UK’s Boris Johnson under pressure to punish more Russian oligarchs with sanctions

PM faces calls for tighter penalties on Russia as Ukraine’s civilian death toll hits 2,000

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street with the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, on Wednesday. AP

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come under increasing pressure to hit more Russian oligarchs with sanctions, as President Vladimir Putin doubles down on his attack on Ukraine.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer challenged the prime minister on whether he would extend sanctions to more associates of the Russian leader and “those who prop up his regime”.

He cited the Russian-Israeli owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich, and Igor Shuvalov, the head of Russia’s state development bank, as examples of Mr Putin’s cronies who have escaped consequences.

During the weekly session of Prime Minister’s Questions, the opposition leader challenged Mr Johnson to be harder on Russia a week into its invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine's Ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, reacts from the public gallery in the House of Commons while MPs gave him a standing ovation. Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS

“Roman Abramovich is the owner of Chelsea Football Club and various other high-value assets in the United Kingdom,” Mr Starmer said. “He’s a person of interest to the Home Office because of his links to the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activity and practices.

“Last week, the prime minister said that Abramovich is facing sanctions. He later corrected the record to say that he isn’t. Well, why on Earth isn’t he?”

Mr Johnson side-stepped the question, saying it would not be “appropriate” for him to comment on individual cases at this stage.

Mr Abramovich is understood to be considering selling Chelsea FC.

The PMQs session was attended by the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, who received a rare standing ovation by MPs on both sides of the aisle.

Mr Starmer was also asked why the government chose not to impose sanctions on Mr Shuvalov, a former Russian deputy prime minister and close ally of the Kremlin. He is under EU sanctions but not any by Britain.

Mr Shuvalov owns two flats in Whitehall Court, Westminster. He snapped up the imposing building in August 2014 for £11.4 million ($15.2m). Built in the style of a chateau, it overlooks the River Thames.

Mr Starmer said Mr Shuvalov was among a group Mr Putin’s cronies last week invited to a reception in Moscow to “dip their hands in the blood of Putin’s war” of Ukrainians as the invasion got under way.

“He is on the EU sanctions list, but he’s not on the UK sanctions list. When will the Prime Minister sort this out?” Mr Starmer asked.

Mr Johnson declined to answer the question, saying MPs should be “proud of” the sanctions already in place. But he acknowledged: “There is more to be done.”

Transparency to root out corruption should be built into British law, Mr Starmer said. Mr Johnson insisted the government is doing everything it can to “expose ill-gotten Russian loot”.

While Mr Johnson skirted around questions about specific oligarchs, he issued a warning that British law firms would face sanctions for representing allies of Mr Putin.

The prime minister was asked by Conservative MP Bob Seely to address the “seriousness” of law firms advocating for tycoons with links to the Russian leader.

Mr Johnson responded by pointing out that law companies in the UK operate under the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

“They were reminded on February 23 the need to comply with sanctions regulations and legislation," he said. “There are regular checks to ensure they are doing so. They have responsibilities under that regime to safeguard the UK and to protect the reputation of the United Kingdom legal services industry.

“Clearly they will face sanctions if they fail to do so.”

Mr Johnson said Britain was tightening the noose around the Russian regime and accused Mr Putin of war crimes.

“What we have seen already from Vladimir Putin’s regime in the use of the munitions that they have already been dropping on innocent civilians in my view already fully qualifies as a war crime,” he told MPs in the House of Commons.

Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party’s leader in Westminster, called Mr Putin a “war criminal” who “must face justice” in the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Labour MP Chris Bryant said he felt “ashamed” that the UK was “not guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Ukraine” and not sanctioning more Russians.

He listed notable names whom he called to be targeted, including Sergey Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, Igor Osipov, the commander of the Black Sea fleet, Mr Abramovich, and the members of the Russian parliament who voted to recognise Donetsk and Luhansk as independent regions.

Mr Johnson insisted the UK has taken the lead on sanctions against Russia and said it was the most generous arms supplier to Ukraine among European nations.

“We are going to continue to go further not just with military assistance but also by tightening the vice on the Putin regime,” Mr Johnson said.

More than 2,000 civilians have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine last Thursday, the Ukrainian emergency service said on Wednesday.

Updated: March 02, 2022, 3:16 PM