Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Among the upsides to living in London’s Eaton Square is that there is never any shortage of the all-too-aptly named Boris bikes in the docking station.
It is, however, safe to assume that most of those who own one of the gleaming white stucco properties in this patch of SW1W are none too bothered about local cycling provision.
Day-to-day factors such as proximity to the Belgravia branch of Waitrose and access to the private garden with its tennis court probably didn’t figure in any decision to buy in what has become known as Red Square – thanks to the allegedly large number of owners from the former Soviet states.
Just around the corner is Belgrave Square, home to yet more Boris bikes and Oleg Deripaska, whose property on Monday was briefly taken over by anarchists, protesting against Moscow’s “special operation” in Ukraine. Occupy Belgravia was surprisingly short-lived, curtailed by the police with the sort of alacrity usually only seen by British taxpayers these days in reruns of The Sweeney.
The oligarch’s mansion in the leafy Surrey enclave of St George’s Hill was on the market for £18.5 million last week – until the estate agents involved dropped it as if it were polonium 210. Given that the owners of the 420 houses in the manicured gated community with its top-flight security are like a gathering of the United Nations, it is fitting that George is not only patron saint of England, but of Moscow and many outposts in between.
If Monday’s emergency Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act were part of a radio play, sound effects would include slamming doors and galloping hooves. As Priti Patel stated, Vladimir Putin’s cronies have hidden dirty money in the UK and across the West ‘and we do not want it here’. Yeah, right. Da, koneshno.
As if following Putin in one of his show-offy Epiphany plunges into icy cold water, Britain is being abruptly awakened to its collusion in kleptocracy, global money laundering, and illicit dodges. It is chastening to realise that this country might be regarded in the same ethical light as one of those rusting broken-down ships flagged by Panama.
The 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury, the Magnitsky legislation, the mysterious deaths of Boris Berezovsky, Alexander Perepilichnyy (and about a dozen others…), Chelski FC and McMafia; bodyguards and armour-plated G-wagons on west London(grad)’s streets, where suspiciously over-inflated prices are paid for property (“£19 million for that, there?”)…
No-one can say that over the past two decades Britain wasn’t warned about Russia being looted and its money ending up in one of our laundromats, either here or in offshore havens such as the British Virgin Islands.
Some bankers, lawyers and accountants have behaved less like professionals guided by codes of ethical conduct and more like Widow Twankey, laundering reputations and funds, helped along by dubious instruments such as shell companies. As Oliver Bullough, author of Butler to the World, stated this week, ‘Whatever the scam is, Britain is always involved.’
Perhaps many who have profited from the oligarchs and their ilk like to think of themselves as heirs to the 18th-century East India Company buccaneers. The UK’s Kleptocracy Problem, published by Chatham House in December, will put them right. And, more damningly, as the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia Report set out, there are some British ‘enablers’ who are wittingly or unwittingly ‘de facto agents of the Russian state’.
After 20 years, at least in the context of the former Soviet Union, this merry carousel of collusion in plunder and gangsterism has come a shuddering halt, thanks to the invasion of Ukraine.
Monday’s Act was promised to be an introduction to more stringent measures, including the reform of Companies House. But, yet again, we have legislation-for-legislation’s-sake; and the Government scrambling to be seen to be doing something, anything.
Why not enforce the panoply of existing law? Yes, end Golden Visas, but also pursue more than four cases which might result in Unexplained Wealth Orders.
What has become apparent is not a shortage of legislation relating to dodgy dosh but, as a briefing by the Royal United Services Institute’s Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies outlined on Tuesday, a dearth of enforcement agents. Royal Assent is not required to remedy a lack of political will.
Sanctions are instruments of foreign policy. Liz Truss argues that Britain is ‘leading the way’, with more than 1,000 individuals and entities now sanctioned, including a Russian troll farm and oligarchs with combined wealth of more than £100 billion.
As part of the West’s ratcheting up the financial pressure on Russia, steel producer Evraz has been delisted from the London Stock Exchange, not least because of claims it provides the raw material to make Russian tanks, which the company denies. Evraz’s 2020 Annual Report suggests that almost 10 per cent of institutional shareholders with voting rights are in the UK. This might well include British pension funds, underlining the intertwined nature of the global economy.
Roman Abramovich’s super-yachts drifting around the seas like the Flying Dutchman, sanctions piling up, Moscow’s foreign currency reserves frozen …
“The sinews of war are endless money.” Roman statesman Cicero (106-43BCE) would have understood that if Europe were serious about stopping the war in Ukraine, the EU’s recent ban on the export of luxury goods to Russia is gesture so petty it must be almost laughable to those Ukrainians on the ground battling against the invader. Chanel handbags at dawn – as the Red Army never said.
Last year, Russia exported almost half its crude oil, three-quarters of its natural gas and one-third of its coal to Europe: “A $1billion-a-day Russia energy habit”, as Fortune headlined. Three days after the invasion – illegal, illegitimate, and contrary to the tenets of just war – Dymtro Kubela, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, called for a full embargo on Russia’s oil and gas: “Buying them now means paying for the murder of Ukrainian men, women and children.”
The greater the instability, and the more commodity prices rise (including for wheat and fertiliser), the more Moscow earns. And the more Moscow earns, the longer it will be able to finance the war. Meanwhile, the US bans the import of Russian caviar and vodka, while Britain imposes a 35 per cent import tariff on fur coats.