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Jennifer O’Connell: Britain’s response to Ukraine is a stain that won’t wash out

UK behaving like it just noticed its capital, nicknamed ‘Londongrad’, is full of dodgy Russian money

Britain using Brexit as an excuse for its failure to act faster against the oligarchs in its midst is an irony so stupendously rich it should have its own superyacht moored off St Maarten.

Foreign secretary Liz Truss admitted this week that Britain had been "slower" than the European Union or the United States to act. Legislation introduced in the aftermath of project "take back control" had left it with, in a development no one could possibly have foreseen, less control. New laws, Truss explained, made it "harder to get sanctions agreed", "cumbersome", "slower", and more "onerous". Think of it as a version of the Streisand effect featuring superyachts.

One proposal being looked at to speed things up would be for Britain to impose urgent sanctions for 56 days on individuals already sanctioned by the US or the EU. You can only imagine how awkward suggesting this might be for someone with an ounce of self-awareness. Luckily it was home secretary Priti Patel who tabled the amendment. Some of you may be old enough to remember a time when Brexit meant Britain taking back control of its laws, and the only thing stopping it from reclaiming greatness was pesky EU red tape.

Are red tape and a fear of being sued really the things stopping the UK taking a more aggressive line? Two dozen oligarchs isn't even a dent in the ranks of Moscow-upon-Thames elite

Anyway, now the oligarch taskforce, a newly-established body named with a kind of video game vibe that appeals to teenage boys and Boris Johnson – though of course, not nearly as cool as the US's "Task Force KleptoCapture" – is on the case.


On Thursday, it sanctioned a further seven oligarchs. According to its own published list, this brings to 24 the total of Russian individuals sanctioned by the UK in 2022. Last Wednesday alone, the EU sanctioned 160. Johnson claimed a week ago the UK figure is 100, but no details on the other 76 have been forthcoming. The latest round includes Roman Abramovich and former business partner Oleg Deripaska, the billionaire industrialist shareholder in the company that owns Limerick's Aughinish Alumina plant.

A whole "hit list of oligarchs and Duma members" are still to come, Truss promises. Not right away though, because the cases against them must be "legally watertight so that when we hit them, the hit sticks" – a statement that makes as much sense in actual terms as it does in grammatical ones. The BBC's Reality Check team promptly wheeled out experts to explain that individuals have no legal means to prevent governments from adopting sanctions. Of course, they can sue but that can backfire.

The UK is behaving like a country that has literally only just noticed that its capital, nicknamed Londongrad, is swimming in dodgy Russian money. An economic crime Bill due to be introduced next week will force the owners of 95,000 foreign-owned properties there to reveal their identities. But not for another six months lest "decent law-abiding citizens" with London flats linked to shell companies might be inconvenienced. Labour pushed for it to be reduced to 28 days but this was rejected.

Are red tape and a fear of being sued really the things stopping the UK taking a more aggressive line? Two dozen oligarchs isn't even a dent in the ranks of Moscow-upon-Thames elite. Transparency International says about €8.2 billion has been invested in UK property since 2016 from suspect sources, and Russians allegedly tied to the Putin regime account for at least €1.8 billion of it. In her book, Putin's People, Catherine Belton describes how "London had gained a reputation as the world's laundromat, washing hundreds of billions of pounds of dirty cash every year." In his new book, Butler to the World, Oliver Bullough characterises Britain as "a servant to oligarchs", allowing them to buy up football clubs and educating their children, with a ruling party not too squeamish about who funds it.

Putin's war on Ukraine is a wake-up call to the world, and a brutal reminder to the UK of just how isolated it has allowed itself to become

Whatever the reasons for the UK's lacklustre response to Ukraine – whether it's cumbersome red tape, a fear of litigious kleptocrats with London law firms on speed dial, or the thorny question of how much political sway the Moscow elite actually holds – this will be remembered as another inglorious moment in British history. Its response to the refugee crisis has been a morally bankrupt smorgasbord of hypocrisy and contradictions; rousing words and red tape; too little action, too late. Johnson may be the Teflon prime minister, but this is a stain that won't easily wash away.

The House of Commons gave Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy a round of applause, but all it has done for his people is 24 individuals sanctioned and fewer than 1,000 visas for refugees at the time of writing. Patel has hinted that she regards the exodus of 2.3 million terrified, distraught women, children and men who are too old to be conscripted as a potential threat. Westminster sources were quoted suggesting that Ireland's plan to welcome 100,000 somehow endangers British security.

Britain was not alone in facilitating Putin’s murderous ambitions by believing what it was convenient to believe about him. But its inhumane heel-dragging on refugees and lacklustre response to oligarchs shows how far it has drifted from those values it claims to be fundamentally British – democracy, the rule of law, fair play. In the aftermath of Brexit, there was a sense Britain no longer really knew what it stood for, only what it was against: EU meddling in its affairs; the triple scourges of immigration, liberals and urban cosmopolitans; multiculturalism; bureaucracy; its own declining influence. Now, it doesn’t even seem to know what it is against.

Putin’s war on Ukraine is a wake-up call to the world, and a brutal reminder to the UK of just how isolated it has allowed itself to become. Faced with the first major geopolitical challenge of its existence, Brexit Britain’s response has been to hum, haw and then outsource the hard decisions to the US and the EU. Taking back control is harder than it sounds.