Boris Johnson is under growing pressure from the EU to go further and faster in imposing sanctions on Russian oligarchs over fears that assets are being swept out of the UK.
Contrary to the prime minister’s claims to be leading the world in the economic response to the invasion of Ukraine, there is frustration among allies over the UK’s lethargy in Russian wealth.
The government is being urged in behind-the-scenes discussions with the EU to target more named individuals believed to be sheltering their wealth in London property and financial structures.
That private frustration was made public in comments from Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice-president on Thursday. “I don’t hesitate to say this,” Timmermans told the BBC. “The UK is now following our lead. And I’m sure they will continue to follow the lead because the pressure of the public opinion in the UK is very clear about this.
“And I think now even parties who have accepted funding from oligarchs should understand that they, you know, they need to change course, because that’s what – if I don’t misunderstand the public mood in the UK – that’s what the British public want. ”
The Foreign Office has for days been promising to publish a schedule of oligarchs it will hit, but as yet just eight such individuals with links to Vladimir Putin have been listed.
A government official told the Times on Thursday that it would take “weeks and months” to enforce sanctions on the same level as the EU due to a lack of legal and investigative capacity.
Meanwhile, among the 680 individuals subject to EU asset freezes and travel bans, are tens of named oligarchs or Putin allies, including Igor Shuvalov, formerly Vladimir Putin’s deputy prime minister, who sits on the Russian security council.
Asked about the discrepancy between the UK and EU record on imposing sanctions on individuals around Putin, the Home Office minister Damian Hinds told the BBC that “it was not a competition”.
On Wednesday, the Labor leader, Keir Starmer, questioned why Shuvalov, who owns two luxury flats in Whitehall Court, and others like him, were not yet being targeted by the British government.
The owner of Chelsea football club, Roman Abramovich, who Starmer said had been accused in a leaked Home Office document of having links to the Russian state as well as to “corrupt activity and practices”, is also not yet subject to UK restrictive measures.
Abramovich has announced that he is selling the London club.
EU officials confirmed that they were concerned by the flight of assets out of the UK, which has long been a favorite location for shielding the wealth of Russian oligarchs linked to the Putin regime.
“On the question of oligarchs, I think we believe seizing and freezing assets [is] really important and we believe one of the most effective tools,” an EU official said. “Of course, we are encouraging partners to do the same and to move as quickly as possible.” The official added: “Speed is of the essence, because if you announce sanctions and then you take a week to take [action], then the assets are somewhere else. So that’s important.”
A series of high-profile examples of action within the EU against figures close to Putin has highlighted the discrepancy.
On Thursday, the French authorities announced they had taken a €108m yacht owned by Igor Sechin, chief executive of the large Russian energy firm Rosneft.
Donors who have made money from Russia or have alleged links to the Putin regime have given £1.93m to either the Conservative party or individual Conservative associations since Boris Johnson took power in July 2019, according to analysis by Labor.
Sources said the EU was now preparing to target the family members of oligarchs to ensure that they cannot avoid the impact of sanctions.
An EU official said: “We have made a legal change in the legal basis of our sanctions regimes to allow us to target the family members of oligarchs which up until now has not been possible.”
The official said that a joint unit with other Western allies was also being established to examine loopholes.
“We are forming together with the United States, Canada and also the UK a kind of task force that is now beginning to drill down into detail as to potential ways to bypass the sanctions and the listings and also to unravel if you like the role of trust companies and holding assets, and also in holding property,” the official said.
“This will provide, I think, an information base that will be incredibly useful both in terms of looking at further listings, and extending listings to close loopholes as they become apparent that is operational and working.”