Argument

Britain Has No Clue Why It’s Punishing Russia

Before you sanction Putin, it would help to know what you're after.

Boris Johnson stands in front of St Basil's Cathedral during a visit to Red Square  on Dec. 22, 2017 in Moscow, Russia. (Stefan Rousseau-Pool/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson stands in front of St Basil's Cathedral during a visit to Red Square on Dec. 22, 2017 in Moscow, Russia. (Stefan Rousseau-Pool/Getty Images)

London’s initial, tepid response to the attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter has been overtaken by the unprecedented international round of expulsions of Russian spy-diplomats. Overall, however, the debate — which has continued with calls for Britain to bring more pressure to bear on Moscow — has been dominated by tactical questions of political feasibility. This is understandable but means that Britain has leapfrogged the most fundamental one: Precisely, what is it that it wants? Objectives must determine tactics, not the other way around.

As things stand, discussions about sanctioning Russia confuse three broad goals.

Is the main goal deterrence? To punish Russia with a display of retaliatory resolution intended to demonstrate to Vladimir Putin that the costs of further adventurism outweigh any possible advantages?

In that case, the aim ought to be a broad barrage of measures, some of which have serious implications and others of which may be essentially symbolic. Actions including further diplomatic expulsions, pushing for a boycott of the World Cup, and designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism are unlikely to have a substantive practical impact on Russia, but they demonstrate a will to resist. That is crucial, as, until now, Putin’s calculation appears to have been that the West’s objective strengths — military, economic, political, soft power — were rendered largely irrelevant by the absence of the will to use them. Demonstrably closing that “will gap” is a powerful element in deterrence.

Of course, in the short term the Russians will respond in kind. Indeed, based on their usual track record, they will escalate. Ultimately, though, this must simply be weathered as the price of defiance.

Perhaps, though, Britain’s primary aim is to protect itself from the corrupting influence of Russian kleptocracy. Whatever the reasons behind the Skripal hit, much of the Moscow-related violence in the country, after all, seems more associated with the incestuously interconnected worlds of Russian crime and Russian business than with the Kremlin. Besides which, so long as “Londongrad” remains a haven for dirty Muscovite money, it not only exerts a limited but definite influence on Britain but also facilitates the criminal regime in Russia.

In this case, the target must more directly be the money. Britain actually already has a solid array of legal instruments at the authorities’ disposal. What it needs is greater political will to apply them. These kinds of cases are notoriously complex and lengthy, consuming the time of specialists without offering any guarantees of success. It is not as if the National Crime Agency (Britain’s answer to the FBI) and other forces do not want to chase dirty Russian money — but they need the resources and the latitude to do the job.

This is also a project in which further international cooperation would be crucial. Chasing that money and the influence it buys out of London but seeing it find comfortable new homes in Paris, Frankfurt, and New York is only half the job done and will do little to chasten Moscow. Although it will be difficult to persuade others to turn away tempting business, the unexpected support Britain is receiving from European Union partners in particular suggests this may be an opportune moment to convince them that in its experience this money is too toxic to be safe and that this is a Western, not just a British, problem.

Of course, the irony is that by driving out Russian money, London would in part be doing Putin’s work for him. Since 2014, the Russian economy has been in the doldrums. Furthermore, Putin is a man who understands power better than economics, and he is unhappy to see elites stash their money outside his grasp.

He has launched a “de-offshorization” campaign to try to persuade, cajole, and intimidate oligarchs and minigarchs into bringing their money back home. Along with the stabilization of the economy as a whole, this has had some limited success. While more than $31 billion flowed out of the country last year alone, this is a dramatic fall from 2014’s $154 billion.

The thought that Britain would actually be returning capital into Putin’s grasp may be an uncomfortable one. After all, a third possible policy goal would be actively to seek to undermine the regime in Moscow. Overt efforts at regime change would be dangerous and likely counterproductive, but London may feel that it should not pass up opportunities to weaken the Kremlin, in the hope that this may tame its appetite for playing confrontational geopolitics.

In this case, ironically, we ought to welcome capital flight. It deprives Putin indirectly of resources, but more generally one of the reasons Putin wants elites not to keep assets abroad is because he fears this could be used as leverage to push them into political activity in Russia or use them as sources of intelligence. Maybe London ought to prove that fear founded.

While exerting such pressure on the Russian elite, London can also hit Moscow in the wallet where it truly hurts: the state’s capacity to continue to raise money and service existing obligations by issuing sovereign debt that is then bought in the West. Going after this sovereign debt, not the glitzy penthouses of the oligarchs, would represent a serious systemic attack on the Kremlin.

There are advantages and dangers in all three approaches. Giving dirty Russian money a pass in the name of undermining Putinism is perhaps the most polluting and risky one, but it is an idea modern Machiavellians involved in behind-the-scenes policy discussions find appealing. Seeking to cleanse Britain of Russian kleptocratic influence is an admirable and overdue goal but does little to deter future aggression. Likewise, a tough escalation of the political pushback against Putin will inevitably mean more flak from Moscow.

But the point is that there needs to be a clear, explicit, firm commitment to a strategic goal. Rather than consider what Britain can do (and do easily and cheaply, at that) and then cobble a strategy around those measures, it needs to finally decide what it wants and let that drive the process.

Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Affairs Prague and a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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