Why Russia’s forgotten war will speak almost as loudly as Trump at Nato summit


A column of Russian tanks moves towards the Roki tunnel in South Ossetia, Georgia, after the brief war there in 2008

A column of Russian tanks moves towards the Roki tunnel in South Ossetia, Georgia, after the brief war there in 2008CREDIT:DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP

This article first appeared in the Telegraph on July 11th. See more of my articles for the paper here

There is much anticipation about the messages Donald Trump will send at the Nato summit taking place in Brussels. 

But another actor making far fewer headlines embodies all the main challenges facing the security alliance in 2018.

Georgiais a small country, but represents the big issues of the day. Thorny questions over defence spending, operational commitments and a resurgent Russiawary of Nato’s eastward expansion are all played out in the nation of little over four million people.

Sat at the strategically important crossroads where Europe meets Asia, how the alliance handles the country’s hopes for Nato membership will say much about the current level of confidence in the alliance. It will also send a powerful message to Vladimir Putin.

Georgia spends more than the politically-charged figure of two per cent of its GDP on defence and is the second largest troop-contributing nation in Afghanistan today (it has had 33 soldiers killed in the country). It works with Nato naval forces in the Black Sea, is very pro-Western and seeks to join the EU. On paper it is doing everything asked of an aspirant new joiner to the security organisation.

But it has one big thing counting against it: geography.

“It is just in the wrong part of the world,” says Nicholas Redman of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a think tank. Bordered by Russia to the north and Russia-leaning Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south, it would be the furthest east Nato has ever pushed. Russia would not take kindly to such a move.

Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in 2008, after which two regions of Georgia – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – were annexed. Russian troops are still stationed in the country and show no sign of leaving. Even if relations between Tbilisi and Moscow are today tense but workable, the same could not be guaranteed were Georgia to join Nato.

Discussions about membershipstarted in the early 1990s, but only lukewarm support was offered to Georgia in response to the 2008 Russian military victory. Membership was spoken of ‘when not if’, but no firm plans ever materialised. Georgians have never forgotten this pledge, even if some in the alliance would rather they did. This presents two huge problems for Nato.

First, was Georgia to join Nato, what border would be recognised, asks Mr Redman: the sovereign border of 1992, or the de facto new line drawn by Russia in 2008?  The war has largely been forgotten and “there is a resignation by Western states that the two annexed regions are almost impossible to recover”. Many in the country disagree.

Nato’s fundamental principle – that an attack on one is an attack on all – would sit awkwardly in such a situation. Would existing members be happy to admit a new ally with such caveats?

The second problem for Nato is that the push eastwards over the last decade “appears to Russia to be an effort to rip countries from its orbit,” Mr Redman warns. There is no appetite in Nato right now to risk worsening the situation.

“There might be an anodyne statement like ‘we haven’t forgotten you’ but Nato has problems closer to home,”  he added, saying that the subject of Georgian membership is generally considered to be off the table.

If so, nobody has told the Georgians.

Speaking this week to the Telegraph, senior politicians from the country wereuncharacteristically united and resolute in their determination to join the alliance.

“The country has made significant reforms and Georgia is a much more progressive country than some that have met or are near to Nato membership,” said one member of the ruling party. “We would like to have a more concrete expectation of membership.”

A senior opposition politician agreed.

“Putin has gone on record as saying that if he hadn’t invaded Georgia in 2008, Georgia today would be a member of Nato,” she said. “His actions were extremely deliberate in dismembering our country.”

Any mention of Georgia at the Nato summit will be interpreted as either supportive of the country’s bid for membership, or taken as a sign the alliance would rather focus on other things. Either way, and beyond the razzmatazz taking place elsewhere at the summit, echoes from the forgotten war in Europe’s eastern outpost will be heard far and wide: from Washington to Moscow, in fact.

Bitter feud splits Reform Club amid ageism and bullying claims

Had he set off today, Jules Verne’s creation might not have bothered returning. The Telegraph can reveal that the Reform Club, whose honorary members include the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, is being torn apart by faction-fighting.

The increasingly poisonous rows, amid claims of bully­ing, ageism and blackmail, have come to a head over plans to appoint a retired naval commander to run it. After the club lost two secretaries, effectively chief executives, in the past four years, attempts to appoint Rod Craig, 66, to the £80,000-a-year post have met fierce opposition.

Mr Craig’s predecessor, Crispin Morton, a management consultant and former Royal Naval officer who saw active service in the Falklands,  made allegations before stepping down in May of staff being bullied and effectively blackmailed by members .

“I am not prepared to put up with this treatment any longer nor to preside over an organisation that is prepared to allow staff to be subjected to it with no prospect of protection or redress,” he wrote in an email.

