participants, the web-page added, included SNP MSP Alex Neil, Sillars, Midlothian Tory councillor Peter Smaill, an Oxford University professor and Walker. Neil and Sillars have appeared on RT.
The website also made clear that Pritsepov’s office was involved in the sessions: “The Consulate General of Russia in Edinburgh provided support in organizing the events.”
The Russian side was represented by figures including Alexey Gromyko, who is Director of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), a network of bodies chartered by the Russian Federation. Gromyko’s grandfather Andrey was the Soviet Union’s top diplomat for nearly three decades and dubbed ‘Mr No’ and ‘Grim Grom’ in the West.
The younger Gromyko has previously referred to the Salisbury poisonings as the “so-called ‘Skripal case’” and has written: “Those who are afraid of today’s Russia need to see a psychologist.” He has also called for a new permanent conference on European security with Russian participation.
Elena Ananyeva, Head of the Center for British Studies at the Institute of Europe RAS, was also present, as was Mikhail Alexandrov, described as a military expert at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, which is run by Russia’s foreign affairs ministry.
Tom Walker and I met a group of young Russian students at St. Andrews University last September, after coming back from Russia. They saw Putin as a stabiliser after what was the disastrous 10 years of Yeltsin, when the oligarchs stole the state assets and ruined families.
“I think the important thing is that Russia does not have 150 million Putins, and that he is mortal; and dialogue and engagement now, between peoples will enable Russia to find its new system.”
He said the purpose of the group is to speak to Russians about what they think about their own country: “If tensions are to ease [between the UK and Russia], and bridges are to be rebuilt, then understanding each other better, and employing respect for others no matter how different are the governing systems, seems essential.”
Sillars said the group met “four or five” think tanks during the Russia trip. On the Edinburgh leg, he said: “We set up the roundtable where we would have a proper Chatham House rules discussion with our Russian colleagues, and then tried to get some contact with Scottish politicians to have them listen to a Russian point of view. Alex Neil organised a meeting for us in the Parliament.”
He also confirmed that the group used the New Club dinner to introduce themselves to Pritsepov, adding that the event was hosted by the diplomat.
Sillars said: “It would be very helpful if some of the politicians started to talk to Russian politicians, to see what they are thinking.”
On the SNP leadership’s position towards Russia, Sillars described it as an “an echo chamber of the Cold Warriors down in Westminster”.
The SNP veteran said Sturgeon was not told about the group, as there was "no need" to inform her.
Neil said of the meeting in Parliament: “It was an informal chat about the state of play and relationships between the UK and Russia.”
It has also emerged that a Holyrood CPG on Russia that folded in 2017 due to a lack of interest has been revived.
Lyle told the Herald on Sunday that, during tea at the Consulate General office in Edinburgh, he was asked about re-starting the CPG.
Asked whether Pritsepov's office would be providing the secretariat for the CPG, the MSP said he understood that no decision had been made.
However, Green MSP Andy Wightman, who is the co-convener of the Russia CPG, said his MSP office would be responsible for the secretariat.
McDonald, who has previously accused Russia of sowing division in the independence debate, added: “Putin’s government is responsible for shocking levels of poverty and inequality; a continuous and brutal crackdown of human rights; the hunting and hounding of political activists, journalists and civil rights campaigners; aggression towards Russia’s small, independent and sovereign neighbours and, not least, a chemical weapons attack in the UK which resulted in the death of Dawn Sturgess.
“The government of Russia is not a normal government and it must be understood that relations with them cannot be normal whilst this pattern of undermining everything that we in Scotland respect - equality, the rule of law, the international institutions that secure peace and prosperity - continues.”
Source: “The Herald” (Scotland)