Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich may steer clear of UK sanctions for months

March 3, 2022, 8:02 PM UTC

It could take months of legal work before the the U.K. is ready to even consider sanctioning Roman Abramovich and some other wealthy Russians, because government lawyers have still to lay the foundations of a watertight case against them, a person familiar with the matter said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under mounting pressure from the opposition Labour Party to sanction Abramovich, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia and owns London’s Chelsea Football Club. 

The U.K. has now sanctioned more than 100 Russian individuals and entities in response to the invasion of Ukraine, including at least 11 wealthy individuals, after adding metals tycoon Alisher Usmanov and Igor Shuvalov, President Vladimir Putin’s former deputy prime minister to the list Thursday.

But across the political divide, there’s growing frustration that Johnson’s Conservative government is lagging the U.S. and European Union in targeting individuals linked to Putin. Russian tycoons and their British investments were already a major issue in the U.K. and especially in London, dubbed “Londongrad” in the press for being a Russian wealth magnet since the 1990s.

The Times earlier reported the potential lag in sanctioning Russian tycoons. 

Russia’s Ukraine invasion is the first big test for the U.K.’s post-Brexit sanctions regime, which came into force in 2020. That adds to the political risk for Johnson, who spearheaded the campaign to leave the EU, saying the U.K. would be able to act more nimbly after shedding the influence of the Brussels bureaucracy.

Johnson has sought to put the U.K. at the forefront of the West’s response, a push that is undermined if his government is viewed as being slow.

Amid a growing perception of U.K. foot-dragging, another person familiar with the matter said ministers are considering emergency legislation to speed up the sanctions response. The government could enable ministers to override the legal challenges faced by foreign lawyers, according to one Conservative MP familiar with parliamentary processes, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Asked in the House of Commons by Labour leader Keir Starmer on Wednesday why the government hasn’t imposed sanctions on Abramovich, Johnson replied that it wasn’t “appropriate” to comment on individuals.

Selling up

Abramovich, 55, made his fortune from dividends and sales of privatized assets acquired from the former Soviet Union, and now has Israeli citizenship. On Wednesday, he said he is selling Chelsea and has instructed the board to set up a charitable foundation that will get all net proceeds from the sale.

While the U.K. sanctions system largely mirrors the EU’s, there are differences, including the mechanisms to challenge a decision. Previously, this could only be done through the EU’s court system, whereas now a case can be lodged within three months of a decision through the U.K.’s judicial review process. 

There has been little time to see how U.K. judges handle sanctions challenges. The government has to produce sufficient evidence to show it has reasonable grounds to suspect the person or entity is involved in, or connected to, a sanctioned regime, or risk costly court battles with deep-pocketed opponents.

That effort is complicated by budget cuts to the National Crime Agency, which helps gather evidence for sanctions, according to a person who briefed on the government’s plans. The person also said that while the EU has focused on targeting wealthy individuals, the U.K. took aim at financial institutions first.

The Foreign Office’s sanctions task force has tripled in two weeks to abut 80 members, the person said.

“Possibly there’s a nervousness or reticence here about designating individuals on a particular premise if there’s going to be a legal challenge,” said Robert Dalling, a criminal defense partner at Jenner & Block who advises clients on financial sanctions. “If there were successful challenges at this early stage before the new legislation had really proved itself then that wouldn’t be ideal so maybe there’s a little nervousness just because it’s new.”

–With assistance from Joe Mayes.

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