Boris Johnson under pressure to step up ‘tepid’ sanctions on Russia

Promised ‘barrage’ of measures limited to five banks and three individuals

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
,Anna Isaac
Tuesday 22 February 2022 20:22
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Boris Johnson announces sanctions on Russian banks and individuals

Boris Johnson is coming under pressure to step up sanctions against Russia, after his initial tranche of banking-asset freezes and oligarch travel bans were dismissed as “tepid” and unlikely to deter Vladimir Putin from further aggression against Ukraine.

The prime minister told the House of Commons that the sanctions on five banks and three billionaire Putin associates were a prelude to “much, much tougher” action if the Russian president persisted with the invasion of his neighbour.

Western officials insisted that the move would have a “significant” impact on the Russian economy.

But critics – including longtime Putin adversary Bill Browder, the financier behind the Magnitsky Act targeting Russian human rights abusers – dismissed the package as under-powered.

The chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, warned that the strategy of gradually ratcheting up the UK’s response risked giving the impression that Britain was giving Mr Putin “a free pass at an early stage” rather than drawing a line he must not cross.

The former soldier said Mr Johnson – who had promised a “barrage” of measures if “a single Russian toecap” infringed on Ukrainian territory – should observe the military principle: “Clout, don’t dribble, to make sure the opposition knows you are serious.”

Within hours of the PM’s announcement, Russia’s parliament agreed to a request from President Putin to use the country’s military forces outside the country, a move that could allow a broader attack on Ukraine.

The UK’s intervention paled in significance against the announcement by German chancellor Olaf Scholz that he was pulling the plug on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that plays a central role in Mr Putin’s economic strategy.

Meanwhile, the EU announced its own sanctions blacklisting 27 individuals and entities in Russia’s defence, banking and financial sectors, banning EU investors from trading in Russian state bonds and targeting imports and exports with separatist regions.

After being briefed by military and intelligence chiefs at a pre-dawn meeting of the government’s Cobra emergencies committee, Mr Johnson told MPs it was clear that Mr Putin’s deployment of troops on a purported “peace-keeping” mission in the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk amounted to a “renewed invasion” of the country.

The PM said Britain would continue to seek a diplomatic resolution to the crisis “until the last possible moment”.

But he said it appeared Mr Putin was “implacably determined to go further in subjugating and tormenting Ukraine” and the international community must prepare for the country becoming “the target of a full-scale war of aggression”.

The banks subjected to bans on UK business activities – Rossiya Bank, IS Bank, General Bank, Promsvyazbank and the Black Sea Bank – have little presence in the UK.

And the impact of asset freezes and travel bans for Putin allies Gennady Timchenko, Boris Rotenberg and Igor Rotenberg were expected to be limited as their international activities are already restricted by US sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea.

Also to be sanctioned are members of the Duma house of Moscow’s parliament who voted in favour of the Russian-leaning “people’s republics”. And measures are to be taken to deny Russian access to London’s sovereign debt markets.

Foreign secretary Liz Truss said the first wave of sanctions would “send a clear message that the UK will use our economic heft to inflict pain on Russia and degrade their strategic interests”, with further measures ready if Mr Putin does not “pull back from the brink”.

But Mr Browder described the list as “pretty tepid”, pointing out that Russia’s two biggest banks and dozens of major plutocrats in Mr Putin’s inner circle were untouched.

Mr Johnson was also forced into the embarrassing admission that he “misspoke” in telling MPs that Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich was subject to sanctions, while the Foreign Office mistakenly included the address of Russia’s central bank on its list of targeted institutions.

A string of Tory MPs lined up to call on Mr Johnson to take more substantial action.

Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith said Britain needed to “hit them with sanctions hard and hit them now”, while ex-chief whip Mark Harper called for assurances that there will be “further and stronger measures even if President Putin does no more”.

Labour backed the sanctions, but renewed calls for the implementation of the recommendations of 2020’s Russia Report, in which parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee called for action to stem the flood of illicit Russian money within London’s financial institutions.

Sir Keir Starmer warned against the slow application of deterrent measures: “If we do not respond with a full set of sanctions now, Putin will once again take away the message that the benefits of aggression outweigh the costs.”

Oxford and Exeter university academic Dr Tena Prelec, part of a team researching international kleptocracy, said Mr Johnson’s “contained and reactive” measures risked being “too little too late”.

“The UK remains a safe haven for dirty money, a great deal of which comes from Russia and Eurasia,” she said. “Failure to tackle this thriving billion-dollar industry is damaging for the UK’s rule of law and to the UK’s professed role as an opponent of international corruption.”

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