The BBC’s Nick Robinson reported on Monday:
The [UK] government will not curb trade with Russia or close London’s financial centre to Russians as part of any possible package of sanctions against Moscow, according to an official document.
The document, which was photographed as a senior official carried it into a meeting in Downing Street, says that “the UK should not support for now trade sanctions or close London’s financial centre to Russians”, while it confirms that ministers ARE considering – along with other EU countries – visa restrictions and travel bans on key Russian figures.
The reason for this form of words is clear. Public statements should for now be kept “generic”, the document says, whereas specific threats should be “contingent and used for private messaging”.
This is in stark contrast to the specific hardline threats made by US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday.
One senior government source told me: “We prefer to speak softly and carry a big stick.”
An article in The New Republic by Oliver Bullough calls into question just how big a stick the British government is prepared to wield:
If you’re looking for Russia’s weak point at the moment, you could do worse than start at a house on West Heath Road in leafy north London. It looks modest enough, but it would probably set you back $15 million.
It is the primary residence of Andrey Yakunin. His father, Russian Railways chief executive Vladimir Yakunin, is a former KGB agent and longtime pal of President Vladimir Putin. He was also a lead organizer of the Sochi Olympics and heads National Glory of Russia, an organization that aims to protect Russians from Western culture. (In a barely-readable book called Problems of Contemporary World Futurology, he predicted the collapse of the West in 10-20 years). His wife, Natalya, is in the same trade. She heads Sanctity of Motherhood, which propagates the “many-child family” through traditional Russian values and Orthodox Christianity. Their son Andrey is a fund manager, a graduate of the London Business School, and a specialist in “mid-market business hotels,” particularly ones that adjoin Russian train stations. His son, in turn, attends a posh English private school.
The Yakunin family is Putin’s Kremlin in microcosm, a hypocritical spookocracy that rejects everything about the West except its money, houses, and consumer goods. It also encapsulates the Kremlin’s weakness. If Putin’s Ukraine adventure causes Europe to freeze assets and inconvenience the Kremlin elite, then Putin will find himself losing support fast—from the constituency he needs the most.
The Russian economy is vulnerable. The ruble has tumbled, as has Russia’s stock market too. But that will not bother the elite, which keeps its money in dollars and spends as much time in the West as in Moscow—and that encapsulates how hard it is for Europe to take action. In London, thousands of people—the estate agent who sold the home on West Heath Road; the brokers who shift Andrey Yakunin’s stock; the lawyers who sign off on his deals; the teachers at his son’s school—have a piece of Russian action…
English law regulates many energy contracts in Russia, and oligarchs love using the London courts to resolve their disputes. Reports in The Lawyer detail the sums of money on offer, with lawyers regularly picking up millions from oligarch clients. More than 60 percent of the London Commercial Court’s workload now comes from Russia and Eastern Europe, and the pay-offs are huge. Lord Sumption waited until he had finished defending Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, for a reported fee of $5 million, before taking up a position on Britain’s Supreme Court.
Cameron’s re-election hopes will be boosted by a buoyant stock market, and more than 50 companies that operate in Russia are listed on the main market of the London Stock Exchange. That means a lot of work for London financial professionals, not least in the debt market, which has been tapped by—among many other—Russian Railways.
Historically-minded Russians are fond of quoting Lord Palmerston, a 19th century prime minister, who said: “Britain has no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies, only interests that are eternal.” Not much has changed since then. London lives to make money, which Russians have a lot of.
Any thoughts from our British readers?