LONDON–For a country its size, Britain has a unique grip on some of Russia's most sensitive assets.
From Mayfair townhouses to London's great soccer clubs, a tidal wave of rubles has flooded into the country ready for conversion into respectable Western assets worth billions of pounds sterling. If the Prime Minister Theresa May actually wanted to strike back at Vladimir Putin's kleptocratic empire in response to the release of a notorious Soviet nerve agent in a British city, she'd going to go after the money.
Instead, May focused on the headline figure of 23 expelled Russian agents. That will undoubtedly inconvenience Russia's espionage network but there are plenty more FSB and SVR agents ready to replace those who were given seven days to pack their purses and get back to Moscow.
Britain says it is standing up against Russia's lawless gangster state, but it remains willing to help launder the proceeds of an oligarchic criminal enterprise working to steal billions from its own people.
Prime Minister May stood up in the House of Commons on Wednesday to outline the nation's response to the second known act of state-sponsored terrorism by Russia against British citizens on British soil since the turn of the century.
Just as she had done after the radioactive polonium attack on Alexander Litvinenko–when she was Home Secretary supervising British security and she blocked a public inquiry–May came up short.
On Wednesday, she pledged to expel those 23 Russian spies–who are working under diplomatic cover–and to suspend high-level the relations with Russian officials, including a partial boycott of the FIFA World Cup in Russia this summer. That would entail government ministers and members of the royal family skipped the event while the England team would still vie. To be fair, pulling out of the cup would be an act of domestic political suicide for a prime minister.
May has also now signalled that she will endorse a British version of the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which sanctions listed individuals accused of corruption. The “ministers ” made it clear, however, that Britain would only act against Russian assets when” we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of U.K. nationals or residents .”
Roman Borisovich, an anti-corruption campaigner and vocal critic of Putin, told May had blown her chance to show that Britain was serious.
” Unfortunately it's totally predictable and absolutely ineffective ,” he told The Daily Beast.” This will embolden the corrupted Russian elite; they think they own England now .”
They surely own great swathes of it. Oligarchs great and small have snapped up huge estates in the British countryside, grand houses in London as well as some of the city's most cherished symbols, including Chelsea football club and the leading local newspaper, the London Evening Standard.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny told ABC News he wanted to see economic sanctions and asset freezes first applied against three Kremlin allies with property in London; Alisher Usmanov, who owns a minority stake in Arsenal football club, Roman Abramovich who owns Chelsea outright, and First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Igor Shuvalov, whom Navalny asserts is the owner of an $18 million penthouse apartment in central London–an impressive vacation home for a human whose government salary is reportedly $159,000 a year .
” London properties actually are a who's who of the Kremlin ,” said Borisovich.” The government doesn't want to endanger the economic relations with Russia. They have announced these political snubs, but the money they want to preserve .”
May did signal that she might finally support the passage of a Magnitsky amendment that would strengthen powers to freeze the assets of corrupt people, and that would be a significant breakthrough despite her reluctance to use it widely against Putin's allies.
The amendment is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who uncovered a $230 million fraud by the Russian nation. He was subsequently arrested, beaten, and left to die in a jail cell.
Magnitsky's client at the time, Bill Browder, has since campaigned for the introduction of these anti-corruption statutes all over the world, much to the indignation of Putin. Overruling the U.S. version of the act was discussed in the infamous Trump Tower summit between Russian emissaries and Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Don Jr .
Browder told Britain was in a powerful position to impose real outcomes on senior Russian friends of Putin.” The fact that they all come to the U.K .; send their kids to school in the U.K .; have white stucco houses on Belgrave Square means that we have huge leverage for the purposes of the Magnitsky Act ,” Browder told The Daily Beast.
” After it was determined that the FSB had killed Alexander Litvinenko, there was no reaction ,” he said.” And because of this inadequate reply there will be more Russian murders on British soil.
” They should identify each member of Putin x27; s regime–either official members in terms of government officials who have property through their relatives–or oligarchs who are financially entangled with the Putin regime, and freeze their assets .”
The Russians racing to secure their wealth in overseas safe havens are able to take advantage of Britain's opaque property and company ownership regulations which let the beneficial owner of assets to be hidden behind anonymous offshore companies.
After decades of campaigning to stop offenders and corrupted legislators concealing their proceeds in plain sight, Britain introduced new” unexplained wealth orders” in January. Although still in their infancy they would allow law enforcement to require proof of a property's real ownership and an explanation of how it was purchased use lawful income.
Margaret Hodge, a legislator who has campaigned for years for greater transparency, beseeched May today to do more to clean up Russia's dirty money. She told we need to know ” where the money comes from and deal with it if it's illicit fund brought in by unsavoury people .”
If May is afraid to go after the unsavory Russians with millions stashed in Britain, Putin will continue to believe he can get away with murder.
Read more: www.thedailybeast.com