Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, has been one of the prime movers in exposing the corrupting influence of foreign money and Britain’s complicity in Russian crimes. His response to Tory PM Theresa May, (and even his more measured comments today) however, shows the limits of Corbyn’s foreign policy prowess as well as the general unease left politicians still have have in dealing with the confluence of international relations and finance. Indeed by using the tools of financial sanctions against the corrupt and the dangerous, we can create a more equitable society while punishing Putin and his allies where they will feel it the most.
Theresa May announced this week that the UK would expel 23 Russian diplomats, identified as “undeclared intelligence officers” after the attempted poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. Provided after an ultimatum that drew only mocking and sarcasm from Russia’s foreign ministry, May went so far as to declare the use of the nerve agent Novichok (a weapon developed by the USSR in the 1970s and 80s) an “unlawful use of force.” Among other measures, May also announced that the UK would be increasing customs checks for private flights originating from Russia as well as a variety of other more pro forma measures.
These customs checks are significant, not in that they will be effective, but that they continue a trend in recognizing what a growing majority of experts now the UK has become: a haven for oligarchs and kleptocrats from across the world, but particularly from Russia. These super-rich have done so largely on the backs of the Russian people, using Putin’s particular mix of public and private corruption to “nationalize the risk and privatize the reward” for his friends and those that toe the Russian line.
Of course, an oligarch’s money is rarely safe in Russia, as Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky found out in 2003 and others have since. To safeguard their wealth, the liquid assets are then funneled through the UK’s financial sector. Through anonymous companies headquartered in British Overseas Territories or closer dependencies such as the isle of Jersey, they acquire the air of legitimacy. The British government, led by the Tories, has shown itself more than willing to permit this money laundering because it has disproportionately benefited the upper crust of UK society. Billions have been brought into the London-based banking industry, propping up a massive expansion of the City’s financial services industry. Property rents in London’s neighborhoods have skyrocketed as the corrupt money is protected in British real estate, pushing out middle and working class people for oligarch’s vacation homes or to act as “gold bricks” for investment. To protect this, Russia’s nouveau riche lobby Tory politicians to the tune of £820,000 to preserve the status quo. Meanwhile London now serves as the “de-facto capital of the post-Soviet mafia state.”
Corbyn and the Labour Party have done much to bring these facts to the forefront of British policy-making, but the remarks of his office this week miss the links between Russian president Vladimir Putin’s powerbase and British money laundering. Instead, his comments focused on the slight possibility that Russia had lost control of the nerve agent in the 1990s, allowing mafia or rogue members of the state to use it for these purposes. Corbyn’s spokesman echoed these comments, saying that that it was still unclear if Russia was behind the attacks.
Corbyn’s comments have drawn predictably strong rebukes from the Tories, as well as his own party. But Corbyn’s (and his detractors’) comments miss the obvious connection to the greater fight against global oligarchy. As Leonid Ragozin wrote in a later tweet, reforming Russia means reforming the West, and obfuscating Russia’s involvement only distracts from Labour’s (and the Left’s in general) vision for a more equitable society.
Corbyn has already called for the purchase of thousands for properties to help tackle the rising tide of British homelessness, along with the seizure of properties deliberately left vacant. Connecting these initiatives with the fight against Russian influence can go hand in hand. By tying the condemnation of violent Russian attacks on British soil with calls for further legislative steps aimed at curbing the influence of corrupt money on British society, Corbyn has the chance to create a coherent and international left foreign policy aimed at fighting corruption and the effect of egregious wealth all over the world. The foundation for fighting Russian capital already exists. The US’s Global Magnitsky Act, passed in 2016, allows for the US to seize any and all assets of sanctioned individuals, including their property within the country. The passage of a British Magnitsky Act, which seems imminent after its passage through the House of Commons a few days ago, would allow for similar powers. This act, combined with the seizure and forfeiture powers under the Criminal Finances Act, would allow for Britain’s ill gotten gains to be put towards a more equitable use.
There are many potential targets for Corbyn. Igor Shuvalov, First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, owns two flats in Whitehall Court worth an estimated £11.4 million, despite his yearly salary being the equivalent to $27,000. Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian billionaire indicted for money-laundering in the US and with extensive links to Russian organized crime (and indicted political US political consultant Paul Manafort), owns extensive property in London among others as well. Of course, there are a multitude of other kleptocratic London property owners, ranging from exiled Libyan and Egyptian leaders to the corrupt ruling family of Azerbaijan.
Linking the confiscation of these properties to a wider goal of fighting global oligarchy, beyond striking the powerbase of foreign despots and the pockets of Britain’s enabler class, would allow Corbyn the chance to demonstrate a muscular, visionary foreign policy from the left. Britain is not alone in dealing with corrupt Russian money, but the Skripal poison attack offers the chance for the UK and the Labour Party to lead the world in fighting the influence of Russian corruption. By refusing to unqualifiedly condemn Vladimir Putin and the Russian government’s involvement in the Skripal attack, he has instead reinforced a continuing trend of confused foreign policy rhetoric that detracts from his much needed domestic policies.
Nicholas McCarty is a graduate student at the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service. His work has also appeared in The Strategy Bridge and FPRI’s Bear Market Blog.