INDEPENDENT 2024-02-26 10:34:01


Fury as UK using foreign aid budget to train Russia’s future leaders

Rishi Sunak has been accused of aiding Vladimir Putin’s regime over the government’s plans to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money training up the next generation of Russian leaders.

Britain barred Russians from applying to the Chevening scholarship programme – a fully funded masters degree aimed at “emerging leaders” from all over the world – after Mr Putin invaded Ukraine two years ago.

But, despite the conflict still going on – and Britain ramping up sanctions on Moscow in response to the death of opposition leader Alexei NavalnyThe Independent can reveal that the scheme has been reopened to applicants from Russia.

The prime minister is now facing calls to reverse the decision, with MPs and campaigners criticising the decision to use foreign aid money in this way. One MP said: “It will only possibly benefit apparatchiks of Putin’s regime.”

Bill Browder, the US anti-corruption campaigner, told The Independent it is “highly inappropriate” to reinstate the scheme.

He said: “While Putin is killing Ukrainians, it would be highly inappropriate for the British government to send any money to Russians, who may go back to Russia and support the war effort. A programme like this should be for citizens of countries that aren’t threatening us with nuclear war.”

The scheme sees overseas students brought to British universities, with flights, accommodation and tuition fees all included – on the condition that they return to their home country after graduation.

It is funded by the Foreign Office through the UK’s international aid budget, and is aimed at boosting Britain’s soft power and relationships with countries around the world.

In the past, more than 30 scholarships in one year have gone to students from Russia. It means that, from September, Britain could be spending hundreds of thousands of pounds bringing Russian applicants to the UK.

Critics rounded on the government’s decision to reopen the scheme to Russians while the war is ongoing, with former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith denouncing it as “hopeless”.

The senior MP added: “Why are we doing this at this time? After Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine that has cost so many lives and destroyed so many towns and cities. Why would we want to do this?”

Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg told The Independent that the Foreign Office should “clearly continue the suspension of this scheme”. “It will only possibly benefit apparatchiks of Putin’s regime,” he added.

He called for the money to be spent on helping those displaced by Russia’s invasion. He said: “If this money is available, it ought to be spent helping Russian families living in exile to avoid Putin’s murderous regime.”

The Chevening scholarship programme provides study at UK universities – including Oxford and Cambridge as well as the University of Bristol, the University of Glasgow and Nottingham Trent – for students with the potential to become future leaders, decision makers and opinion formers.

It was established in 1983 as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Awards Scheme, and renamed in 1994 after Chevening House in Sevenoaks, Kent – the foreign secretary’s grace and favour home.

A student coming to London receives a stipend believed to be worth around £18,500 in addition to full tuition, with an average degree ordinarily costing overseas graduates £17,109.

With flights also included, each student could account for more than £35,000 of expenditure, though the Foreign Office refused to disclose the amount involved or how many students would be funded this year.

Foreign affairs committee member Henry Smith said it is “not the time” to reopen the scheme, pointing to Mr Putin’s administration “acting like a crime syndicate at home and bringing war to Europe”. He added: “Indeed, it could be argued as a potential security risk.”

Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood said: “Given Russian sports athletes are banned from international competitions and cannot compete under the Russian flag, spending a penny on supporting Russian students is absurd.

“We can and must suspend support of Russians if they are returning to Putin.”

The Foreign Office said Chevening allows Britain to “engage the next generation of students from across the globe with Western values and critical thinking”. A spokesperson added: “Our argument is with Putin’s regime and his illegal invasion of Ukraine. It is not with the Russian people, many of whom are increasingly suffering the consequences of this invasion.”

The spokesperson also pointed to a rise in domestic repression in Russia – with ordinary Russians increasingly unable to exercise their fundamental freedoms – as justification for the decision.

Alicia Kearns, the head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said reopening the scheme is “the right thing to do”.

“Enabling Russian students, the brightest and best, to see that Putin’s ‘truths’ are anything but, and to experience a society that is open and free, is the right thing to do,” she told The Independent.

The decision to reopen the scheme to Russians coincides with the second anniversary of Moscow’s full-scale incursion into Ukraine.

In the two years since the war erupted, more than 10,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed and nearly 20,000 injured.

Britain has also ramped up its sanctions on Russia over the murder of Navalny. Days after his death, the UK imposed travel bans and asset freezes on six individuals heading up the notoriously brutal “Polar Wolf” FKU IK-3 prison camp where he was killed.

A Foreign Office source told The Independent that those returning to Russia will take back “experience of our values and society compared to theirs”.

And they said the number of Chevening alumni who hold government, civil service and civic society roles around the world is “large and significant”, saying it “can make a big difference diplomatically”.

