Rhetoric is worthless when the UK is laundering dirty Russian cash
Published by The i paper (31st January, 2022)
Three years ago I hosted a discussion with Rory Stewart, the former aid and Africa minister, who spoke with fascinating frankness about foreign policy. He explained how he participated in an absurd charade in Parliament, asked endless questions about what the government would do to “bring an end to civil war in Burundi” or sort the “disgraceful situation in Togo”. He said the real answer was often nothing – not least when Britain did not even have an embassy in places such as Togo – yet still politicians engaged in “silly” discussions that exaggerated Britain’s influence. “It’s nonsense,” he said. “The question has to be not what do you feel you ought to do but what can you do?”
This sensible approach is worth remembering as the threat of serious war in Europe draws closer, with Russian forces encircling Ukraine and growing talk of invasion. Already there are guns-ho demands by the likes of Defence Committee chairman Tobias Ellwood for Britain to “lead the call to move a Nato division into Ukraine”, despite our country’s limited role in diplomatic manoeuvrings to restrain the Kremlin (and brushing aside the debacles of recent defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq).
Boris Johnson, desperate to save his own skin by diverting attention from his disgusting Partygate behaviour, has stepped up sabre-rattling and is flying to Kiev this week. Prepare for much hype as this shameless huckster seeks a “Falklands moment” to revive his dismal premiership. Yet as Paul Waugh reminded us in this paper, and others mentioned to me over the past fortnight in Ukraine, Johnson caused fury in the Brexit campaign when he blamed the European Union for sparking the tragic events in 2014 as Russia seized the Crimea.
Little wonder he was accused of being “an apologist for Vladimir Putin”. Clearly, the 44 million people of Ukraine are just another prop for his selfish pretensions – but we can be thankful that at least it now suits his needs to pose as their saviour.
It is clear what we should do: show maximum support for Ukraine, a free nation struggling towards democracy, as it is threatened by a brutal dictatorship on its borders. Putin’s aggressive behaviour is hastening the country’s shift away from Moscow, and Europe should embrace Ukraine into its orbit. But the bigger question is the one raised by Stewart: what can we actually do in this crisis? Not least since there is no diplomatic ground that should be given to Putin’s outrageous demands to determine the fate of Ukraine and for the West to abandon other east Europeans, disregarding the desires of their own citizens.
It is right to rule out sending Nato troops into Ukraine. This would be a disaster, fulfilling Putin’s phoney claim that he is threatened by the West while undermining the core concept of Nato as a defensive alliance. One defence expert also told me it would cause chaos to attempt rapid integration of foreign forces on the eve of possible conflict.
Additionally, this crisis feels very different to 2014: then Ukrainians kept telling me they expected the United States and Britain to send troops to save Crimea since we signed security guarantees when Kiev gave up nuclear weapons. I have not met anyone expecting us to ride to the rescue – nor who wants to risk this crisis spiralling into wider conflagration.
Yet I have heard people frequently express gratitude to Britain for moving swiftly to supply anti-tank weapons and training, a symbolic but crucial show of support. This should be just the start of supplying Kyiv – or the Ukrainian resistance if it comes to that – with all medical and military equipment the West can muster if Putin continues down this path towards conflict. Sanctions are fine, but missiles are far more effective when a nation’s survival is under threat. This is not just a possible fight between Putin and Ukraine, but a clash between autocracy and democracy with global ramifications – especially as China flexes its muscles under another aggressive nationalist leader.
There is another move that Britain is uniquely well-placed to make – to clamp down on dirty money stolen by Putin and his pals. All the political rhetoric in support of democracy, the heartfelt pledges to help Ukraine’s people, are meaningless when our nation plays a lead role in cleaning the cash of oligarchs who plunder Russia’s wealth and prop up Putin’s regime. This filthy money stains our politics and soils our democracy as it is laundered by pin-striped pimps in banks, estate agencies, law firms and public relations agencies, exploiting tax havens flying our flag that hide such nefarious activities.
The Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, says she will target “oligarchs close to the Kremlin”. We have heard such promises many times before yet loopholes go unplugged. Perhaps this is unsurprising given Tory party funding ties. It is four years since the Foreign Affairs Select Committee reported that Moscow cash was “clearly linked to a wider Russian strategy” to undermine national security, calling for this to be a foreign policy priority.
“This money is corrupting our institutions and being used to fund campaigns against the interests of British people,” the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat told me. Even the US has spoken out about the failure to stem this toxic flow of funds. But the Government’s response is so limp that the MPs just decided to probe the issue again.
Foreign policy has long been torn between idealism and realism, then blurred by domestic political considerations. It is unfortunate that as tensions rise sharply, Britain is led by a self-serving character whose sole focus is on his own survival. Yet if our rulers really want to help the beleaguered people of Ukraine, along with the cause of democracy, they need to not only support threatened citizens but fight against the corruption in our own society that aids Putin and other dictators. Let us listen to wise advice and focus on what we can really do in this frightening crisis.