It’s hard to over-emphasize just how shocking the Russian attack on Sergei Skripal was.
The 66-year-old former Russian intelligence officer was poisoned last week in the town of Salisbury, England, along with his 33-year-old daughter Yulia. The pair remain in a critical condition in hospital, along with a police officer who was among the first on the scene when the Skripals were found slumped on a bench near a shopping center. Officials estimate that as many as 500 people might have been exposed to the highly toxic nerve agent, believed by intelligence sources to be a Russian-made compound called Novichok, which had been secreted into Yulia’s suitcase when she left Moscow.
Now imagine for a moment if a former Russian spy, his daughter and a police officer were all poisoned with one of the world’s most lethal chemical weapons in a sleepy town here in the United States, with up to 500 people inadvertently exposed to traces of the agent. You don’t have to stretch to picture the outrage quickly reaching fever pitch, with demands for retaliation.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced some of those retaliatory measures. Addressing Parliament, she said that Russia’s response to the poisoning of Skripal “demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events” and that the Kremlin has “treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt, and defiance.” In response, May announced that the United Kingdom would be expelling 23 Russian diplomats identified as “undeclared intelligence officers”.
But despite her tough talk, May is not in a prime position to coordinate an international response against the Kremlin. After nearly a year of negotiating to leave the European Union, it seems unlikely that the U.K. will be able to suddenly demand fresh E.U. sanctions against Russia. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has proven to be a unreliable ally by frequently wading into British politics, whether to attack London’s Mayor, criticize the healthcare system or re-tweet British far-right accounts.
But there is one thing that May can do that would be bound to anger Putin: crack down on the luxury London properties that Russian elites use to stash their cash.
For years, London’s most expensive homes have been hoovered up by Russian oligarchs and power players, some with direct lines to the Kremlin. The city’s most expensive house, a $400 million palace in North London, is owned by Russian metal magnate Andrei Guriev. Former deputy Russian Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov owned a pair of luxury apartments worth $16 million overlooking the Thames. Putin’s former judo sparring partner, Arkady Rotenberg, owned a $50 million mansion in Surrey, on the outskirts of London.
The aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, who help construct projects for the Sochi Olympics — a project Putin was heavily invested in — is also believed to own a townhouse in London’s exclusive Belgravia district. Deripaska is also the Russian oligarch who has sued former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates for more than $25 million in damages in a dispute over a failed business deal.
Russian oligarchs have also invested in two of London’s most-supported soccer clubs. Chelsea FC is owned by Roman Abramovich who, according to Karen Dawisha, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, “helped fund the purchase for $50 million of Putin’s first presidential yacht.” Abramovich also has a mansion on Kensington Palace Gardens, a street dubbed “billionaires row,” where residents enjoy the protection of armed police guards, thanks to the proximity of a Royal Palace and the Israeli Embassy. Meanwhile 30 percent of Arsenal FC is owned by Alisher Usmanov, a billionaire metal magnate with close Kremlin ties.
None of these individuals have been specifically implicated in any crimes on U.K. soil — although Rotenberg has been banned from traveling in Europe as part of EU sanctions over the Crimea annexation. Rather, they show how heavily invested Russia’s elite have become in high-class London real-estate.
“You don’t need to be an expert, just walk around Kensington, Chelsea and Knightsbridge,” Nate Sibley, program manager at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative, told ThinkProgress. “You’ll see empty properties being used as luxury deposit boxes.”
Even more infuriating is that many of the mansions bought by the super-rich aren’t actually occupied. In 2013, the real estate agency Savills found that nearly 40 percent of those buying property in Belgravia had no intention of making these luxury homes their primary residence, and squatters are often evicted from the mansions. The properties are essentially expensive piggy banks, allowing the wealth and corrupt to make their dubiously-sourced cash look legitimate.
The scale of the money involved is staggering — and it’s not just friends of Putin getting in on the act. Almost two-thirds of homes in one of London’s newest luxury properties, St. George Wharf tower, are owned by foreign buyers, according to an investigation by the Guardian. They include a vodka tycoon from Kyrgyzstan, a former bank chairman from Nigeria and a Singapore businessman. A quarter of the homes were bought through offshore companies based in tax havens. The $70 million penthouse at St. George Wharf tower is reportedly owned by the family of Andrei Guriev. Ironically enough, the building sits right next to the MI6 building, home of Britain’s foreign intelligence service.
