Nigel Gardner, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Harpenden and Berkhamsted, ran a company that allegedly distributed Russian "propaganda" during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.

During the five-day conflict, Mr Gardner was Chairman of GPlus, a public relations firm who were working on behalf of the Russian government. GPlus sought to ensure that the Russian narrative of the war was being represented in the European media.

The war broke out in August 2008 in South Ossetia, a separatist region of Georgia. Russian and Georgian troops clashed, with Russian forces progressing into undisputed Georgian territory.

A ceasefire was shortly agreed, but the terms were then broken as Russian troops continued to remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another separatist region.

Russia recognises both regions as independent states, but the West continues to view them as being illegally occupied.

Both Russia and Georgia employed European public relations companies in an attempt to influence how the war was reported, with GPlus working for the Russians and Aspect Consulting working for the Georgian side.

Mr Gardner had co-founded GPlus in 2000 and sold his majority stake to Omnicom in 2006, though he continued to work for the company. He was Chairman of GPlus from March 2007 until December 2009.

We spoke to Dr James Rodgers, who reported on the war as the BBC's Moscow correspondent and is now Reader in International Journalism at City, University of London.

He recalled that his phone had been "spammed" with messages from both GPlus and Aspect during the conflict, and that the war was the time when GPlus were most active in contacting him.

PRWeek reported at the time that GPlus was "promoting Russia's side in the dispute with Georgia", and Dr Rodgers told us that the company was "making sure that Western international correspondents ... were seeing Russia's point of view in this military invasion onto the territory of a neighbour".

Dr Rodgers described the unprecedented access to Russian officials that was granted to Western journalists during the war - including a conference call and separate interview with foreign minister Sergey Lavrov - which he believes was a consequence of GPlus's work.

EUObserver reported that GPlus also pushed for press visits to South Ossetia so that European TV stations could show "something more than rampaging Russian tanks".

James Hunt, the co-founder of Aspect Consulting, said in 2008 that he felt he was "on the side of the angels", and that he didn't know how agencies working for Russia could "be comfortable about that".

He also argued that GPlus were involved in spreading Russian "propaganda", and Dr Rodgers thinks that is a "fair" assessment of the work they were doing.

Asked for his response to that suggestion, Mr Gardner instead stated that Russia was a member of the G8 in 2008 and being "welcomed into the international economic system, which everybody at the time agreed was a great thing, [and] they were also applying to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO)".

"Everybody wanted Russia in these organisations, everybody wanted Russia into the club of global economic cooperation.

"It was a very, very different time, it was a long time ago, welcoming Russia into the international community was what everybody wanted to do, and we were working on that."

GPlus's work for Russia had begun in 2006, with the country's G8 presidency providing the impetus for the initial contract. The contract was then continually renewed until at least 2015, long after Mr Gardner had left.

GPlus conducted media relations work for Russia in Europe, while their sister company Ketchum - also owned by Omnicom - conducted similar work in the USA.

Mr Gardner says that Ketchum had to get US government approval to work for Russia, and that this would not have been granted if there had been significant concerns.

The Western response to the war was limited, with Russia remaining in the G8 and on the path to WTO membership.

However, some pushed for a stronger response - including David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, who said that Russia should be suspended from the G8 and that talks on a partnership agreement between Russia and the European Union should have been suspended.

At the time, there were accusations of human rights abuses by both Russian and Georgian forces. In 2021, the European Court of Human Rights determined that Russia was responsible for torturing Georgian prisoners of war, murdering Georgian civilians, and expelling Georgians from their homes during the conflict.

The role played by GPlus and Aspect in the war came under scrutiny at the time, with both companies nominated for a Worst EU Lobbying Award that aimed to spotlight controversial lobbying practices.

Mr Gardner's role at the time of the war was related to business strategy, and there is no suggestion that he was directly involved in the day-to-day work carried out as part of the contract.

Dr Rodgers commented that the war "and the subsequent annexation of Crimea [in 2014] were rehearsals ... for something much bigger that we've seen unfolding since February last year".

"Mr Gardner has said it was different times. That is true, but what is also true is that this was a Russia which, I think, even without hindsight, was exhibiting some of the disturbing signs of which we've come to see the fulfilment some years later."

But Mr Gardner says: "At the time, it was very mainstream that Russia should be brought into these international economic organisations.

"That was a good and fair objective. The fact that it went wrong is very sad, but it doesn't undermine that we all had good objectives and the right reasons at the time."

However, Angus Roxburgh, a former BBC Moscow correspondent who worked for GPlus on the Russia contract between 2006 and 2009, said in 2014 that while the contract was "supposedly aimed at making Russia more attractive as an investment destination", in reality that meant "helping them disguise all the issues that make it unattractive: human rights, invasions of neighbouring countries, etc."

In his books, The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia and Moscow Calling: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent, Mr Roxburgh has written that Russia's international reputation was "execrable" in 2006, and that "gruesome stories began to pile up" in the same year.

He also wrote: "As the Politkovskaya murder was followed by the Litvinenko murder, and then by the Russian invasion of Georgia, I began to wonder whether the very reason the Kremlin had decided to take on a Western PR agency was because they knew in advance that their image was about to nosedive."

There are conflicting accounts of how much GPlus were paid for their Russia work.

Mr Gardner previously told the Herts Advertiser that he thought GPlus's continuing work for Russia after 2006 had been "massively scaled back", and had become "tiny" by the time he left the company.

But according to Mr Roxburgh, GPlus's contract with the Russian Federation for six months of work between January and June 2008 was worth around $2,436,000.

In 2009, an EUObserver report said that GPlus's competitors estimated the work would be worth €3-5m per year, though a GPlus source said it was actually worth less than €200,000 per year.

Mr Gardner previously told the Herts Advertiser that companies today should "absolutely not" work on behalf of Russia, China, or Chinese-owned companies, and he describes himself as "very hawkish" now on both Russia and China, stressing the different geopolitical context of 2006.

"When we took the contract on ...Russia was regarded as becoming a good international citizen, that's why it was admitted to the G8," he said.

"[It was] being accepted into the whole panoply of global financial institutions, with trade deals and so on". At the time, Russia was negotiating its entry into the World Trade Organisation, which it joined in 2012.

Paul De Kort, chairman of Harpenden Liberal Democrats, said: “These shocking allegations leave stark and serious questions to answer for the Conservative candidate. As Chairman, the buck stops with him.

“Like the rest of the British people, Victoria [Collins, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Harpenden] has stood unwaveringly against Russian aggression, and most recently steadfastly stood in support of our Ukrainian allies. The people of Harpenden and Berkhamsted deserve an MP who will do the same.”

Mr Gardner has said that he is now "very hawkish" on Russia and that companies today should "absolutely not" work for the country.