Phileas Fogg
Phileas Fogg, who set off from the Reform Club CREDIT: CORBIS HISTORICAL

Opponents of Mr Craig believe he is too old to run perhaps Britain’s best known private club, which has made literary history thanks to Fogg, hero of Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.

There have even been grumblings – raised in one email seen by The Telegraph – about his wife Anne. Mrs Craig, a personal development coach, has been embroiled in her own row with a countess, who tried to take her to court over claims – which a judge ruled were “ill-founded” – that she had “poisoned” her daughter’s mind.

The Reform, founded in 1836 as a bastion of liberalism, has attracted many of the great and the good, among them Sir Winston Churchill, who resigned his membership in 1913 in protest at the “blackballing” of a friend.

In 1981 the club was the first of the traditional gentleman’s clubs to allow women members.


At the heart of the dispute is a battle for control of the club. The 15-strong general committee, which controls the Reform, is said to be split down the middle, with one faction supporting Mr Craig and the other against him.

“It has got really nasty,” said one member opposed to Mr Craig’s appointment. “This is all to do with one group of people at the Reform who think the other group are s—- and vice versa. It is just factionalism. It’s as bad as a school playground. But we don’t think a 66-year-old retired Royal Navy commander is right for the job. We need someone a bit younger and forward-thinking.”

Lord Balfe, a one-time Labour MEP who now sits as a Tory peer, is understood to have demanded an extraordinary general meeting in an attempt to block Mr Craig’s appointment, writing that it “risked dividing and damaging the Club”.

The Reform Club's grand interior
The Reform Club’s grand interior CREDIT: ALAMY

But one supporter of Mr Craig said he was disgusted. “It’s insane if people think he is too old. There are lots of rumours being spread and it’s nasty,” said the member, who declined to be named.

Mr Craig, who is currently chief executive of the University Women’s Club, stepped down from a similar role at the Army and Navy Club amid fears for its financial future.

One Reform member has circulated an article in the Army and Navy’s magazine confirming Mr Craig was taking “voluntary redundancy ahead of likely future restructuring of the club’s operations”.

Emails circulating among Reform members have warned that Mr Craig’s appointment would be “disastrous”,  although there is no evidence that would be the case .

Mr Craig was unavailable for comment and the Reform Club declined to respond.


Sir Richard Branson quietly shelves Virgin submarine plan

By Robert Mendick and Dominic Nicholls

Virgin Oceanic’s DeepFlight Challenger submarine, whose mission was described by Sir Richard Branson as “the last great challenge for humans”, has been mothballed.

Sir Richard Branson has quietly shelved his latest adventure: an ambitious plan to pilot a submarine to the deepest points of the world’s five oceans. The entrepreneur had a grand scheme to explore both space and sea. But his plan for the first rocket ship charging passengers for trips to the edge of space is in jeopardy after the craft crashed during a test flight, killing a pilot. Now Sir Richard’s dream of exploring the lowest points on Earth is also on hold.

Virgin Oceanic’s DeepFlight Challenger submarine was unveiled in a blaze of publicity in April 2011, with Sir Richard describing its mission as “the last great challenge for humans”. He had hoped the 18ft-long submarine, designed to “fly” along the ocean floor, would make its maiden voyage to the bottom of the Pacific’s Mariana Trench – at a depth of 36,000ft, the lowest known point on Earth – by the end of 2011, or failing that, by 2012.It would then move on to the Puerto Rico trench at 28,000ft in the Atlantic, followed by dives in the Arctic, Indian and Southern oceans. The plan was for alternating pilots in the single-seater craft, with Chris Welsh, a sailor and explorer, taking the first dive and Sir Richard the second.

Three years on, the DeepFlight Challenger has been mothballed, never having reached the bottom of any of the oceans. The Virgin Oceanic website – which had promised “five dives, five oceans, two years, one epic adventure” – no longer exists, apparently taken down earlier this year.

Virgin Oceanic had planned to charge a future generation of “aquanauts” up to $500,000 (£318,000), according to one source, to pilot submarines to the ocean floor. But the company that built DeepFlight Challenger has told The Telegraph it refused to back the project, insisting the submarine was suitable for only one dive and could not be reused because of the pressure on its structure at such depths. In a little-noticed statement three months ago on the Virgin group website, Sir Richard alluded to the project being scrapped but stopped short of admitting defeat. He said: “Starting new ventures takes a ‘screw it, let’s do it’ attitude and finding the right partners to help us achieve the unthinkable… However, business is also about knowing when to change tack. “We are still highly passionate about exploring the bottom of the ocean. However, we are now widening the focus of the project and looking for new technology to help us explore the ocean and democratise access at reduced cost and increased safety.”

