By Ellen Barry, New York Times–
As she probes for Russia’s vulnerabilities during a week of deepening crisis, Prime Minister Theresa May does not have to look far. Within a few blocks of No. 10 Downing Street, she could find opulent homes owned by members of President Vladimir V. Putin’s inner circle.
A short walk from Mrs. May’s office is an apartment registered to a company owned by First Deputy Prime Minister Igor I. Shuvalov, with a value estimated at $16 million. Roman Abramovich, a former member of the Russian Parliament and a longtime Putin associate, lives opposite Kensington Palace, in a house whose value has been estimated at $163 million.
In a rare joint statement, the United States, Germany and France condemned the attack, calling it the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II. And in Washington, the Trump administration announced new sanctionsagainst 19 people and five organizations implicated in cyberattacks.
In Britain, meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson hinted that Putin associates in the United Kingdom might be targeted in an anti-corruption drive. That prospect, though still remote, is a significant threat to the tight circle of officials and businessmen around Mr. Putin.
“If you start to take away Astons and Bentleys and huge apartments in Kensington, freezing those assets, people will care a lot more,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of Eurasia Group, a consulting firm, adding that the pressure would be conveyed to Mr. Putin.
“These people are loyal,” Mr. Kupchan said. “Can they get him to do a 360? No. But is there some dual directionality, going up and going down, the elite to the president? Yes.”
Wealthy Russians began shifting their money into Britain in the mid-1990s, snapping up properties through anonymous companies registered in overseas territories like the British Virgin Islands. A 2015 study by Deutsche Bank, based on figures from the Russian Central Bank and the Bank of England, suggested that since 2006, around $129 billion had flowed into Britain through secret offshore transactions, much of it from Russia.
As capital migrated, the subculture known as Londongrad grew in size and influence. In 2003, Mr. Abramovich bought the iconic Chelsea Football Club. In 2009, Alexander Lebedev, a former K.G.B. officer, and his son, Evgeny, bought a controlling share in The Evening Standard, one of London’s oldest daily newspapers. In recent years, Russian expatriates have begun to build networks in British politics, making large donations to the Conservative Party.
Though Mr. Putin has condemned capital flight as unpatriotic, he tolerates it in his inner circle, Mr. Kupchan said.
“Putin wants repatriation, but the social contract is that if you show loyalty, you can live the way you want,” he said.
For Russians, part of Britain’s draw was its offer of legal shelter; it refuses extradition requests from Russia. British institutions, meanwhile, have been lenient with wealthy foreign buyers, skimming through due diligence procedures intended to determine the source of a buyer’s funds, said Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform.
“This has been a very weak part of our money-laundering system,” Mr. Bond said. “Not enough questions are being asked about overseas shell properties. Estate agents are not asking the right questions — or any questions — about the beneficial owners.”
The government has promised this will change.
On Wednesday, under pressure to display a tough response to the poisoning of the former spy, Sergei V. Skripal, Mrs. May promised to “freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of U.K. nationals or residents.” She went on to say that investigators will crack down on “serious criminals and corrupt elites.”
“There is no place for these people — or their money — in our country,” she said.
Mrs. May has several tools available to challenge the legitimacy of Russian holdings. Just six weeks ago, Britain rolled out a new campaign to stem the flow of dirty money into its real estate sector, presenting an unnamed political figure, reportedly from Central Asia, with the first-ever “unexplained wealth order.” The order requires the target to present a court with evidence that the property was purchased with legal funds. If that fails, the state can seize the asset.
Unexplained wealth orders could most easily be used against government officials, whose incomes are clearly insufficient for them to purchase billion-pound London properties, said Ben Cowdock, a researcher at Transparency International. The orders would be difficult to use against wealthy businessmen with multiple income streams, he said.
Mrs. May also promised on Wednesday to introduce legislation similar to the Magnitsky Act in the United States. That act allows American officials to deny visas to Russians implicated in human rights violations and freeze their assets. In 2012, when Congress passed its legislation, the British government chose not to follow suit, arguing that it had sufficient sanction powers.
Mrs. May said she was also ready to freeze Russian state-owned property that had been used in attacks on British soil, a category potentially broad enough to include Aeroflot planes that carried assailants to Britain, Mr. Bond said.
“It is intended to say, ‘We will go after anything that isn’t nailed down,’” he said.
One concern for Britain is whether the measures would jeopardize British business interests in Russia — in particular, its flagship oil producer, BP, which owns a 20 percent stake in Rosneft, the Russian oil and gas giant.
Anti-Putin activists and investigative journalists here have long urged a crackdown on oligarchs’ lavish holdings, whose ownership is often concealed by layers of offshore transactions. Mark Hollingsworth, co-author of “Londongrad: From Russia With Cash,” has spent years compiling a database of thousands of properties by cross-referencing public records and prowling neighborhoods popular with wealthy Russians.
“They love the area near Harrods, they love Eaton Square, Belgrave Square,” he said. “Of course, they don’t live there. It’s all about parking their money, and acceptance and reputation. Being accepted by the British establishment.”
Mr. Hollingsworth said an aggressive campaign of asset seizures could serve as “a warning shot against Russian billionaires who have made their money in dubious circumstances,” stripping them of their sense of security.
“If they target the right ones and shut them down, they’ll lose a fair amount of money,” he said. “If that happens, Londongrad probably no longer exists.”
But Roman Borisovich, an anti-Putin campaigner who organizes a “klepto-tour” of mansions and penthouses owned by people close to the Kremlin, said Mrs. May’s speech on Wednesday suggested she was not ready to press forward with asset seizures.
“Now all the arsenal of weaponry is available to the government,” he said. “The prime minister can use any tools, but she didn’t use them.”