Russia's billionaire oligarchs have been living the high-life in Britain for decades, but now the gravy train may be grinding to a halt...
The Russian oligarchs' billions have, for more than two decades, helped fuel a boom in private school fees and property prices across the capital and beyond.
Like any guest with £18 billion to spend, Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov has had little problem making a comfortable second home for himself in Britain. Or, to be precise, two second homes – the metals tycoon divides his time between Beechwood House, a £50 million mansion in north London, and Sutton Place, a Tudor pile in Surrey once owned by Jean Paul Getty.
Yet like many of the Russian billionaires with boltholes in so-called “Londongrad”, he seems equally comfortable with life back in Vladimir Putin’s Moscow, where the Russian leader is a personal acquaintance. As he once told Forbes magazine: “I am proud that I know Putin, and the fact that everybody does not like him is not Putin’s problem.”
Usmanov is not alone. According to Russian opposition groups, there are between 30 and 50 oligarchs with links to the Kremlin who spend at least part of their time living the high-life in Britain. Their billions have, for more than two decades, helped fuel a boom in private school fees and property prices across the capital and beyond. Law firms, auditors, architects and building firms have grown rich on their custom. Extravagant restaurants, boutiques, supercar showrooms and nightspots owe their very existence to them.
Now, however, the Russian gravy train may be about to come to a stop. On Tuesday, in response to Putin ordering troops into Ukraine’s breakaway regions, Boris Johnson announced a raft of economic sanctions (freezing assets and preventing travel to and from the UK) against Moscow, hitting five Russian banks and three Kremlin-linked oligarchs: oil trader Gennady Timchenko, construction magnate Igor Rotenberg, and his uncle Boris, who is also Putin’s judo sparring partner.
But is it enough? Britain has, after all, pledged numerous crackdowns before, following the poisoning of the KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, Crimea’s annexation in 2014 and the Salisbury Novichok attack in 2018. On each occasion, action has never lived up to bluster and there are many who think this time will be no different.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer put the question bluntly: “The Prime Minister promised that in the event of an invasion he would unleash a full package of sanctions. If not now, then when?”
Britain’s love affair with Russian money goes back to the Nineties, when Moscow’s newly-emerging business class began buying flats in Knightsbridge, frequenting Harrods and Ascot, and enrolling offspring at our public schools. A blind eye was turned to concerns that their money came from legally-questionable privatisations of Soviet-era utilities. Russia was no longer seen as a threat. Plus, the inflows of cash to London were immense – hundreds of billions, according to some estimates.
It is not just cash that has been invested in so-called Londongrad. Russian reputations have also been polished, courtesy of London-based PR and libel law firms, whom the oligarchs pay generous fees to protect both their image – and the Kremlin’s.
Even Russian investments in British football clubs have been seen as an attempt to buy influence among the British public, although, last year, Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich successfully sued over claims that he had bought the club on Putin’s orders.
Boris Johnson mistakenly told Parliament on Tuesday that Abramovich was already under sanctions, later saying that he “misspoke”.
Britain has already sanctioned some 180 Russians, mostly in the wake of the annexation of Crimea. But far more could be done, according to Vladimir Ashurkov, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the campaign group set up by jailed Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny.
Last year his group, which specialises in embarrassing revelations about the Kremlin elite’s riches, sent a list of 35 prominent Russians to the Foreign Office that it recommended for sanctions. The latest ones are “so far pretty lightweight – again, strong on rhetoric but little on action,” Mr Ashurkov told The Telegraph this week.
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