The source said: “Clearly Russia is in a different place right now, but we have never made our absolute commitment to help Ukraine in its self defence against Putin’s illegal and brutal invasion an attack or repulsion of the Russian people.”

Sunken Spanish galleon from 1708 could be ‘holy grail of shipwrecks’

A Spanish ship that sank in the Caribbean in 1708 could hold sunken treasure including gold, silver, and emeralds worth up to $20bn, the Colombian government said, unveiling plans to explore the legendary galleon.

Colombia said it is launching a government expedition to investigate the wreck of the San Jose galleon, dubbed the “holy grail of shipwrecks.”

Historical records suggest the ship was carrying wealth accumulated from several of South America’s Spanish colonies, including over 100 steel chests full of emeralds and millions of gold and silver coins.

Launched in 1698, the ship sank in a battle off Barú Island south of Cartagena as it was travelling from the New World to the court of King Philip V of Spain, laden with treasure for the royal coffers.

Historians say the ship encountered a British squadron near Barú and in the ensuing battle the legendary galleon’s powder magazines detonated, destroying it and killing over 500 members of the crew.

A previous expedition by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution located the sunken galleon in 2015, but attempts are yet to be made to recover its treasure.

Colombia said on Friday that it is investing about $4.5m in 2024 alone to explore the galleon.

The government is keeping the location of the expedition a secret to deter amateur treasure hunters.

Researchers hope to use new technology to explore the water around the shipwreck at a depth of nearly 600m (about 2,000 ft).

So far, oceanographers have used sea depth analysis and soil studies of the ocean bed to understand the best ways to extract the galleon’s contents.

The government plans to use submerged robotic technology to extract some of the treasure from the surface of the sunken ship between April and May.

This could help determine what condition treasure from other parts of the ship would be in when it comes out of the water.

The ship’s discovery sparked a tug-of-war over its custody, with Spain claiming the bounty was theirs and Bolivia insisting the treasures belonged to its indigenous Qhara Qhara nation who were forced to mine for the precious metals by Spanish colonists.

Colombian president Gustavo Petro wants to use the government’s own resources to recover the wreck and ensure it stays within the country.

Officials say the expedition is being planned for cultural reasons more than to discover sunken treasure, mainly to understand what life was like for the hundreds on board before the vessel sank.

“History is the treasure,” Juan David Correa, Colombia’s minister of culture, told the Associated Press.

‘I’m not ashamed’: Rayner hits back as she’s called ‘hypocrite’ over council house sale

Angela Rayner has hit back at criticism over the sale of a former council house she bought under the right-to-buy policy, declaring: “I am not ashamed.”

The Labour deputy leader was criticised for turning a £48,500 profit on the property in Stockport, Greater Manchester, which she bought in 2007 with a 25 per cent discount.

She has previously criticised those who are able to secure “loads and loads of discount” when purchasing properties under Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme.

After the revelation, in a new book by billionaire Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft, Tory MPs accused Ms Rayner of wanting to “pull up the ladder” on other council tenants who want to buy their own homes.

A report on the front page of The Mail on Sunday, which is serialising the book, also questioned Ms Rayner’s living arrangements in the years that followed her 2010 marriage to Mark Rayner.

Ms Rayner hit back at what she called Lord Ashcroft’s “unhealthy interest” in her family life. She also accused the former Tory deputy chair of wanting to “kick down at people like me who graft hard in tough circumstances to get on in life”.

And Ms Rayner, who is also Labour’s shadow housing secretary, defended the party’s policies, saying that “those who live in a council house should have the opportunity to own their own home”.

“We’ve said we’ll review the unfair additional market discounts of up to 60 per cent the Tories introduced in 2012, long after I was able to exercise the right to buy (25 per cent) under the old system,” Ms Rayner said. “That’s not hypocrisy, it’s the right thing to do.”

In a defiant post on X, formerly Twitter, Ms Rayner added: “Being able to buy my council house back in 2007 was a proud moment for me. I worked hard, saved and bought it by the book.

“I’m not ashamed – but I am angry that the Tories have since put the dream of a secure home out of reach for so many others.

“It’s clear that Lord Ashcroft and his friends not only take an unhealthy interest in my family – but want to kick down at people like me who graft hard in tough circumstances to get on in life. I won’t let them.”

It is only Ms Rayner’s latest brush with The Mail on Sunday, which two years ago published a sexist article about the Labour deputy supposedly trying to “distract” Boris Johnson by crossing and uncrossing her legs in the chamber.

The article led to the speaker of the House of Commons summoning the editor of the paper to “discuss the issue affecting our parliamentary community”.

Ms Rayner is an outspoken left-winger and has long been a target of often sexist abuse from the right.

Born in Stockport, Greater Manchester, in 1980, she was raised on a council estate by her mother Lynn, who struggled with depression and could not read or write. From a young age, the MP acted as a carer for her mother, at times having to bathe and feed her.

