President Biden, Prime Minister Johnson, President Macron, Chancellor Scholtz and the European Commission President von der Leyen: as the West woke up to Russian incursions into Ukraine, the co-ordinated response began with leaders announcing limited sanctions, with the promise of more.
Their aim – outlined by leaders on podiums and in legislative chambers across Western capitals – was twofold, according to one diplomatic source: to demonstrate to the Kremlin that the West was unified, co-ordinated and resolute and to the stagger the sanctions in order to keep its own ratchet mechanism against an unpredictable adversary.
“We need to keep some sanctions in our locker, both so we can tighten the vice on Russia if it doesn’t deescalate, and so we can respond to further aggression,” said one diplomatic source. “If we do everything now and then have nothing in reserve.”
But the first phase of sanctions was, by any measure, limited, with the US, France, UK, EU and Germany leading sanctions on Russian banks and prominent individuals. The US also announced comprehensive sanctions on Russia’s sovereign debt, preventing the Kremlin from trading new debt in US or EU markets. The UK said it would move on this as part of its future waves of sanctions.
Critics say UK sanctions like bite
Boris Johnson apparently announced limited measures to keep in lockstep with allies, but this “first barrage” of UK sanctions was nevertheless denounced as falling short. Just five medium-sized or small Russian banks and three billionaires – who are already on the US list – close to Vladimir Putin were targeted with sanctions.
Whitehall insiders were quick to point out that these sanctions would hurt, arguing Rossiya Bank was like the UK’s Coutts, favoured by the wealthy and powerful, while another, Promsvyazbank, services 70% of state contracts signed by Russia’s defence ministry.
But from all across the House of Commons and beyond, there was dismay. MPs lined up one after the other to urge the PM to do more. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said Britain needed to hit Russia “hard and hit them now”.
Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, also told me he thought the PM needed to do more. “There’s an old military maxim, which is ‘clout don’t dribble’. The reason you should hit hard early is so that you’re clear that any escalation will hurt. There’s no point in ratcheting up. You must make sure there’s an absolute line.”
It was a sentiment repeated over and again, with one former cabinet minister telling me that they wanted the PM to take the opposite approach; introduce far more draconian measures now in order to ease sanctions if President Putin pulls back from the brink. As it is, the sanctions announced today by the UK and beyond are already priced in.
Stemming the flow of ‘dirty’ Russian money into London
For now opposition politicians are standing full square behind the PM on the principle of being united in opposition to an aggressive, reckless Russia.
But for all the talk of putting pressure on Putin, it is No 10 that will feel growing pressure – and criticism – in the coming days if the next wave of sanctions don’t bite.
Government insiders tell me future waves will target energy and defence companies, more oligarchs and banks and restrict Russia’s ability to issue sovereign debt on the UK’s capital markets. “Phase two and beyond will be even more painful for Russia.”
But any continued perception of leniency also risks political difficulties for this PM. Sir Keir Starmer nodded to it on Tuesday when he urged the PM to use this moment to get the UK’s house in order stop the illicit flow of Russian finance to Britain and put an end to Putin and Russian money being allowed to influence our politics.
Sir Keir has accused successive Conservative governments of failing to act on dirty money pouring into London. And those criticisms will only get lounder unless Mr Johnson really begins to act: What was set out on Tuesday amounted to, in the words of RUSI think-tanker Tom Keatinge, “turning up to a gunfight with a peashooter”.
And it could soon become very bloody. As President Biden grimly observed, the Russian military is readying blood supplies: “You don’t need blood unless you plan on starting a war.”
Europe stands on the brink of conflict and its leaders don’t know if President Putin will take a step back or keep on. But what they do know is that in years to come, they will judged on how they met this moment and whether they did enough.