For the second time in 12 years, a highly lethal substance produced and stored in exactly one state-guarded facility in Russia has been loosed on British soil.
When Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian spy turned informant for Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence services, was irradiated in a posh central London hotel in 2006, the Tony Blair administration became a hotbed of cold feet. Its primary concern was not blaming Vladimir Putin for ordering the use of a weapon of mass destruction against one of his enemies in a Western capital, but to ensure this inconvenience did not disrupt the steady flow of rubles into that capital—a no-questions-asked policy euphemistically known as “British-Russian relations.” Realpolitik, not for the first time, took priority over state terrorism. And so a public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death took a decade to come into being and conclude what everyone had known all along.
Now Sergei and Yulia Skirpal are fighting for their lives in a hospital, as is one British police officer exposed to the novichok nerve agent designed to kill them. The small town of Salisbury was for a time transformed into a military quarantine zone and America’s closest ally once again faces that awkward question of whether or not to grow a spine.
Theresa May’s decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats, boycott the 2018 World Cup and organize the U.S., Germany and France to join her government in categorical condemnation of Russia for an attempted assassination are the least of what she can do and the most of what Putin can laugh off.
In fact, he already has. Less than 24 hours after May announced her retaliatory measures for the near-fatal poisoning of Skripal and his daughter, Moscow did what it does best: blame the victim, then buy everyone off. On March 14, Gazprom issued an eight-year €750 million eurobond. The Russian embassy in London, which previously suggested that MI6 might have tried to bump off Skirpal and which was soon to be emptied of a handful of diplomats, tweeted out the news that the bond was oversubscribed. This was followed by the prose equivalent of a middle-finger held up to the British: “Business as usual?” the embassy asked.
A more serious form of punishment would be to end Britain’s role as an international laundromat for kleptocratic Russian officials and their manifold proxies, a collection of billionaire oligarchs whose outsize net worth and ability to draw breath are inextricably linked to the favor they enjoy in Moscow. Their assets are dubiously sourced, and most don’t even reside in Britain full-time, exploiting a notorious tax loophole for “non-doms.” And yet they are everywhere feted in Labour and Conservative Party circles as philanthropists, socialites, soccer club owners and press barons. John le Carré has even found one legendary anecdote worthy of fictionalizing in his novel Our Kind of Traitor.
In 2008, Oleg Deripaska, at the time still a happy business partner of Paul Manafort, hosted both the shadow chancellor of the exchequer (and future chancellor) George Osborne and EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson aboard Queen K, his “super-yacht” in Corfu. Allegations later surfaced that this was more than a mere social call by two of Britain’s political heavyweights. Mandelson, The Sunday Times reported, gave Russia’s “king of aluminum” 50 million pounds in trade concessions not long afterward, while Osborne was evidently there to solicit a donation from Deripaska to the Conservative Party. (As Deripaska wasn’t a British citizen, this would have been illegal.)
Where not celebrated by the establishment as an acceptable species of nouveau riche, oligarchs in Britain manage to retain white-shoe libel lawyers and top-notch public relations flunkies to keep their financial histories from being carefully scrutinized, making Britain’s service industry an accomplice to their reputation-laundering.
I spent over two years in London, from 2010 to 2012, partly investigating the influx of dirty Russian money into a city which was only too happy to pretend that it was a receivership of no such thing.
In 2012, I published a short report in The Daily Telegraph showing that Vladimir Lisin, today Russia’s richest man, according to Forbes, owned a cargo ship which transported what several news outlets alleged were lethal weapons from St. Petersburg to Tartus, Syria for use by Bashar al-Assad’s regime just as the gruesome Houla massacre was getting underway. Prior to that, Lisin, a grouse-shooting metals magnate who owns the 16th-century Aberuchill Castle in Perthshire, Scotland, also served as the vice president of Russia’s Olympic Committee during the London 2012 Games. That role granted him temporary diplomatic status in the U.K. Lisin also promised to reward any Russian athlete who took home a gold medal $1 million, including, presumably, those who were later found to have been guilty of doping. He still owns Aberuchill Castle.
Another oligarch, Eugene Shvidler, I discovered, had used a nondescript, Aruba-registered limited liability company, which could only be publicly traced to him because it was the technical owner of the helicopter he keeps aboard his yacht, to lend 2.73 million pounds to a startup investment brokerage run by the son of the former treasurer of Queen Elizabeth. Shvidler, a business partner of Roman Abramovich—another major investor in “Londongrad,” as well as the owner of the Chelsea Football Club—had gifted the 270-foot Le Grand Bleu to Shvidler, sometimes known as Abramovich’s “representative on earth.” The former royal treasurer, meanwhile, was put on the board of Evraz, Abramovich and Shvidler’s mining company, which is a publicly traded company on the London Stock Exchange.
Such findings were titillating for the tabloids, but landed with a thud among British government watchdogs. One official from a latter organization told me that whenever his agency attempted to raise a red flag about this sort of thing, it was met with bipartisan resistance by Westminster and the City.
Things have only grown worse since. In 2015 expose for Channel 4, Roman Borisovich, a former insurance executive, went around high-priced London neighborhoods posing as a Russian official who copped to stealing public funds to buy a swish hideaway for his mistress “Nastya.” The listings they saw ran for between £3 million to £15 million. Yet one estate agent after another, including one representing a firm whose motto is “The Only Way is Ethics,” told “Boris” that they’d be more than happy to oblige him. Borisovich now hosts a popular “Kleptocracy Tour” around London, showing anyone interested where Putin’s untitled aristocracy own property, under the full view of an ostensible law-and-order democracy.
Britain should start behaving as one.
Parliament should mandate the total transparency of ultimate beneficial ownership of British property immediately and monitor its foreign freeholders according to the know-your-client protocols well-behaving banks are meant to employ to ensure that they don’t take deposits from gangsters, drug lords, terrorists, arms dealers or so-called “politically exposed persons.”
Britain should also implement a law tantamount to the Magnitsky Act, which aims to deny human rights-abusers of their ability to travel or shop or invest in the West. The Kremlin’s febrile reaction to the original U.S. version of that law clearly testifies its impact. It has dispatched a variety of emissaries and lobbyists, including the Russian lawyer who famously met with the senior Trump campaign officials at Trump Tower in June 2016, to kill the legislation. All attempts have failed; more and more Russian officials wind up on the Magnitsky list each year. Were London to follow suit, nothing would demonstrate more effectively that Putin’s bagmen can no longer consider British territory an extension of their own.