The British ruling class has often used the bogeyman of Russia as a convenient distraction to problems at home.
From insinuating that Jeremy Corbyn was a Moscow stooge; to blaming the 2016 EU referendum result on Russian interference: the British establishment have frequently whipped up hysteria around the alleged menace of Russia.
Now, with Boris Johnson under mounting pressure over ‘partygate’, the ‘threat’ posed by Putin’s Russia is once again being used to divert the public’s attention.
‘Nowhere to hide’
But how are the Tories intending to stand up to the aggressive Russian bear? What has ‘Global Britain’ got up its sleeve in the fight against pesky Putin?
Foreign secretary Liz Truss assures audiences that the UK will hit ‘em where it hurts: with targeted sanctions against wealthy individuals and companies with connections to the Kremlin.
“There will be nowhere to hide for Putin’s oligarchs,” Truss asserted in an interview with Sky News.
It seems that Putin’s inner circle and business backers have a very safe hiding spot, however: the City of London.
American officials are amongst those expressing concern that deeds will be much harder than words when it comes to the UK government’s enforcement of sanctions against the Putin regime.
“The fear is that Russian money is so entrenched in London now,” a Washington source told the Times, “that the opportunity to use it as leverage against Putin could be lost.”
“Putin’s money is in Knightsbridge,” claimed one US diplomat. Others have referred to the UK capital as ‘Londongrad’, such is the level of dirty money flowing into the city from Russia.
Transparency International, for example, has estimated that Russian oligarchs have £1.5bn of suspect funds embedded in the UK property market.
There are widespread doubts as to whether the Tory government has any intention of genuinely clamping down on these wealthy Russian investors and property magnates.
“It’s nearly six years since the UK government first backed the idea of a register exposing foreign property owners, which would help put an end to Kremlin-linked oligarchs laundering their dirty money in our country,” noted Layla Moran, the Lib Dem spokesperson for foreign affairs.
“Over 2,000 days on, the Conservative government has failed to introduce a register.”
Starmer's Labour have also drawn attention to this issue, highlighting the role of Russian money both in terms of London-based laundering and Tory Party funding.
Furthermore, question marks have been raised about the government’s ability to apply sanctions, with Financial Times journalists revealing that “the UK’s enforcement agency for financial sanctions has levied only six fines since being created in 2016”.
Indeed, this is not the first time that the Tories have failed to carry through on their promises of action against Putin.
In the wake of the Salisbury poisoning in 2018, then-PM Theresa May made similar idle threats. And in the end, after much bellicose huffing and puffing, the only ‘punishment’ levelled was a refusal to send any UK government ministers or royal family members to attend that summer’s football World Cup, held in Russia – no doubt leaving Putin trembling in his boots!
Good for business
Last year’s Pandora Papers revealed that London is a nexus point for global embezzlement – particularly for billionaires looking to hide their ill-gotten gains.
One couple that features prominently in the papers is Vladimir and Lubov Chernukhin, who have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep their wealth and financial arrangements secret.
Vladimir Chernukhin is an ex-deputy finance minister under Putin, and a former state banker. And his wife Lubov, also a former banker, just so happens to be one of the largest donors to the Tory Party, providing over £2 million in funds since 2012.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Other major Tory financers, such as businessman Mohamed Amersi, are also suspected to have commercial links to the Putin regime.
Overall, it is estimated that the Conservatives have received £2 million in party funds from Russian sources just since Johnson became PM. Meanwhile, a quarter of the Tory Cabinet – including Rishi Sunak and Dominic Raab – have accepted Russian-related cash.
In return for their largesse, Lubov Chernukhin and other super-rich donors receive privileged access to ministers, through a range of exclusive (and shadowy) members’ clubs. And no doubt they expect something more than a fancy lunch as part of this package.
No wonder, then, that British threats of sanctions are seen as toothless. Far from being an enemy, it is clear that Boris Johnson and the Tories see Putin and his billionaire cronies as good chums, with whom they can do business.