Boris Johnson Lets Russian Oligarchs ‘Get Away With It’ As Sanctions Reprieve to Last for Months
The Prime Minister denies that a donation from a senior figure at Russia’s second-largest bank was behind the decision to hand it a one-month sanctions reprieve, reports Adam Bienkov
Boris Johnson has denied that the Government’s decision to hand a one-month reprieve from UK sanctions to Russia’s second-largest bank was due to the Conservative Party receiving tens of thousands of pounds in donations from a senior figure at the company.
Johnson told the House of Commons last week that he was imposing an immediate “full asset freeze” on VTB bank, which is based in Moscow.
However, the next day the Treasury announced that the bank had been given a reprieve from the measures until the end of March in order to allow individuals and companies to “wind down any transactions” with the bank.
The move was branded “preposterous” by Labour MP Chris Bryant.
“Why on earth does the Government… allow VTB Bank, the second-largest Russian bank, 30 days for clients to be able to remove their assets?” Bryant asked the Paymaster General Michael Ellis on Tuesday.
“I do not even know what the metaphor is in terms of horses and bolts and having already escaped, but this seems preposterous.”
Bill Browder, a leading campaigner against Russian corruption and a former US financier, told the I newspaper that Johnson’s reprieve for the bank was “absurd”.
“This is a ridiculous position for Britain to put itself in. An asset freeze needs to be immediate and total,” he said. “If you are leaving those subject to it a month for the sanction to become active then anything you want to freeze will be long gone. It is absurd.”
Questions were subsequently raised about the decision after the Electoral Commission published new records on Wednesday showing that a senior figure at the bank was a recent donor to the Conservative Party.
Open Democracy discovered that Barin Yucemin, who is head of Global Fixed Income Trading and Global Markets at VTB, has donated more than £40,000 to the party since 2018, including £3,000 to the party locally in Greenwich at the end of last year.
The latest records also revealed that the Conservative Party also received a further £80,000 from Lubov Chernukhin, who is the wife of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former finance minister, at the end of last year.
There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by either Yucemin, VTB or Chernukhin.
Asked by Byline Times whether Yucemin’s donations was a factor in the Government’s decision to give the bank a reprieve from the sanctions, Johnson’s official spokesman replied “no”.
He insisted that the decision was purely to protect UK businesses.
“When it comes to this, my understanding is that we needed to ensure that for UK businesses, if you didn’t allow any additional time then it would effectively cause major issues for UK companies”, the spokesman said.
“Obviously we are not trying to place any additional burden on them and so it’s a rational way of seeking to avoid that.”
Asked whether the delay defeated the purpose of the sanctions, he replied that “ultimately you will still see these banks cut off. This is about making sure we’re not impacting on on UK businesses and firms”.
A senior Government source acknowledged that there had been delays to sanctions imposed on Russian oligarchs.
Johnson’s Government is coming under increasing scrutiny for its apparent reluctance to impose sanctions on Russians in the UK.
Only eight individuals targeted by the Government have been named so far, with prominent oligarchs like Roman Abramovich yet to be targeted.
The apparent slowness of the UK’s response has been contrasted with the EU, which this week announced further sanctions on individual Russian businessmen.
The Times reported on Thursday that UK sanctions on oligarchs could be delayed for months, if not indefinitely, because the Government has been “unable to build a case against them”.
A report by Politico on Thursday also blamed a post-Brexit change in sanction legislation for the delay.
Labour said the latest reports showed Johnson’s party was “filling its boots” with money from Russian donors.
“Boris Johnson talks tough on cracking down on Putin’s cronies, but the fact is the Conservative Party has been filling its boots with cash from donors linked to Putin’s regime,” Labour Party Chair Anneliese Dodds told Byline Times.
“The prime minister should explain to the public why his party and his MPs have received millions of pounds of Putin-linked cash, and what he intends to do to put his own house in order”.
The Liberal Democrats accused them of “letting Putin’s cronies get away with it”.
“Liz Truss has told us for weeks that Putin’s cronies would have ‘nowhere to hide’ from the UK’s sanctions. It is deeply worrying to hear that her department is potentially incapable of applying sanctions to Kremlin-linked oligarchs,” Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said in a statement on Thursday.
“Our allies have been able to — we have no excuse. We’re letting Putin’s cronies get away with it once again.”