A Russian Diplomat,Graham Phillips& the Conservative Friends of Russia
The Byline Times Team investigates claims that a Russian diplomat with links to the Conservative Party assisted a British pro-Putin propagandist
Much media attention has been devoted in recent days to Graham Phillips – a British pro-Putin self-styled ‘independent’ journalist – for interviewing British-Ukrainian fighter Aiden Aslin in Russian captivity.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, former Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick suggested that Phillips risks prosecution for war crimes and that such videos should be banned from YouTube, which hosted Phillips’ broadcast, as well as other social media platforms. Phillips claims that Aslin himself asked to be interviewed.
This was not the first time that Phillips has interviewed Ukrainian prisoners of war.
In its analysis of the Geneva Convention, the International Committee of the Red Cross says that images that identify prisoners of war or show them in humiliating or degrading situations should not be published unless there is a “compelling public interest” in doing so. Phillips denies any breach of the Geneva Convention.
Phillips is part of an ecosystem of pro-Russian propagandists in the UK claiming to be independent journalists. He was allegedly awarded a medal by Russia’s security service, the FSB – another allegation he denies.
In 2014, he reported for the Russian state-backed outlet RT from the Donbas region, where he was accused of spreading Kremlin propaganda. From 2014 to 2015, Phillips was employed by Zvezda – a media channel run by the Russian Ministry of Defence.
Phillips was reportedly expelled from Ukraine under suspicion for being a Russian spy – something he says is not true. The Ukrainian Government took the unusual step of issuing an open letter to UK authorities, condemning Phillips’ actions.
However, despite the ban, Phillips has returned to Ukraine where he has made videos for his YouTube channel, which has 250,000 subscribers.
One video focuses on the violence in Bucha, where Russian troops are accused of war crimes including rape and summary executions. Phillips’ video is titled ‘”Bucha Massacre”: Truth versus Propaganda’ – in which he repeats the conspiracy theory that Bucha was a staged provocation by the Kyiv regime designed to discredit Russia.
Phillips then goes on to say that, because he was not in Bucha, he “cannot say for sure what took place there” but that, reporting from where he was 200 kilometres away, he “never saw any inappropriate actions by Russian soldiers”.
Speaking to Byline Times, whistleblower Steven Lacey – formerly a member of the Westminster Russia Forum – claims that Phillips has previously attempted to solicit Russian diplomat Sergei Nalobin and the Russian Embassy in London for financial support.
According to Lacey, Phillips was forced out of Ukraine in 2014 and into Poland, where he arrived with no money. He claims that Phillips told him that he then called Nalobin – at the time first secretary of the political section at the Russian Embassy to the UK – and the Russian Embassy in London to give him money so he could get out of Poland. Nalobin now works as a deputy director of the Information and Press Department at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Phillips told Byline Times that he “never solicited anyone for money, let alone the Russian Embassy”.
In 2015, having returned from eastern Ukraine, where he was filming the ongoing impact of Russia’s invasion of the region, Phillips attempted to organise a fundraiser in Whitehall. The money raised, he claimed, would go to a hospital in Donetsk and “the city of Pervomaisk”.
According to reports at the time, Phillips thanked Steven Lacey for his support in organising the event.
The fundraiser was heralded by the Russian propagandist channel Sputnik but was eventually cancelled by its original Whitehall venue.
Facebook messages shared with Byline Times by Lacey suggest that Nalobin was also involved in helping to arrange the event. The messages show Nalobin contacting Lacey and saying “I understand from Graham that you need a new venue”. The messages further show that Nalobin recommended the Marx Library and suggested a potential contact. The event did not take place at that location.
Lacey suggests that he cut ties with Phillips in the run-up to the fundraiser and told Byline Times that he did not attend the event. Phillips said that “things did not work out with Lacey’s proposals” and that he organised the event himself.
“As for any contact between Lacey and Nalobin, what is that to do with me?” he said.
Sergei Nalobin has various ties to the Conservative Party, having once called future Prime Minister Boris Johnson a “good friend”. Photos emerged in 2018 of Nalobin with Johnson, as reported by Byline Times’ Adam Bienkov when he was at Business Insider.
The former diplomat hosted the launch of the Conservative Friends of Russia, an organisation set up by communications specialist Richard Royal in 2012. The group’s launch was organised by Nalobin and took place in the grounds of the Russian Embassy. The Vote Leave campaigner Matt Elliott was a founding member and took part in a 10-day trip organised by Russia’s tourist government agency.
The group brought together politicians with business people and Russian enthusiasts, including Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and Conservative MPs John Whittingdale, Andrew Rosindell, Nigel Evans, and Robert Buckland. Event attendees have included Carrie Johnson, the Conservative Party’s former head of communications and now the Prime Minister’s wife.
Nalobin was a key figure in the reported Russian programme to deepen the ‘co-operation’ between senior Conservative politicians and the Russian Government under the group’s umbrella. Nalobin’s diplomatic visa was not renewed, with RT initially reporting that he had been expelled from the UK.
Although Conservative Friends of Russia imploded months after launching, it relaunched as the Westminster Russian Forum, of which Lacey was a member until he left in 2018. It disbanded in March 2022, after Russia invaded Ukraine.