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Critics say mild UK sanctions on Russia don’t match promises

Jill Lawless
Associated Press

London – Britain promised to hit Russia with “powerful” sanctions over its military confrontation with Ukraine. But the slim sheaf of measures announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson has disappointed allies and critics alike.

The U.K. has slapped asset freezes and travel bans on three wealthy Russians and sanctioned five Russian banks in response to President Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognize two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine and to authorize sending in what he called “peacekeeping” troops.

Johnson says there will be more to come if there is a “full-scale” Russian invasion. But many say the current measures are too little, and further sanctions will come too late.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street as he makes his way to parliament, to attend Prime Minister's Questions, in London, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.

More: The latest on the Russia-Ukraine crisis

“If not now, then when?” opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer asked the prime minister on Wednesday.

Conservative lawmaker Iain Duncan Smith, a former party leader, said that “if we are going to hit them with sanctions, we need to hit them hard and hit them now.”

The U.K. says it’s coordinating its sanctions with the European Union and the United States, but both of those have gone further than Johnson’s government.

The 27-nation EU has sanctioned the 351 Russian legislators who voted in favor of recognizing the separatist regions in Ukraine, as well as 27 other Russian officials and institutions from the defense and banking world.

Johnson’s spokesman said Britain was “finalizing the evidence” to sanction the 351 Russian lawmakers in the near future.

U.S. President Joe Biden imposed sanctions on members of Putin’s inner circle and their families, sanctioned Russian banks and said the U.S. would effectively “cut off Russia’s government from Western finance.”

U.K.-based financier and anti-corruption campaigner Bill Browder said that of all the international sanctions announced so far, only the American ones would have “stung Putin.”

“To put the Russian central bank, the Russian Ministry of Finance and the Russian Sovereign Wealth Fund on the sanctions list, and to put three oligarchs whose fathers are government officials on the sanctions list is good,” he said. “Thank God for the U.S, because nobody else is doing anything of any value.

“Putin is banking on the fact that we won’t be able to agree with each other, we’re not going to be bold, we’re all going to do the same things we’ve done in previous times,” Browder added.

In another blow to Putin, Germany on Tuesday halted certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia.

The British government has been one of the loudest in calling for Europe to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas, which accounts for only a tiny fraction of the U.K. supply. It hasn’t been so quick to wean Britain off Russian money which has flowed into Britain for years, soaking up properties, businesses and sports teams.

In a 2020 report, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said that since the 1990s Britain has “welcomed Russian money, and few questions – if any – were asked about the provenance of this considerable wealth.”

“There are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the U.K. business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth,” the report said.

Transparency campaigners say the governing Conservatives have received 2 million pounds ($2.7 million) in donations from people linked to Russia since Johnson became prime minister in 2019. The party says all its donors are registered U.K. electors, as the law demands.

The U.K. has recently given itself legal tools to root out the dirty money that has led to London being dubbed a “laundromat” for ill-gotten gains. But experts say it has scarcely used them. Further powers are planned in an Economic Crime Bill, but that won’t come before autumn at the earliest.

Thomas Mayne, a visiting fellow at the international affairs think-tank Chatham House, said Britain’s anti-corruption powers meant that “anybody involved in bribery, misappropriation of assets or human rights abuses can be sanctioned.”

“But I think to have a genuine effect, we really need to see dozens and dozens of names, and not just three,” he said.

Johnson promised Wednesday that “there is more to come,” saying the next wave of sanctions would stop “all Russian banks, all oligarchs, all Russian individuals raising money on London markets.”

“That will hit Putin where it hurts,” he said.