Does a British government department have the right to punish individuals who have broken no laws on the basis of their political views? Are private companies allowed to discriminate against customers on the basis of their nationality alone? For the past two years, the answer to both these questions has been yes – if they have a connection to Russia.
In the immediate aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year, the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, called the war ‘a tragedy for Ukraine, and a tragedy for Russia’. Directly addressing the people of Russia (and speaking in surprisingly well-accented Russian), Johnson said: ‘I do not believe this war is in your name.’ A flurry of economic sanctions against the Putin regime by the UK, EU and US followed – including personal sanctions freezing assets and banning travel for a named list of close Kremlin allies. The sanctions’ stated aim was ‘encouraging Russia to cease actions which destabilise Ukraine, or undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence of Ukraine’.
But somehow ordinary Russians, many of them exiles from the Putin regime, have also found themselves caught in the net. The assets of thousands of small investors held in the Brussels-based clearing system Euroclear found their assets summarily frozen en masse. The bank accounts of Gift of Life, a well-established London-based medical charity that has raised millions for the treatment of Russian children, were closed. Every London financial institution, from mortgage lenders to banks and insurers, has aggressively vetted and in many cases purged their client lists of people of Russian origin – even those who had been British citizens for years.
Instead of welcoming and encouraging well-educated and wealthy Russians fleeing the regime to move to the West, visas have become exponentially harder to obtain.