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UK toughens sanctions regime to target Russia over Ukraine

LONDON — Britain unveiled a plan to hit more Russian individuals and businesses with sanctions if Moscow goes ahead with an invasion of Ukraine.

The U.K. has had an independent sanctions regime since fully leaving the EU at the end of 2020 — but under current rules, it has only been able to sanction those directly linked to the destabilization of Ukraine.

In a bid to pile further pressure on Moscow ahead of an expected visit to Ukraine by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the U.K. government on Monday unveiled legislation it promised would allow it to cast the net wider when applying sanctions.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Truss said the move will give London “the power to sanction” those who support Russia’s “aggressive actions against Ukraine.” That will include any company that is linked to the Russian state; that operates in a sector of strategic importance to the Kremlin; or that engages in business of economic significance to Russia. Individuals who own or control those organizations will also be in scope.

Sanctions could include freezing assets in the U.K.; preventing targets from making transactions with anyone else in the country; or turning them back at the British border if they try to enter the U.K., Truss said.

“This will amount to the toughest sanctions regime against Russia we have had in place yet, and mark the biggest change in our approach since leaving the European Union,” she said. “Moscow should be clear that we will use these new powers to maximum effect if they pursue their aggressive intent towards Ukraine. Nothing is off the table.”

Truss added so-called “golden” U.K. visas for Russian millionaires with links to Russian President Vladimir Putin will be reviewed before April 5.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described the British move as “very disturbing.”

“It’s not often you see or hear such direct threats to attack business,” he said. “An attack by a given country on Russian business implies retaliatory measures, and these measures will be formulated based on our interests if necessary.”

Note of caution

Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Russian think tank the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies and a senior lecturer at the National Research University in Moscow, expressed doubts over the efficacy of any new sanctions targeting Russia.

He said additional sanctions would send “a very strong signal to Russian businesses that they have to nationalize, that they have to become even more loyal and consolidated around the Kremlin, that they have to withdraw their business investments, money, everything from U.K. and bring it back to Moscow and develop their business in Russia and not in London.”

“I don’t think the majority of the Russian businessmen who have moved their business or part of their business to the United Kingdom would cut their ties with the country, with Russia, and position themselves as enemies of Russia,” Suslov warned. “Not everyone, not even the majority among those businessmen, will wish voluntarily to follow the path of Boris Berezovsky” — a Russian oligarch turned vocal opponent of Putin.

Johnson is set to travel to Ukraine’s capital Kyiv Tuesday for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, No. 10 Downing Street said. Truss had been expected to travel alongside him, but tested positive for COVID-19 Monday evening.

A planned phone call between Johnson and Putin — originally set for 4 p.m. U.K. time Monday — has yet to take place yet, but Downing Street said officials were “looking to finalize the time” for a call as soon as possible. Johnson has been fighting criticism from his own MPs in the House of Commons after a report into controversial government gatherings that took place amid COVID-19 restrictions. Downing Street insisted it was “not unusual for timings with world leaders to change.”

The sanctions move and diplomatic push by Johnson and his foreign secretary come after the U.K. signaled it stands ready to up its support for NATO.

Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv and former professional boxer, thanked Britain and Johnson for the show of support.

“It’s very important for Ukraine to have political support from our friends — without friends we don’t survive,” he told POLITICO in an interview. “We are talking about delivery of defensive weapons, sanctions against aggressors — if this happens, we have a lot of leverage to stop the idea to attack Ukraine.”

Matei Rosca and Esther Webber contributed reporting. This story was updated to include detail of Truss’ positive COVID-19 test.

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