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UK calls out Russia in show of post-Brexit strength

LONDON — With troops gathering on the Russia-Ukraine border, Britain senses an opportunity to demonstrate it can be more diplomatically nimble since Brexit.

After leaving the EU, the U.K. has deployed its so-called Magnitsky sanctions — which allow the government to stop targets from entering the country, channeling cash through British banks or profiting from the economy. The U.K. has promised economic sanctions of unprecedented strength against Russian individuals and companies and has not ruled out targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In recent weeks, Britain has also sought to undercut Putin’s plans by releasing intelligence suggesting Russian security agencies were trying to replace Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Addressing the House of Commons last week, U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Britain would “continue to expose [Russia’s] playbook, including false-flagged operations and also disinformation and cyberattacks.”

While London has long talked tough on Russia, by releasing intelligence in anticipation of Putin’s attacks rather than blaming him afterward, the British government is keen to show that it can now do things differently from the rest of Europe.

The approach has been welcomed across the Atlantic, with the White House also being forward about pointing out what it sees as Russian disinformation.

“We have no closer ally than the U.K., and that inseparability has been spotlighted with our joint approach to Russia’s aggression,” said a senior State Department official. Former American ambassador to the EU Anthony Gardner noted the U.K.’s latest sanctions legislation could be “a major Brexit upside.”

Critics counter that the U.K. cannot be as effective outside the EU because it is locked out of key meetings between the U.S. and the EU. Despite being in Brussels at the time, Truss was not invited to talks between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and EU foreign affairs ministers last week.

Earlier this year, several EU governments discussed the possibility of inviting the U.K. foreign secretary to ad-hoc discussions with EU counterparts when major crises or challenges emerge, but on this occasion, the EU chose not to — although officials say she would have accepted.

“I’m afraid London has created the atmosphere where it doesn’t want to be part of EU coordination and so [Truss] wasn’t invited, which I think it’s symbolic of Britain not being at all the tables where coordination is happening,” said Peter Ricketts, a former British ambassador to France.

British officials counter that Truss and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace have been deeply engaged in the discussions with EU and U.S. counterparts, through NATO and bilaterally, with multiple trips to EU capitals and transatlantic calls. Prime Minister Boris Johnson also hopes to sign a trilateral deal with Poland and Ukraine to strengthen cooperation in the face of Russian aggression.

Disclosure as deterrent

The U.K. has a long history of calling out Russian aggression, recommending former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi be charged with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, who died after being poisoned with polonium-210 in London in 2006, and accusing Russia of being responsible for the attempted murder of double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England in 2018.

The tactic stepped up a gear more recently, according to Neil Melvin, director for international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

“About 18 months ago, the U.K. made a decision that it wouldn’t just be about defending the rules-based order but that it would move into active deterrence, pushing into Russian space, being unpredictable,” he said. “The U.K. feels now that actually combating Russia requires an active deterrence policy. The EU foreign security policy is about reacting to things that have already happened. It really struggles to deter.”

Douglas London, a former CIA senior operations officer and author of the book “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence,” said it would be “useful” for the U.S. to have a close ally calling out the Russians by disclosing intelligence, but disclosure runs the risk of exposing sources and assets.

“It shouldn’t be done frivolously, because it doesn’t matter how you declassify something, you’re giving your opposition an advantage,” he said. “The Russians will be looking for how the information was collected, so will investigate where it might have leaked from: an agent, technical collection or mishandling.”

Others question the risk of disclosing information, especially when several Ukraine-watchers have questioned its accuracy.

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the British statements as “disinformation.”

Previously the U.K. joined with the U.S. in attributing cyberattacks to the Russian intelligence agency GRU in October 2020.

Ciaran Martin, an Oxford University professor and former chief executive of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, said the U.K. has become increasingly aware of the advantages of boosting transparency in cyberspace when it comes to hostile activity.

“I’ve long been a supporter of the U.K.’s approach of transparently calling out hostile state activity in cyberspace. I think it’s useful and welcome that that approach has extended to this current crisis,” he said.

The benefits of attribution range, Martin said, from destabilizing those behind the attacks by showing their activities are known, helping equip defenders with real-time technical information, and instilling confidence in citizens that the government knows what’s going on.

The approach has certainly won plaudits at home, and at a time when the British prime minister faces huge political pressure because of the Partygate scandal. Many Tory MPs and foreign policy analysts have welcomed the government’s uncompromising approach toward Moscow.

“There was a period when [French President Emmanuel] Macron was meeting up with Putin and being very sympathetic to him, in terms of presentation anyway,” said Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Moscow. “When Boris Johnson became foreign secretary, it took him one visit to Moscow to realize that this was not a profitable approach for us to take.”

Across the Channel, other Western allies — notably France — argue such matters are best dealt with in private, Martin added.

Stopping the laundry machine

The Achilles’ heel of the British response to Russia continues to be money laundering.

Chatham House, a leading foreign affairs think tank, urged the U.K. to clamp down on money laundering by kleptocrats from Russia and post-Soviet republics, who have become increasingly influential donors to the British Conservative Party.

In a report published last month, it said Johnson’s party received £3.5 million from naturalized British citizens of Russian and Eurasian backgrounds between 2010 and 2019 — warning that the volume of donations appears to have increased ever since.

Some within the Tory backbenches have become increasingly vocal on this, but they remain a minority. Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the House of Commons’ foreign affairs committee, warned last week that the U.K.’s efforts to support Ukraine risk being “undermined” if the government does not act to stop “dirty Russian money flowing through our system.”

In response, Truss said Monday that the government will bring forward an economic crime bill to tackle illicit finance.

“Given London’s financial position, London needs to be leading on this issue and the government has not responded,” Melvin said. “There is a feeling that this is this is an area that for some reason, the Conservative Party is not willing to address.”

Nahal Toosi and David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.

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