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British diplomacy: All style and no substance, but ineptitude may not be the real problem

Britain has seemed like a court jester on the world stage during the Ukraine crisis: prancing around and making a lot of noise to little effect. But Boris Johnson’s government has also been undermined abroad by its failure to crack down on the dirty Russian money already sloshing around in its system

Liz Truss in Moscow with British Ambassador to Russia, Deborah Bronnert, ahead of talks on Ukraine. Photo: Simon Dawson

Boris Johnson likes a well-turned phrase so perhaps it’s no surprise that his government is more concerned with style rather than substance. All those three-word slogans are the political equivalent of Elle Woods’ flashy video application to Harvard in Legally Blonde. Unfortunately for the UK government, this unorthodox approach worked for sorority queen Elle because she was smart, she worked hard and she won the respect of her once-snooty peers. Snaps for Elle!

There is a sense in which the UK government is doing the exact opposite with the Russia-Ukraine crisis – revealing ignorance, shirking the difficult detail and earning only jeers and mockery as its top officials insert themselves into this alarming stand-off, armed only with platitudes, costume changes and a historical legacy that grows more tarnished by the day. 

That Boris Johnson is diminished on the global stage post-Brexit is becoming more evident, but Europe’s worst political crisis since the Cold War also risks doing permanent damage to British diplomacy as a concept and as a global force. It doesn’t help that his foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who fancies herself as a future PM, has revealed an alarmingly Johnson-like aversion to studying the brief. 

When Truss wore a faux-fur hat and coat to talks in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week, Rossiyskaya Gazeta mocked her mercilessly, noting the city was in the middle of a thaw, with temperatures reportedly warmer than usual for February. It might have been, as some speculate, Truss’ literal nod to her role model Margaret Thatcher, who wore a similar hat during a 1987 visit, but Truss is no Thatcher. 

And while Lavrov has been, characteristically, rude to visiting diplomats of all shades, it did not help her case that during the talks Truss failed to recognise two regions he mentioned as Russian, reportedly saying Britain would never recognise Russian sovereignty over Rostov and Voronezh – actual Russian regions. 

The Kremlin used the gaffe to push their argument that Western leaders are poorly informed. Truss’ team said she misheard – fair enough, it can happen, but after an earlier incident where Truss mixed up the Baltic and Black Seas one might wonder if the dog did indeed eat the homework, again.

So far so flippant but such gaffes aside, if Britain really did want to play a serious role in this crisis, there is one area where it could show true leadership. 

Before her meeting with Lavrov, Truss talked of introducing the UK’s “toughest sanctions regime against Russia” and in fact, the Foreign Office did sign off on new legislation that gives ministers the power to impose sanctions on oligarchs and businesses, including those linked directly to the Ukraine aggression as well as Kremlin-linked organisations and businesses of “economic and strategic significance” to the Russian government.

However, analysts and political observers want the government to go further by cracking down on the Russian “dirty money” that is already sloshing around the British system, most notably in the capital, dubbed the London Laundromat. 

Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog, has identified £1.5bn ($2bn) of Russian money in London property, the majority of which is held by shell companies in offshore havens. Some Russian investments in the UK are, of course, legitimate. The problem is the lack of transparency. A report by Parliament’s intelligence committee in 2020 described London as a “laundromat” for tainted Russian money.

Speaking on Good Morning Britain on Tuesday, Tom Tugendhat, Conservative MP and chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, called for a serious crackdown.

“The reality is we’ve been part of the London Laundromat for decades now and it’s about time we decided whether or not we want dirty money in the British system … This isn’t for us so much a military problem as a financial one and the question is quite simply, ‘are you serious’ and at the moment, we’re not.”

Earlier this month, Labour’s David Lammy and Rachel Reeves wrote a letter to Truss and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, calling on Conservatives to return an estimated £1.93m to donors  who had made money from Russia or who had alleged links to President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Labour wants the government to bring forward the long-delayed Economic Crime Bill and are also calling for reform of Companies House to prevent fraud and abuse, a register of overseas entities, and other measures to improve transparency.

After the new legislation on sanctions was announced last week, Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for foreign affairs, tweeted: “Russia sanctions finally published – but no immediate steps to introduce a register of beneficial ownership. Putin’s cronies keep getting away with it!” 

Given the UK’s failure to tackle dirty money, European leaders might have been forgiven for raising eyebrows at another of Johnson’s clever catchphrases, released to the world as he toured Scotland on Monday.

“All European countries need to get (gas pipeline) Nord Stream out of the bloodstream, yank out that hypodermic drip-feed of Russian hydrocarbons that is keeping so many European economies going,” he said. 

There is, of course, an argument that European dependency, and especially German dependency, on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and more broadly on Russian gas supplies, have affected Western diplomacy these past weeks but perhaps the former mayor of the “London Laundromat” may not be best placed to make it. 

Still, Johnson – who did speak to US President Joe Biden on Monday evening — does seem to have had some Forrest Gump-like success in inserting himself into this global crisis, at least if you believe the British papers. But look a little closer and the headlines are less breaking news and more statements of the obvious from the British PM.

On Tuesday, The Guardian led with; ‘Very, very dangerous’: PM’s warning on Russia build-up”. The Times said “Diplomacy can still save Ukraine, insists Johnson” – the use of ‘insists’ nicely implying agency –  while the Daily Telegraph opted for “Window for peace is open, say Biden and Johnson”. The Daily Express went for an even more solipsistic take with the headline “ Final warning Putin! It’s peace or you’ll pay a high price” over a piece that read: The far-reaching consequences of war were spelt out to Russia last night in a final push for peace by Boris Johnson and Joe Biden.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has his own diplomatic failings to reckon with but who was actually in Moscow on Tuesday after visiting Kyiv on Monday, might wonder what exactly he’s doing if the “final push for peace” is taking place elsewhere. 

Whatever happens in the snowy borderlands between Russia and Ukraine, Britain has already sacrificed a lot of international credibility. Faith in the UK’s commitment to anything other than narrow self-interest will not be soothed by reports in Politico that Johnson is pursuing closer ties with China and would like to restart trade talks that have been suspended for years. 

At a time when concerns are rising about China’s record on human rights – and particularly its brutal abuse of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province – this does not bode well for Britain’s ability to play a leading role as a “honest broker” global diplomat. Ineptitude is one thing. Cynical opportunism is another.

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