And Ms Rayner has spoken movingly about being told she would “never amount to anything” after becoming pregnant at 16 and leaving school without any qualifications.

Brazil’s former president Bolsonaro denies coup attempt

Former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has denied inciting a coup after losing the presidential election in October 2022.

The far-right leader told hundreds of thousands of supporters at a rally on Sunday that the allegations against him were a “lie” as he flexed his political muscle to hit out against the ruling government.

Supporters of Mr Bolsonaro thronged Brazil‘s biggest city on Sunday, donning the colours of the Brazilian flag, to defend the former president against legal challenges that could send him to jail.

“What is a coup? Tanks in the streets, weapons, conspiracy. None of that happened in Brazil,” Mr Bolsonaro told an estimated crowd of 185,000 people that filled blocks of Sao Paulo.

Mr Bolsonaro waved an Israeli flag along with his supporters in a show of defiance to the current president.

He is seeking to show his base is resilient amid a federal investigation over his alleged role in the 8 January 2023 attacks on government buildings by his supporters over his election loss, an incident widely compared at the time to the 6 January attack on the US Capitol. Mr Bolsonaro has himself drawn comparisons with the former US president Donald Trump.

Mr Bolsonaro has been barred from running for office until 2030 due to two convictions of abuse of power, but he remains active as the main opposition leader.

He has also had his passport seized by law enforcement and his inner circle, including his son, investigated.

“We cannot accept that an authority can eliminate whoever it may be from the political scene, unless it is for a fair reason,” the 68-year-old former army officer said.

He called for an amnesty for “those poor wretched souls who are imprisoned in Brasilia” after the attack on the presidential palace.

“What I seek is pacification, it is erasing the past,” he said, adding: “We ask all 513 congressmen, 81 senators for a bill of amnesty so justice can be made in Brazil.”

Some of Mr Bolsonaro’s allies aiming to challenge president Lula da Silva in the 2026 elections also attended, including influential governors Tarcisio de Freitas of Sao Paulo state and Romeu Zema of Minas Gerais state. But other key politicians and business executives who aligned with him during his 2019-2022 presidency did not show up.

Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo, predicted the pro-Bolsonaro event would not help the former president’s legal situation.

“The fact that Bolsonaro doesn’t yield any power now reduces what he can do. Beforehand, we feared he could use the force of the armed forces. Now that is ruled out,” Mr Melo told the Associated Press. “This new reality does not favour him with unpredictability and drama.”

The event showed, though, that Bolsonaro’s message still resonates with many Brazilians, some of whom evidently favour any coup attempt that would put him in charge. One man paraded wearing a military hat and shouted: “Brazil, nation, hail our forces. The armed forces didn’t sleep!”

Federal investigators on 8 February launched “Operation Tempus Veritatis”, which translates to ‘Hour of Truth” in Latin, in which police carried out dozens of searches and arrested Mr Bolsonaro’s allies.

Last Thursday, Mr Bolsonaro denied allegations and refused to answer questions during a half-hour interrogation at federal police headquarters in Brasilia.

Kremlin ‘greatly concerned’ about downing of second Russian reconnaissance plane

The alleged downing of a second Russian reconnaissance war plane last week is causing “great concern” about future deployments of the aircraft, a think tank has claimed.

The Institute for the Study of War, citing Kremlin-approved Russia military bloggers, said the Russia information space continued to be “highly sensitive to the recent losses of A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft”, adding that this indicated the Kremlin was very concerned about how to defend them.

While the Kremlin rarely, if ever, comments on the loss of high-value military equipment, reports from military bloggers can offer a window into Moscow’s mindset.

Ukraine’s intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov warned last week that more A-50s will be destroyed.

It comes as European leaders are gathering today to dispel recent suggestions from Moscow that they are winning the war.

“We want to send Putin a very clear message, that he won’t win in Ukraine,” a presidential adviser told reporters in a briefing. “Our goal is to crush this idea he wants us to believe that he would be somehow winning.”

Uncovering the human cost of Russia’s war on Ukraine

Iryna’s body told her it was time to leave. “I started to have panic attacks,” she says. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, she remained in Kyiv for the first year of the war to support her family financially. But the terror of Russian bombs and air raid sirens pushed her to breaking point. “My mental health was struggling and my parents advised me to leave.”

During her journey to the UK, she was overwhelmed with feelings of fear and guilt. Her elderly parents were reliant on a small pension to survive and Iryna also left behind her friends and a successful career as an accountant. “Before the war, my life in Ukraine was really good, I had so many opportunities,” she says. She arrived at the doorstep of a host family in Petersfield, Hampshire, and knocked on the front door. It opened and her new life in England began.

