openDemocracyUK: News

Pro-Russia Westminster group at centre of lobbying row disbands

The Tory-linked group had been due to host its first in-person event for two years today, aimed at strengthening ties between Russia and the UK

Seth Thévoz close-up
Anita Mureithi Seth Thévoz
4 March 2022, 3.04pm
Thousands gather in London to attend protests against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, 27 February
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Ehimetalor Unuabona / Alamy Stock Photo

An unregulated pro-Moscow lobby group linked to high-profile UK politicians has disbanded following the invasion of Ukraine.

The Westminster Russia Forum (WRF) had repeatedly urged stronger ties between the UK and Russia, as reported by openDemocracy on 24 February, the day Russia's invasion began.

The WRF grew out of the Conservative Friends of Russia, meaning it was not required to register as a lobbyist, raising transparency concerns.

Now its chair, Nicholas Cobb, has confirmed that the forum is “disbanding with immediate effect”, referring to “unwarranted and baseless attacks”.

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In a statement published on 1 March, Cobb said his group had aimed to “promote the equitable, neutral and positive ties between the peoples of the United Kingdom, Russian Federation and wider European area”.

He added: “We have been apolitical since 2014 and have focused on the promotion of trade, culture and people-to-people ties, and whilst we have had notable successes, the ultimate goal that we have pursued has failed.”

As recently as last week, the group was advertising a ‘multilateral relations conference’ scheduled for today. Dozens of speakers at previous such events had urged stronger ties to the Putin government.

The WRF released a statement after we reported on the planned event, insisting: “This was not taking place and we had not had the chance to amend the website until now.”

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The group had previously hosted events with multiple Tory MPs including Daniel Kawczynski, Caroline Nokes, John Redwood and John Whittingdale, as well as Labour’s former foreign secretary Jack Straw. Event attendees have also included Carrie Johnson, the Conservative Party’s former head of communications and now the prime minister’s wife.

Debate in the WRF had appeared heavily one-sided. Tory MP Kawczynski – reportedly dubbed a “Putin apologist” by other MPs – addressed it in 2016, complaining: “There is very little debate in the House of Commons about Russia.”

Today’s cancelled conference, said to have been aimed at strengthening ties between Russia and the UK, would have been the group’s first in-person event for two years.

Cobb had last week told supporters in response to openDemocracy’s story: “People wrongly associate us with the Conservative Friends of Russia, which was disbanded over eight years ago. [...] We rarely meet anyone from Parliament, our civil service or other political institutions and have for some years now focused on promoting trade and softer areas of cooperation – none of which require lobbying.”

Multiple sources, however, from a major book to a peer-reviewed journal, have all found that the CFR was relaunched under the name of WRF. Even the forum itself claimed to have been founded in 2012, the year CFR formed.

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