24 Jul 2014

How should Britain approach sanctions on Russian oligarchs?

How should Britain respond to growing calls to punish Russia’s oligarchs in wake of the shooting down of MH17?

The shooting down of Flight MH17 over Ukraine has supposedly changed London’s relationship with Moscow.

Until last Thursday, international sanctions against Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea targeted less than 50 individuals, with high profile figures, including oligarch’s with assets in the city of London remaining strictly off-limits.

The instructions were clear. “The UK should not support for now, trade sanctions … or close London’s financial centre to Russians,” instructed the memo, snapped as a senior official carried it into a meeting in Downing Street last March. Its undertone: condemn Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine but protect David Cameron economic interests at home.

That position can no longer hold. Despite the political fallout over Flight MH15, Russian money is still flowing through London, and, in turn, the UK economy. And for as long as this is the case, the prospect of sanctions is going to worry the Kremlin, nor does it give Britain the moral imperative to negotiate in Europe.

Yet imposing sanctions on pro-Putin oligarchs is logistically tough and risky politically. “There are vast complex triangles in the flow of money that leaves Russia travelling through Europe on its way to Cyprus or the British Virgin Isles,” Dr Andrew Foxall a director of the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society told Channel 4 News.

“Often this has no visible fingerprints of high-profile oligarchs at all – instead manifesting itself in the form of shell companies, business partners, relatives or estates.”

So far the West has refrained from “sectoral sanctions”, also known as level three sanctions that would target entire sectors of Russia’s economy. But listen to the grievances around Europe, and Britain is going to have to act to counter claims of hypocrisy.”When you see how many [Russian] oligarchs have sought refuge in London, David Cameron should start by cleaning up his own back yard,” the head of France’s socialist party remarked on Wednesday.

But who are the big-money men with power and influence to wield? And where might Downing Street start when drawing up a sanction list?

Roman Abramovich

The owner of Chelsea football club made much of his money in Russian oil. One leading Putin critic told the New York Times that Europe should target sanctions at the Russian president’s “inner circle”, including Abramovich, who he described as “the Kremlin mafia who pillage the nation’s wealth”.

Alisher Usmanov

The part-owner of Arsenal FC was second in the Sunday Times super-rich list harbouring an estimated personal wealth of £10.65bn. In December 2011 he reportedly fired the entire senior management at Kommersant publishing house after its weekly news magazine insulted the Russian president. He said the anti-Putin slogans published “bordered on petty hooliganism”.

Lubov and Vladimir Chernukhin

Lubov Chernukhin paid £160,000 at the most recent Conservative summer ball for a game of tennis with David Cameron. She is married to Vladimir Chernukhin, former deputy finance minister of Russia. Boris Johnson has insisted the tennis match would go ahead and that Mr Chernukhin – and by default his wife – no longer had ties to the Russian government.”This is not a lashing out against all Russians everywhere,” the mayor of London said.

Alexander Mamut

The former banker has built an empire spanning property, publishing and a chain of bookshops including the chain Waterstone’s, which he co-owns. Reports in 2007 said he was close to the Kremlin and a Putin supporter. That same year he bought the American-based blogging site LiveJournal.com, extremely popular among Russian users.

Alexey Mordashov

Western-educated and estimated to be worth more than £2bn, Mr Mordashov is thought to have stayed close to President Vladimir Putin, despite supporting pro-Western causes His divorce battle with former wife Yelena, in which he refused her a share in his fortune and denounced her as a puppet of his enemies.