Theresa May is likely to announce that the UK believes Russia is behind the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, a senior Conservative MP has said before Monday morning’s national security council (NSC) meeting.
Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Commons foreign affairs committee, said that if this happened the UK should draw up new rules to stop Russian oligarchs spending their wealth in London.
“We’re expecting the prime minister to make an announcement soon, and frankly I’d be surprised if she did not point the finger at the Kremlin,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“So it’s clear that we have got the Russia government behaving certainly aggressively towards people in the United Kingdom, and even in quite a corrupting way.”
The prime minister will chair the NSC meeting, which will bring together senior ministers with intelligence and security officials. Some ministers are expected to tell the prime minister that a tougher stance is needed than that seen after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson – who took a robust line on Russia in the Commons last week – is understood to be pushing for strong action, along with the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, and the chancellor, Philip Hammond.
On the assumption that May does announce that Russia is thought to be behind the attack last week that left former Russia spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter critically ill, and a police officer in a serious condition, Tugendgat said ministers should seek a targeted response against individuals, like the US’s Magnitsky Act.
It was about “making sure we make Putin realise what we’re doing, and make people who support him realise that supporting him isn’t a great idea”, Tugendhat said.
“We need to be very careful that we prevent the oligarchs, effectively those who have got wealthy by exploiting Russia’s wealth, by stealing from the Russian people for the best part of 20 years, realise that they can’t spend their wealth in London, that they can’t enjoy the luxuries of Harrods and whatever else, and that we’re absolutely firm in making sure that they feel the pain of being denied entry into the west,” he argued.
“We’re seeing Russian money corrupting other institutions, too. So we need to be extremely careful that we do not become victims to this. That means not only protecting ourselves by responding to acts of aggression as we’ve just seen, but also controlling the spread of corrupt Russian money.”
It would be better still if other countries joined in such sanctions, he said: “If we could bring others with us, that would make a very big difference.”
While he said he did not support an England boycott of this summer’s World Cup in Russia, Tugendhat said ministers should be “very, very careful” about any threat to British fans who travel to the tournament.
A public health warning urging hundreds of people who visited a pub and restaurant where Skripal may have been poisoned to wash their clothes and possessions has triggered concerns about the speed of official responses to the Salisbury incident.
The advice from Public Health England (PHE), released on Sunday morning, was aimed at as many as 500 customers who ate at the Zizzi restaurant or were in the Mill pub in the centre of Salisbury last Sunday and Monday.
The potential retaliation to Skripal’s poisoning comes at a sensitive moment in Russian politics. Russia is to hold presidential elections this Sunday, a vote that Putin is guaranteed to win but wants to carry with strong turnout to prove his government’s legitimacy. Russia has already accused foreign powers of meddling in the vote and will probably seek to spin the British response in the same way.
It seems unlikely that British punitive measures could hurt Putin’s chances on Sunday, where the Kremlin’s greater enemy is political apathy among Russians. Putin’s nominal popularity in Russia has endured, or even been boosted by, his growing conflict with the west, and earlier rounds of sanctions have done little to damp his official polling numbers.
In polling released in January by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the independent Levada Center in Moscow, 68% of respondents said they were not very or absolutely not concerned “about the political and economic sanctions imposed by western countries”.
But London’s response could irritate some of the elites around the Kremlin, who have grown accustomed to parking their money in London real estate and educating their children in British private schools and universities.