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Russia is winning the battle of Londongrad

If the Kremlin believes it can poison its enemies in Britain, it is because for years, PM Theresa May, previously Home Secretary, refused to take action against mysterious deaths and suspicious inflows of wealth by Russian oligarchs and criminal groups.

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British security units in Salisbury removing a vehicle connected to the March 4 nerve agent attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

SPEAKING in the House of Commons about the alleged use of a Russian-made military grade nerve agent to poison a former Russian spy, British Prime Minister Theresa May sounded as tough as Margaret Thatcher announcing the war with Argentina to recover the Falklands.

On Wednesday, Mrs May announced what amounts to a mere slap on Mr Vladimir Putin's wrist by expelling 23 diplomats. In contrast, US President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats over allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Russian tweets for Mr Trump get tougher sanctions than an attempted murder on British soil?

She said no members of the Royal Family or the government would attend the summer World Cup, but the Royals have already said they were not going.

Mrs May said the government would accept amendments already voted by MPs to allow a British version of the Magnitsky legislation, already in US law, which allows the seizure of any assets abroad of Russian officials accused of human rights crimes.

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The UK will cancel a visit by the Russian foreign minister, and raise the issue at the EU Council and the UN. But that's it.

It is hard to imagine Mr Putin quaking in the Kremlin ahead of the re-election on Sunday.

Mrs May might indeed be correct in her bellicose denunciation of the Kremlin, but she has only herself to blame. For seven years since 2010, she has been the Home Secretary and now Prime Minister in charge of protecting British soil against Russian bad behaviour, but did not lift a finger to push back.

That is especially astounding given how much she has trumpeted the issue of British sovereignty all along. Sucking up to Russia is not usually associated with the pursuit of sovereignty.

LONDONGRAD

The reason for Mrs May's past inaction is simple. Londongrad has become an outpost for Russian oligarchs. Many of the Russian oligarchs residing in London have close Kremlin links.

According to estimates by Deutsche Bank in 2015, about US$750 million a month of criminal money is flowing from Russia into London banks. Shamelessly, Russian oligarchs have become a useful source of big donations to the Conservative Party.

But they also represent a pot of gold for London financial advisers, City lawyers and public relations firms that are hired by rich Russians to handle their affairs.

Monetary matters aside, the Russia web that has London firmly in its grip also extends to an unsafe sanctuary for the enemies of the Kremlin (or those judged to have betrayed Russian intelligence agencies so dear to Mr Putin's heart).

A new word has entered the political science lexicon - "Crimeintern" which has taken over from Comintern, the Soviet era communist international. In a 2017 report for the European Council of Foreign Relation, Mark Galeotti, who coined the phrase "Crimeintern", made three key points:

  • Russian criminals today operate less on the street and more in the shadows. They act as allies, facilitators and suppliers for local European gangs and continent-wide criminal networks.
  • The Russian state is highly criminalised: The interpenetration of the criminal "underworld" and the political "upperworld" has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.
  • Russian-based organised crime (RBOC) groups in Europe have been used for a variety of purposes, including as sources of "black cash", to launch cyber attacks, to wield political influence, to traffic people and goods and even to carry out targeted assassinations on behalf of the Kremlin.

WHITEWASHING RUSSIAN CRIMES

All of this was well known when in 2010 Mrs May took charge as Home Secretary of protecting Britain from Russian penetration.

In 2006, two identified Russian assassins arrived to kill Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-FSB agent who publicly accused Mr Putin in 1998 of being a criminal. He fled to London where he worked with British intelligence agencies and Boris Berezovksy, an oligarch once close to Mr Putin, but who then turned against the Russian leader.

A British judicial inquiry found that Mr Litvinenko was killed by Polonium-210 poisoning. Mrs May tried to delay the inquiry citing the need to protect "international relations" with Russia and, when its findings were published in 2015, as Home Secretary, she refused to take action.

Even worse, as the minister in charge of immigration, she opened Britain's doors to rich Russians by allowing them to settle in Britain and even obtain British and hence EU citizenship on payment of £2 million - small change for Russian oligarchs and RBOC elites.

RUSSIAN MONEY

In a world where one hand greases the other, ensuring that Russian money kept flowing into London has become a top priority for British ministers. Up to 30 per cent of corporate lawyers' earnings come from handling Russian oligarch money and their fabulously costly divorces.

Russian oligarchs and criminals have invested massively in buying expensive houses and apartments in London - one of the best places to convert criminal money into real assets by paying cash for houses. Those same Russians also send their children to expensive private schools and keep London luxury-goods shops and high-end restaurants in business.

There have been several scandals over big donations from Russian oligarchs in Londongrad to the Conservative Party. As Mrs May was trying to deal with the latest poisoning, news broke that Russian oligarchs had donated £850,000 (S$1.6 billion) to the Tories.

Unbelievably, there is no prospect of that money being returned, Mrs May's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, insisted. Can anyone get more mercenary than that?

The reason for Mr Hammond's shameless accommodation is simple: The Tory Party has just 70,000 paid-up members, with an average age of 71. Without big donations from Mr Putin cronies, Mrs May's party would be in serious financial trouble.

THE MAGNITSKY ACT

In 2012, the House of Commons adopted a unanimous resolution calling for a Magnitsky Act to be passed into UK law. This is named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Moscow lawyer, working for UK-based fund manager, Bill Browder.

Mr Browder was the biggest and most successful investor in Russia in the 1990s until, inevitably, he fell out with Mr Putin and his cronies. Sergei Magnitsky uncovered a US$150 million scam that was conducted to steal tax paid by Browder. He was arrested and so badly beaten in prison that he died in agony in 2009.

Ever since, Mr Browder, the grandson of Earl Browder, leader of the American Community Party in the 1930s and 1940, has campaigned to expose Russian state criminality.

He came up with the idea that the best way to push back was to let the hunger of the Kremlin-linked Russian super-rich to live luxurious lives with their families in London and other Western capitals far away from Moscow go unfulfilled.

The simple idea of the Act is to allow a government to freeze assets or deny residence to any Russian whose wealth cannot be shown to have come from legitimate business activity or with links to RBOC and the Kremlin's intelligence agency network.

It has been passed by the US Congress. When the UK House of Commons voted for similar legislation in 2012, David Cameron vetoed it and made clear there would be no pressure on Londongrad Russians. Mrs May, as the dutiful Home Secretary, went along that decision.

She is now under pressure to put Magnitsky legislation into UK law. If this were to happen, it would happen very late in the day.

After all, as far back as 2006, the Russian Duma passed legislation permitting the execution of enemies of Russia living abroad. In the past decade, there are 17 unexplained deaths of Russians or British citizens who have been involved with Russian oligarchs and those campaigning against Mr Putin in London.

Mrs May as Home Secretary could have made tackling Russian hit squads a police and UK security priority. She refused to do.

OLD-FASHIONED MECHANISMS

Even now Mrs May is reaching for old-fashioned mechanisms to react against the latest poisoning. These include expelling Russian diplomats or curbing the London operations of Russia Today, the official Kremlin propaganda TV station.

But to put real pressure on Russia, Mrs May needs to go for the money. So far, she has shown little desire to do so.

She also needs a united Europe to back her in order for any pressure on the Kremlin to be effective. However, a Brexit-bound Britain - with Mrs May's ministers describing EU officials as "gangsters" - is not in a good place to appeal for European Union solidarity. THE GLOBALIST

  • The writer is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK's Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 and is the author of Brexit No Exit: Why Britain Won't Leave Europe.

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