According to Global Witness, an anti-corruption NGO, in 2014 it was estimated that $170 billion of unsourced cash had been invested in the U.K. property market. In 2018 Global Witness found that there were approximately 86,000 U.K. properties owned by anonymous corporations, which are a tool often used by those with shady ties to purchase properties. Most of the homes analyzed were, unsurprisingly, in London.
“[Buying property] is a really well-trodden path for the corrupt to gain respectability and the London property market is one of the go-to destinations,” Naomi Hirst of Global Witness told ThinkProgress. “London is one of the global cities, it’s a very attractive place to live, you also have a global financial center on your doorstep and access to banks, accounting agencies, and PR firms that can help change your reputation. It’s a one-stop shop.”
It’s important to note that the vast majority of the estimated 150,000 Russians living in London have nothing to do with Putin or illicit Russian funds. The U.K. is also home to many Kremlin critics and dissenters, many of whom have met with suspiciously untimely deaths. In 2017, Buzzfeed News documented 14 Russians who have died in the U.K. under suspicious circumstances, and Home Secretary Amber Rudd has now pledged to review these cases.
London also isn’t the only destination that friends of Putin and other kleptocrats favor. According to Alexander Cooley, a political science professor at Barnard College and author of “Dictators without Borders,” properties in Manhattan, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco are all highly sought-after. What’s more, the National Association of Realtors has successfully lobbied the US government to allow to be exempt from the anti-money laundering requirements of the Patriot Act.
“In the US, you could show up with a suitcase full of cash and buy a penthouse,” Cooley told ThinkProgress. “Oversight is still extremely lax, and brokers have very little incentive to ascertain the origin [of the money].”
Cooley said that investments in property allow kleptocrats and corrupt officials to gradually transform themselves into respectable members of the global elite, as opposed to government or business officials with direct ties to dictators. “You start with charities, you might buy a soccer club or donate money to universities,” he said. “[You’re] putting the infrastructure in place so that you’re globally mobile, it’s an absolutely vital part of how corrupt kleptocrats operate.”
“[With real-estate] it’s OK to overpay, it’s actually perfectly rational,” he added. “It’s still safer than keeping your money in a political system where your fortunes may change literally overnight.”
But a recent piece of legislation in the U.K. has given the British government an excellent tool to fight back against suspicious cash. In January of this year, Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs) were introduced as part of the 2017 Crime Finances Act. Dubbed the “McMafia Law” after a hit BBC show about organized crime, the measure requires individuals to fully account for any assets they own that are worth over $80,000 to make sure the money behind it is legitimate. If ignored, law-enforcement can then confiscate the assets.
“[UWOs] enable the U.K. to more effectively target the problem of money laundering through prime real estate in London and elsewhere,” Donald Toon, Director for Economic Crime at the U.K.’s National Crime Agency said in a statement. “We are determined to use all our powers to combat the flow of illicit moneys into, or through the U.K.”
“[UWOs] have the potential to be game changing,” Naomi Hirst told ThinkProgress. “We’re hoping that UK law enforcement embraces it as an investigative tool and that U.K. politicians will use these orders.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether the British government will use this legislation to go after the wealth of Putin’s associates. Should they do so, it has the potential to trigger severe pushback to Putin from Russia’s jet-setting elite, which sees the ability to travel and spend their cash overseas as a key condition of their support for the Kremlin. Indeed, the fact that the Russian super-rich are so embedded in London society — from owning the city’s main newspaper and football clubs to donating $1.1 million to the Conservative Party — means that serious pushback is likely inevitable.
But experts agree that, if there’s a way for the U.K. to hurt Putin, it would be via London property. “Cracking down [on Russian property] is probably the main thing that would be effective,” Nate Sibley told ThinkProgress. “Expelling diplomats works when you’re dealing with a liberal democracy that plays by the rules, but you’re not dealing with a liberal democracy, you’re dealing with an organized crime state.”
“We need to be able to know who owns these properties,” Cooley said. “The idea that you can have these empty building with anonymous owners defies basic logic.”