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Foreign Committee Chair Wants MPs To Be "Less Obsessed" With Russian Sanctions

Oligarch assets are often at the centre of debate around sanctions on Russia (Alamy)

5 min read

Chair of the foreign affairs committee Alicia Kearns has said “we need to become less obsessed with sanctions” as a tool to end Russia’s war against Ukraine, arguing that they are only a temporary measure.

Kearns, who is the Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton, said the emphasis in the debate between government and opposition on sanctions was misguided. She urged the UK government to instead focus on deterrence to prevent the further escalation of violence in many regions across the world.  

“We need to become less obsessed with sanctions, because actually, sanctions are a rehabilitative tool,” she said.

“They are meant to be temporary: applied to force someone to change their behaviour, and then they should be removed. And that's not what they're becoming.”

Tom Keatinge, founding Director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies (CFCS) at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) defence and security think tank largely agreed with Kearns.

“Historically, sanctions have been a signalling mechanism,” he told PoliticsHome. 

“We are unable to do more than shake our fists from afar and say, ‘How dare you do what you are doing’.

“We need to remember that as currently constituted, these sanctions are a temporary measure: when this war finishes and Ukraine's borders are restored, these people should, in theory, have sanctions lifted and be able to freely sail their yachts to Cannes and Falmouth whenever they want.”

Sanctions, particularly targeting Russian assets in the UK, have recently been a topic of debate between the government and the Labour Party. Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy demanded that the UK government publish how it intends to seize frozen Russian assets and repurpose them towards the reconstruction and recovery of Ukraine. 

However, Keatinge told PoliticsHome it is not that simple. The top sanctions expert said that rather than focusing on the assets of Russian oligarchs, the focus should be on Russian central bank assets and finding ways to encourage oligarchs to donate their own money.  

“The criticism I have of pretty much every MP who speaks about sanctions is that they seem to look at sanctions almost exclusively through the prism of freezing the assets of people,” Keatinge said.

“Freezing the assets of Roman Abramovich and co gets newspaper headlines, but the sanctions that really matter are the ones that are on trade that are restricting the income of the Russian economy and also their ability to buy the high tech kit that they need to resource their military. That's what really matters.

“The oligarch sanctions are just the tip of an enormous iceberg and it's the bit below the surface – the trade sanctions – that are really going to make a difference to the course of the war by impacting the Russian economy.”

He suggested a “much better line to take on sanctions” would be for MPs to protest at components made by UK companies ending up in Russian missiles landing in Ukraine. 

MP and former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith agreed with Keatinge that state assets were the most important target. 

“We have been calling for that, so I’m not sure what he’s complaining about,” he said.

The government announced last week that Russian sanctions will remain frozen until compensation is paid to Ukraine and that a new route will be established for Russians to voluntarily donate their frozen funds towards Ukrainian reconstruction. 

Kearns told PoliticsHome she does not believe the UK government would commit to any deal with oligarchs that would see them donate assets in return for being taken off sanctions lists. Keatinge, however, disagreed and said the government might – and should – see this as a viable option. 

“A year ago, I was saying to anyone who would listen on Whitehall that we should consider offering oligarchs the opportunity to donate assets to the cause of Ukraine to potentially get off the sanctions list,” he said.

“People who are far-removed from the Kremlin could go through that route. I think it's not as offensive an idea as people think.

“Some in civil society probably would have an issue with this approach because they want to see people prosecuted and their assets confiscated for corruption, but it'll be next century before we manage to do that.”

Addressing Lammy’s demands for the government to come out with a plan, Keatinge said it should not be a “party political issue” and that it was “complex”.

“The reason the government is taking so long over this is it’s just not easy,” he said, adding that although the EU and other nations had managed to seize some Russian assets, the returns had been negligible. 

“If the EU and other countries were piling up the seized assets by the hour, then you could say the UK is being a bit slack on this, but I'm not sure you can.

“There are endless conversations going on between the UK and the US, EU and other allies on how to try and square this circle. If you want to avoid stooping to the level of your authoritarian opponent then you're going to have to find ways of doing this in a smart and defensible manner that is consistent with property rights and the rule of law.”

A foreign office source said the government is reluctant to share details of their plans for Russian assets in advance due to the risk of informing opposing lawyers.

“We are constantly exploring the practical and legal methods by which we and our allies can make a reality of our stated aim that Russian assets of both individuals and entities currently frozen can be used in the rebuilding of Ukraine,” they said.

“We have changed the rules on frozen assets that mean they can remain frozen until owners volunteer sizable funds towards the reconstruction of Ukraine and we continue to work on further ways to access funds to that end.”

He confirmed there is no deal for oligarchs other than a potential unfreezing of their assets in return for donating some of them. 

The government sanctioned a number of Russian banks shortly after the full-scale war broke out in February 2022.

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