When it comes to Russia’s aggressive manoeuvring on Ukraine, “Britain stands out”, says Edward Lucas in The Times. Unlike our “soggy” European partners, we have bolstered troop numbers in Estonia, sent plentiful arms to Ukraine and threatened Moscow’s oligarchs with sanctions. Yet beneath this “bombast” lies an uncomfortable truth: Britain stands out as much for “aiding and abetting” the Russian regime as it does for pushing back against it.
For years, “Kremlin cronies” have used London to “launder their reputations and ill-gotten gains”. Our lawyers, bankers, accountants and fixers have helped them on the “path to respectability” – channelling their shiftily acquired riches through “impenetrable webs” of shell companies and offshore holdings. Our craven politicians – many of them beneficiaries of the oligarchs’ largesse – make sure the loopholes stay open. “Nosy journalists” are put off the scent with “crippling legal threats”.
The scale of this problem is laid bare by the veteran Russia watcher Oliver Bullough in his new book Butler to the World: How Britain Became the Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals. In Russia, “the top 0.001% of adults owns more wealth than the bottom 99.8%”. That means that 500 people are richer than 114.6 million of their fellow citizens put together. These oligarchs, who are the only people Putin really cares about, keep most of their wealth abroad – a huge amount of it in the UK. The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International reckons more than £1bn worth of British property has been bought with dodgy Russian money. This is why the oligarchs aren’t worried about sanctions that might result from Putin invading Ukraine – their money is safe and sound outside Russia.
All of this is making things awkward with our closest ally, the US. Last week the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, laid out the difficulties America faces in standing up to Putin. “The United Kingdom, in particular, has become a major hub for Russian oligarchs and their wealth, with London gaining the moniker ‘Londongrad’,” it says. “Uprooting Kremlin-linked oligarchs will be a challenge given the close ties between Russian money and the UK’s ruling Conservative party, the press and its real estate and financial industry.” The message couldn’t be clearer, says Bullough. The British government can boast about standing up to Putin all it wants. But if it really wants to make a difference, “it should force Putin’s oligarchs to take their cash home”.