March 14, 2018 / 4:04 PM / 9 months ago

Breakingviews - UK’s best Russian riposte is hiding in plain sight

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath laying ceremony to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall in central Moscow, Russia February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo - RC1BD83D5BD0

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Theresa May is pushing back against Russia. The UK prime minister on Wednesday announced that Britain would expel 23 Russian diplomats in response to what she said was their state’s involvement in a March 4 nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England. That won’t change much, but May has other powers that could make more of a difference.

The prime minister had to do something. The attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter has invited parallels with the 2006 killing of Alexander Litvinenko, which a UK inquiry said was probably approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. The UK prime minister has rightly left it up to UK regulator Ofcom to decide whether Russian broadcaster RT keeps its licence. The Kremlin could have portrayed too direct an intervention as an attack on freedom of speech by a supposedly liberal democracy. But neither that, expelling diplomats nor announcing that senior British state and Royal personnel will stay away from this year’s soccer World Cup is likely to give senior Russian politicians pause for thought.

A more effective punishment would be to rigorously apply a piece of anti-corruption legislation, the Unexplained Wealth Order, which came into force in February. This makes it easier for British authorities to ask foreign holders of UK assets worth more than 50,000 pounds where they obtained their resources. Any senior Russian office-holder who has used state resources to acquire London property could be probed, and have their assets confiscated if they cannot answer.

Two other steps are worth fast-tracking. Britain could more quickly pass planned legislation to force tax haven-based companies that own UK property to divulge their ultimate beneficiary on a publicly accessible register. And the UK could look at whether 700 or so so-called Golden Visas granted to rich Russians between 2008 and 2015 should be rescinded if these individuals cannot explain the source of their wealth.

This kind of response sounds a long way from nerve agents and spies. But making life hard for Russian politicians is likely to be more effective than tit-for-tat spats that penalise ordinary Russians. It would also be a timely reminder that Britain uses democratic legislation – rather than clandestine force – to achieve its ends.

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