Last week, Virgin confirmed the original plan for five ocean dives using DeepFlight Challenger had been scrapped. A spokesman said there were concerns about making the dives safely, adding: “We were not sure it [DeepFlight Challenger] would make it down. That project has been put on ice while we look at other technology that works.” The spokesman said Sir Richard still had ambitions to explore the ocean trenches, but there was no rush. “The name [Virgin Oceanic] remains our name, so no doubt we will revive it.”

DeepFlight Challenger was the invention of Steve Fossett, the multi-millionaire adventurer, who commissioned its construction in 2005. He planned to pilot the submarine to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in a one-off trip, then donate the craft to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
But in tests simulating the pressure at 38,000ft below the sea, the vessel’s domed glass cockpit showed signs of cracking, meaning that a replacement would need to be made from stronger material. That appears to be as far as the DeepFlight Challenger ever got. When Fossett, a close friend of Sir Richard, died in a plane crash in 2007, the ownership of the submarine passed to his estate. Four years later, Mr Welsh, who is also a Californian property magnate, bought the craft and a huge catamaran from which to launch it from Fossett’s estate for less than $1 million. He approached Sir Richard for further investment and the pair set up Virgin Oceanic in 2011. At the company’s launch in California, Sir Richard admitted the dives might be dangerous but appeared aware of future commercial possibilities, saying: “We believe there are thousands of people who’d like to explore the oceans and become aquanauts.”

But DeepFlight, the company that designed and built the submarine, said it expressed concerns about its suitability for repeated dives. Adam Wright, the firm’s president, said last week: “The Challenger was built for a very specialised contract with Steve Fossett. It was designed for one dive down to the Mariana Trench. The idea was to set the record for the deepest dive and then give it to the Smithsonian to put on display.
“Once Virgin took over the project, the importance of the one-off record dive shifted and they wanted to repurpose the craft. They wanted to do five dives. The problem is the strength of the vessel does decrease after each dive. It is strongest on the first dive.”
Mr Wright said DeepFlight had talks with Virgin about providing a consulting and engineering service, but pulled out. “As soon as we heard about the five dives and that they wanted to repurpose it [the submarine] and sell tickets, we didn’t want to be associated with that.”They were trying to sell tickets; they wanted to charge half a million dollars. We were extremely concerned about it… We didn’t want the liability of being the manufacturer of that vessel. “Had the focus of the project been maintained to the initial purpose, it would have been totally different. The problem was not the technology or the lack of knowhow.” DeepFlight was beaten to the record dive by another submarine, piloted by James Cameron, the Oscar-winning film director, who took his submersible on a solo voyage to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 2012.

This article was published in the Sunday Telegraph on 14th December 2014. See this link.

Tony Blair’s charity rich list

1292205nBy Robert Mendick and Dominic Nicholls

A trawl of documents reveals how Tony Blair used donations from wealthy friends – as well as the US taxpayer and the Swedish lottery – to bankroll his charities

They are among Tony Blair’s closest — and richest — friends. A small cadre of wealthy benefactors have helped to get the former prime minister’s charities off the ground and keep them afloat. A trawl of charity and company documents shows how Mr Blair has attracted millions of pounds in donations from the super-rich, as well as from the US government and even the Swedish lottery, largely for foundations he has set up since leaving Downing Street. His remarkable ability to network and use contacts made in and out of office has helped him establish two major international organisations with wide-ranging influence: the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

The documents unearthed by The Telegraph disclose:

– The identities of an American financier and his wife who gave AGI £1 million

– The money was used in part to fund AGI’s move to new offices overlooking Hyde Park in central London

– How AGI plans to expand its operations advising African leaders into half the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, giving Mr Blair influence over hundreds of millions of people

– How AGI trumpeted its ability to persuade an African president to discard three out of four of his mobile telephones as an example of its achievements.

Documents lodged in the US show that Paolo Pellegrini, an Italian-born banker and his third wife Henrietta, have given AGI $1.5 million (£1 million) in three payments each of $500,000 spread over three years. The Pellegrinis made the payments through their charitable foundation – the Paolo Pellegrini and Henrietta Jones Foundation. The foundation’s most recent US income tax returns, posted last year, include internal documents from AGI, explaining how their money was spent and what AGI has achieved. It includes details not available in accounts lodged with the Charity Commission in the UK. In the report to its benefactors, AGI states its “longer-term, five-year vision of achieving a footprint that touches on 15-20 countries”. If AGI was successful that would see the charity operating in about half Sub-Saharan Africa, giving Mr Blair and his charity — which offers governance and investment advice to presidents, prime ministers and ministers — enormous influence in the region.

The internal report details how well AGI is working in various countries. In Guinea, the report highlights how AGI’s team of four persuaded the president Alpha Conde to change his management style. “When we began, the president had a very personalised style of management. He delegated very little, directly managed nearly all important ministers and most of the more than 30 advisers at the presidency, and scheduled most of his own meetings via his four cellular phones.” AGI states it was able to introduce practical changes including the introduction of a morning meeting with “the president’s top team … and even the reduction in the number of the president’s phones from four to one.”

The Pellegrini foundation money, says the report, was used — among other things — to “contribute to AGI’s London costs” including the nearly £50,000 price tag for moving the charity in 2012 from Mr Blair’s private office in Grosvenor Square to its own offices in Marble Arch nearby. The report reveals that the Swedish Postcode Foundation, a national lottery with headquarters in Stockholm, also provided support for AGI’s London headquarters, as did Tony Blair Governance Initiative-US, an American offshoot of AGI, of which Paolo Pellegrini is president and Henrietta is treasurer. The American offshoot in 2012 sent £1.5 million to AGI in London.The Swedish lottery told The Telegraph it gave AGI more than £750,000. Part of that donation was spent on AGI’s team in South Sudan, a short-lived foray that ended when the country fell into civil war and AGI was forced to pull its team out.

It is not clear how the Pellegrinis came to be introduced to Mr Blair and AGI, of which he is patron. Mr Pellegrini, 57, who largely shuns publicity, made his fortune, estimated at more than £100 million, betting that the American housing bubble was going to burst. The hedge fund he worked for is reckoned to have made more than £13 billion on the 2007 crash in a controversial deal. The close relationship between the Pellegrinis and AGI shows how successful Mr Blair has been in attracting wealthy backers to his numerous philanthropic causes. Bill and Melinda Gates, the richest couple on the planet and good friends of Mr Blair, gave AGI almost £500,000 last year, according to the most recent accounts of the Gates’s own foundation. Mr Gates, founder of Microsoft, has a fortune estimated at £50 billion.

Mr Blair’s other main charity, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which attempts to reconcile world religions, has also attracted wealthy backers. Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch with a spectacular collection of contemporary art and owner of one of London’s finest houses, gave TBFF £320,000, according to accounts posted last year. Mr Pinchuk is worth an estimated £2.7 billion and has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine’s bid to join the European Union, a cause which has been backed by Mr Blair. Haim Saban, a US-based Israeli entertainment mogul worth £2.3 billion, gave at least £415,000 to TBFF through the Saban Family Foundation. His wife Cheryl, through her own foundation, has given at least £650,000 to a women’s charity run by Cherie Blair. Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch and close friend of Mr Blair’s former cabinet colleague Lord Mandelson, spent £300,000 co-funding a little-known charity run by Mr Blair, which lobbied governments over climate change, called Breaking the Climate Deadlock. Mr Deripaska, a Russian oligarch worth £4 billion, is president of the world’s largest aluminium company Rusal.

Mr Blair has also lobbied the Government for funding for AGI, but having been turned down on a number of occasions by the Department for International Development (DfID), has given up trying. AGI has been more successful with the US taxpayer. Washington’s equivalent to DfID, called USAID, is committed to giving £4.5 million through three grants. At one stage Mr Blair’s great friend Hillary Clinton was then US secretary of state in overall charge of USAID. Mr Blair has insisted his charity went through proper tendering processes before winning the contracts. Emails obtained by The Telegraph, whose existence has been reported by this newspaper, disclose how Mr Blair and his charity lobbied USAID officials ahead of the award of sizeable grants.

Last month, the US branch of Save the Children gave Mr Blair its global legacy award for his and AGI’s efforts in alleviating poverty in Africa. But the prize caused a huge split inside Save the Children with a letter signed by its own staff demanding the award be revoked while an online petition has attracted 120,000 signatures demanding the same. Last week Mr Blair’s private office disclosed he had given £9.5 million to good causes since leaving office, while estimating his fortune at an equivalent amount but far lower than the £100 million critics have claimed he has earned. Mr Blair gave about £4 million — the advance from his autobiography — to the Royal British Legion. That suggests he has given a further £5.5 million to good causes. It is likely much of that will have been diverted to his own foundations. Mr Blair has repeatedly said that most of his time is taken up with his charitable efforts and work as a Middle East peace envoy and that the moneymaking side of his business ventures is used to support his foundations.

This article was published in the Sunday Telegraph on 7th December 2014. See this link.