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23 February 2022

The UK’s feeble Russia sanctions expose the Brexit myth

Leaving the EU has weakened, not strengthened, the UK on the world stage.

By Harry Lambert

Boris Johnson’s government has implemented a pitiful round of sanctions on Russian banks and billionaires with close ties to Vladimir Putin after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. The sanctions were widely condemned yesterday in the House by MPs from all sides, and many of the papers this morning are leading on the UK’s tepid response.

The Mirror (“Get dirty Russian money out of UK now”) and the Express (“Punish Putin harder now”) are in unison, but the Star captures the prevailing mood best: “Britain reacts to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine by, er, sanctioning 5 banks and 3 very rich Russians.” The Mail and the Sun give Johnson a lighter ride, with both stressing that these sanctions are but an “opening salvo”.

Johnson himself stressed as much to MPs in the House yesterday, as he fended off the salvos offered by his own MPs, from Iain Duncan Smith (“If we are going to hit them with sanctions, we need to hit them hard and hit them now. They need to feel the pain of the first part of this decision”), to the key 2019 MP Alicia Kearns (“Rouble by rouble we must rid our nation of Putin’s dirty money… blacklist all Russian banks… ban the City and law and accountancy firms from servicing all Russian state firms”), to Peter Bone, a Johnson acolyte (“I think that Members on both sides of the House were expecting stronger sanctions to be announced today”).

The question that will rumble now is why Johnson has held back, given that he has already conceded it is “inevitable” that “we will go further”. In an answer to Hilary Benn, Johnson stressed what he considers to be his key constraint – Britain wants to “implement the waves of sanctions in concert with our allies; that is what we are doing”.

But this is curious. The whole point of Brexit was that Britain would be free to lead with greater freedom on the global stage; we would not have to wait to act alongside our sluggish European neighbours, we were told. Why, then, are we waiting now? Not least given that it is London – not Paris, Berlin, Madrid, or Rome – where Russian money has found its palatial home?

Last week I asked a key Tory MP what would happen in the House this week if Russia invaded Ukraine. There would be debate, they told me despondently, and people would stand up and make speeches, as they rightly have. Yet Britain already knows what it must do to counter Russian power at home. We have known for years. Johnson is only the latest prime minister who is choosing not to do it. But he is the first to showcase Britain’s impotence with Europe on the edge of war.

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