Britain may broadcast the financial secrets of Russia’s ruling elite as part of the information war against the Putin regime, the Foreign Secretary has indicated.
Philip Hammond said he was interested by the idea of publicising the wealth of the Russian president’s inner circle in order to embarrass them in front of their people, as part of the response to the ongoing incursion into eastern Ukraine.
The Foreign Secretary warned that Putin is rapidly modernising his armed forces, and warned Russia’s bid to destabilise eastern Europe poses “the greatest single threat” to British national security.
Mr Hammond said that Britain must now “accept” that efforts to offer Russia its “rightful place” in the post-Cold War order had been “rebuffed”.
It marks a change in tone from the British government: David Cameron has repeated said that the door is open to Russia to normalise relations if it ended the assault on Ukraine.
He warned that Russia’s rapid rearmament is a “significant cause for concern,” and confirmed that British intelligence agencies are now recruiting Russian speakers.
British diplomats in Russia and Ukraine have regularly released photographs of Russian-supplied heavy weaponry as part of an information war, highlighting the Kremlin’s role in the conflict.
The EU has applied asset freezes and visa bans to 151 Russian and Ukrainian people and 37 companies regarded as complicit in the seizure of Crimea and the invasion of east Ukraine.
The wealth of Putin’s court is opaque, but undoubtedly runs into tens of billions of dollars held in offshore accounts and property in London and New York. Many of his closest associates made their fortunes during the chaotic mass privatisations of state assets during the 1990s. Official statements of Putin’s wealth – a £96,000 a year salary, a flat and three cars – are frequently met with derision.
Asked if there was a case for the “interesting” financial arrangements of members of Putin’s inner circle to be published by the British government, Mr Hammond replied: “There might be.”
“When we talk about having further steps that we can take, increasing the pressure on Russia, one the headings that we regularly review is strategic communication: how can we message the Russian people and to people that Russia is seeking to influence about what is really going on?
“It is an interesting thought and I will make sure the Strat Comms people are thinking precisely about that.”
Mr Cameron has suggested the BBC budget should be increased to help its Russian and Ukrainian language services counter Russian television propaganda.
Mr Hammond said the “generous” attempts to integrate Russia into the post-Cold War world had failed.
Putin feels the collapse of the USSR was a humiliation, and accuses the West of seeking to neuter Russia and encroach upon its borders – provoking the incursion into Ukraine.
Mr Hammond told the Royal United Services Institute: “In the case of Russia, for two decades since the end of the Cold War, we and our allies sought to draw our old adversary into the rules-based international system. We worked in a spirit of openness, generosity and partnership, to help Russia take its rightful place, as we saw it, as a major power contributing to global stability and order. We now have to accept that those efforts have been rebuffed.
“We are now faced with a Russian leader bent not on joining the international rules-based system which which keeps the peace between nations, but on subverting it,” he said.
“President Putin’s actions – illegally annexing Crimea and now using Russian troops to destabilise eastern Ukraine – fundamentally undermine the security of sovereign nations of Eastern Europe.”
“The rapid pace with which Russia is seeking to modernise her military forces and weapons combined with the increasingly aggressive stance of the Russian military including Russian aircraft around the sovereign airspace of Nato states are all significant causes of concern.
“So we are in familiar territory for anyone over the age of about 50, with Russia’s behaviour a stark reminder that it has the potential to pose the single greatest threat to our security.”
“Continuing to gather intelligence on their capabilities and intentions will remain a vital part of our intelligence effort for the foreseeable future. It is no coincidence that all the agencies are recruiting Russian speakers again.”
Putin’s money men
The wealth of Putin’s inner circle runs to tens of billions of pounds.
Head of Russian Railways, the country’s biggest employer, since 2005. He has been part of Putin’s St Petersburg circle since the 1990s, and is dogged by claims from opposition activists over his wealth. He accompanies Mr Putin on overseas visit, and was in charge of construction during the Sochi Winter Olympics. He has been hit with US sanctions. His network is unknown but his official salary is $15 million.
Founder of Gunvor, the Swiss-based oil trader, he sold his stake just before being hit by US sanctions. His net worth is reckoned to be $14.5 billion, according to Forbes. Putin is said by the US to have “investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds”. The company strongly denies that claim, and has not been subject to foreign sanctions.
Once dubbed one of Putin’s “cashiers”. He is the largest shareholder of Bank Rossiya, called by the US the “personal bank for senior officials” of Russia. He is a member of the Ozero Dacha, a community of lakeside homes of Putin and his allies. His wealth is estimated to be $1.4 billion. He is hit by US and EU sanctions.
Arkady and Boris Rotenburg
Arkady is Putin’s old judo partner, and is subject to EU sanctions.. The brothers have interests in pipelines, road construction and banking, and are presidents of Dinamo Moscow hockey and football clubs respectively. They received billions of dollars of contracts for the Sochi games. Their personal wealth is said to be $2.5 billion.
President of Rosneft, the state oil company, and the former deputy prime minister. His salary was $50 million last year. He is one of the most powerful figures in the administration, and is said to “economic interests” with Putin.
Tweets issued by the British embassy in Ukraine highlight how heavy weaponry used by separatists in the east of the country are Russian-supplied – and have highlighted the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy.