Boris Johnson claims UK is rooting out dirty Russian money. It’s ridiculous | Oliver Bullough

OWe were warned about Vladimir Putin – his intentions, his nature, his state of mind – and, because it was profitable for us, we ignored those warnings and welcomed his friends and their money. It is too late for us to erase our responsibility for having helped Putin to build his system. But we can always take it down and prevent it from coming back.

Russia is a mafia state and its elite exist to enrich themselves. Democracy is an existential threat to this theft, which is why Putin crushed it at home and seeks to undermine it abroad. For decades, London has been the most important place not only for the Russian criminal elite to launder their money, but also to hide their wealth. We have been the Kremlin’s bankers and provided its elite with the financial skills it lacked. Its kleptocracy could not exist without our help. The best time to do something about it was 30 years ago, but the second best time is now.

We journalists have been writing about this for a long time, but it’s not just overheated rhetoric of overhyped hacks. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee wrote two years ago that our investigative agencies are underfunded, our economy is awash in dirty money and the oligarchs have bought influence at the top of our society.

The committee heard testimony from senior law enforcement and security officials. He offered detailed and cautious suggestions on what Britain should do to limit the damage Putin has already done to our society. Instead of learning from the report and implementing its proposals, Boris Johnson delayed its publication until after the general election and then, when further delay became impossible, dismissed those who took his sober analysis seriously calling them “Islingtonian remnants” seeking to delegitimize Brexit.

This is the crucial context for Johnson’s ridiculous assertion this week in the House of Commons that no government could “in theory do more to root out corrupt Russian money”. This is not only patently false, it is an inversion of reality. When we left the European Union, we were told that we could launch our own independent sanctions regime – and this week we saw the fruit of it: a response significantly weaker than those of Brussels and Washington.

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, speaking with parliamentary privilege on Tuesday, listed the names of 35 alleged key Putin ‘enablers’ whose Russian opponent Alexei Navalny asked to be sanctioned. Freezing the assets of everyone on this list and their loved ones would be a truly meaningful response from Johnson to the gravity of the situation. But that would still be just the beginning.

Relying solely on penalties now is like stepping on the accelerator of a car after years of failing to service the engine, inflate the tires, or fill the tank, all the while expecting it to hit 95 mph. Other announcements over the past couple of days have been all about painting over faster stripes. Tackling the UK’s role in establishing Putin’s kleptocracy and containing the threat its allies pose to democracy here and elsewhere will require much more than simply banning golden visas or banning UK TV channels. Kremlin.

To begin with, we need to know who owns our country. Some 87,000 properties in England and Wales are held via offshore companies – making it impossible for us to see who their real owners are or if they were bought with criminal money. Companies House does not verify records, which is why UK fictitious structures have featured in most money laundering scandals in Russia. Imposing transparency on the ownership of dirty money in this way would strike at the heart of London’s money laundering machine. Governments have promised to do so “when parliamentary time permits” for years, but the time never came, and they instead listened to the City’s concerns that such regulations would hurt its competitiveness.

Above all, we must fund our law enforcement agencies as generously as the oligarchs fund their lawyers: you can’t fight grand corruption cheaply. Even good policies in recent years, such as the 2017 “unexplained wealth orders,” designed to tackle assets held by criminals hidden behind clever shell structures, have largely failed because investigators lack the funds to investigate. use them. We must spend what it takes to drive kleptocratic money out of the country.

Johnson is not the first prime minister not to rise to the challenge – Tony Blair and David Cameron both chatted with Putin even when it was obvious what kind of leader he was. And I don’t think Johnson is personally corrupt or tainted by Russian money; he is lazy, flippant, and unwilling to launch costly and laborious initiatives that will only bring results long after he himself has left office and is unable to take credit for it. It is time, however, for his colleagues to step in and force him to act. This is a serious time, and it takes serious people willing to invest in the long-term security of our country and in the future of democracy everywhere.

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Edward L. Robinett