Johnson’s meagre sanctions against Russia leave even Tories embarrassed

PM avoids shutting down pipeline of dirty money that winds its way to City of London

After weeks of tough talk about the consequences for Vladimir Putin of sending forces into Ukraine, Boris Johnson on Tuesday announced a package of sanctions so modest that his own MPs were embarrassed.

What he called “a draconian package of sanctions” amounted to freezing the assets of five small banks and three billionaires close to Putin, all of whom were already subject to US sanctions.

The measures looked especially puny in comparison with German chancellor Olaf Scholz's decision to suspend the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. This is a move with major consequences for a country that sources more than a third of its gas from Russia.

Johnson, whose defence secretary Ben Wallace complained recently about "a whiff of Munich" in the European approach to Ukraine, steered clear of any steps that would carry a more than negligible cost for Britain.

And he did nothing to shut down the pipeline of dirty money that snakes its way from Russia to Cyprus to the British Virgin Islands until it appears freshly laundered in the City of London.

Four years ago, Britain introduced Unexplained Wealth Orders, a system similar to Ireland's Criminal Assets Bureau that can seize assets from individuals who are unable to explain the source of their wealth. But as Labour's Ben Bradshaw noted on Tuesday, not one such order has been issued since Johnson entered office in 2019.

Day of infamy

Former Labour minister Liam Byrne said it was a day of infamy in Russian history but that Tuesday's "slap on the wrist" would do nothing to deter Putin.

“The prime minister has to recognise that pulling our punches does not work with President Putin. We need to punch harder, and if we are not prepared to send bombers, we should at least take on the bankers,” he said.

Johnson will announce further sanctions but he will have to tread carefully to avoid upsetting London’s cottage industry of legal, accounting and other concierge services to the undeserving rich from all over the world.

But when Alliance MP Stephen Farry asked for an assurance that a Ukrainian refugee crisis would not be left to neighbouring countries in central and eastern Europe to deal with, the prime minister made clear that Britain's cherished allies east of the Oder would be on their own.

“The best way to avoid a refugee crisis is for President Putin to de-escalate, and the best way to get him to de-escalate is for the West to be united. That is why we are implementing the package of sanctions that I have described, together with our friends,” he said.