Iryna’s story isn’t an isolated one. Europe is now home to six million refugees from Ukraine, who have fled their homes since Russia first annexed Crimea in 2014. Many may never return home. A survey by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a charity that helps people’s lives that have been shattered by conflict, revealed that 87% of respondents had to leave their homes at least once since 2014, with 20% experiencing displacement multiple times. Over 36% of people also reported having to forgo basic necessities due to financial difficulties; and, worst of all, 74% said they’d been separated from a close family member.

It’s a heartbreak Svitlana knows all too well. She was an English tutor in her hometown of Chernihiv, where she lived a happy life with her husband and their two children. That was until war broke out. Svitlana evacuated to a small village in western Ukraine, taking her children and 70-year-old mother with her. Eight months later, they moved to the UK to give their children the best chance of living a peaceful life.

Svitlana now lives with a host family in Preston. “It was one of the hardest decisions of my life,” she recalls. “We had to choose either to stay in the city which was shelled and bombed and hope that it would come to an end or to pack our essentials and take a risk of moving.” It’s a decision that she is now at peace with. “When we arrived at Preston, we gave a sigh of relief. Finally, we got to a place with no air raid alerts. It was great to fall asleep without fear for the lives of your kids.”

For Iryna and Svitlana, the help of the IRC has been vital as both have embarked on a new and difficult chapter in their lives. Shortly after arriving in Hampshire, Iryna took part in the IRC’s orientation for newcomers and leadership training. The programmes are designed to help refugees from various different countries to navigate local services in the UK such as healthcare and education, and to support them to find employment and gain the skills that will allow them to prosper in the UK.

Iryna’s mental health is gradually healing and the training provided by the IRC has helped to rebuild her confidence. She volunteers as an interpreter for the local council and various other organisations. She is also part of a Ukrainian female choir, where she helps to translate and works part-time for the New Theatre Royal as a duty manager. Iryna’s long-term goal is to become an English teacher. She is soon to finish her CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) course at Portsmouth City College.

Svitlana also enrolled on the same orientation course with the IRC. It was the perfect way to begin her assimilation to life in the UK and share her experiences with other Ukrainians. “I can’t express my grati Svitlana’s tude in words,” she says. “The sessions were online, but it gave me the chance to socialise with other Ukrainians and learn about healthcare, education, emergency cases, rights and opportunities in the UK.” It’s also helping her with her career. “It helped me to understand how to write a CV and cover letter and navigate interviews. Thanks to this guidance, I’ve gained employment and self-employment as well.”

Two years on from the start of full-scale war in Ukraine and the future looks brighter for Iryna and Svitlana. “Looking back I’ve come so far from my New Year’s wish last year, which was just to survive,” says Iryna. “Now I can desire weekends by the sea and find a full-time job to become fully independent and help my family.” Svitlana is also feeling positive: “We’ve been surprised by the hospitality of our sponsor and his family,” she says. “I knew that British people are polite, tolerant and supportive, but I couldn’t imagine to what degree.”

Follow the link to donate to the International Rescue Committee and find out more about the crucial work they’re doing in Ukraine

We must do more to halt the growing threat to our politicians’ safety

Rishi Sunak is right to argue that a “dangerous signal” that “intimidation works” was sent in parliament last week when Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons speaker, judged that Labour MPs could face physical threats unless the party’s amendment on a ceasefire in Gaza and Israel was put to a vote. The crossing of this line – a worrying development – was partially obscured by the Commons chaos and the controversy that followed, which left the speaker fighting to keep his job.

The justified concern expressed by Mr Sunak and his ministers has also been eclipsed by the Conservatives’ latest unforced error – the inflammatory assertion by Lee Anderson, the party’s former deputy chair, that Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London, is under the control of “Islamists”.

The prime minister’s warning that our democracy “cannot bend to the threat of violence and intimidation or fall into polarised camps who hate each other” would carry more weight were his party as serious about eliminating Islamophobia as it is about antisemitism. Mr Sunak’s statement on Sunday referred to an “explosion in prejudice and antisemitism” since the 7 October attack on Israel, but, remarkably, did not mention the rise in attacks aimed at Muslims. As The Independent reports today, the number of Islamophobic incidents logged has reached a record high.

Has Labour’s Rochdale debacle gifted George Galloway an open goal?

Voters in Rochdale will head to the polls on Thursday for one of the most controversial by-elections in recent history. What was set to be a straightforward contest to replace the late Labour MP Tony Lloyd, who died of blood cancer in January aged 73, has been mired by a series of scandals, with residents left facing an invidious choice.

Rochdale was considered a safe Labour seat, having been won with a comfortable 10,000 majority in 2019, but it is now anything but. Labour no longer has a candidate in the contest, and the front runner to win, George Galloway, is one of the most divisive figures in British politics.

So, how did it come to this, and what should voters look out for on Thursday?