I start by declaring an interest as I lived and worked in Russia from 2005 to 2008 as director of the British Council in St Petersburg. I have great respect and affection for the Russian people. The tragedy, of course, is that for centuries, with the exception of a brief period of democracy in the 1990s, Russia has been led by a succession of kleptocratic thugs who have plundered the country’s vast natural resources and ruled with total disregard for the freedoms, rights, talents and potential of the Russian people.
Vladimir Putin is a product of that system. He is rotten to the core. He is the embodiment of the mafia state that Russia has become. He is not a grand master of the game of geopolitical chess; he is a gangster. He has sent his army into eastern Ukraine not because he is worried about NATO, but because he is frightened of democracy and terrified of freedom. He has seen the recent popular uprisings in Belarus and Kazakhstan, and he has seen the support that is building around opposition figures such as Alexei Navalny. He knows that in Russia, when revolution comes, it is swift and decisive.
Let us be clear: the invasion of Ukraine has absolutely nothing to do with NATO or some grand geopolitical strategy. Putin has sent his troops across the border because a thriving, prosperous and democratic Ukraine spells disaster for him and his cronies, so they will do their utmost to destroy the hopes and aspirations of the Ukrainian people.
If we are to truly act with the robust moral authority that is required, we must get our own house in order. London has become the destination of choice for the crooks and thieves who run Russia. The cancelling of the tier 1 visa scheme over the weekend was a welcome move, but the Home Secretary’s refusal to publish the long-completed report on the scheme is deeply troubling, as it is bound to give rise to the suspicion that the Government have something to hide. Currently, 700 Russian millionaires live in the UK on the basis of tier 1 visas. What financial due diligence was done on their applications? Have the national security implications of their presence in our country been properly assessed? Have they had access to the Prime Minister or other senior members of the Government?
On the matter of Russians buying political influence, the Home Secretary must surely now review all the donations that have been made to the Conservative party by dual British-Russian citizens with connections to the Russian state, and she must update the House on that as a matter of urgency. The House also needs to know why only four individuals have been the subject of unexplained wealth orders since those measures were introduced in 2017.
The Opposition have repeatedly warned the Government about the links between the City of London and the corridors of power in the Kremlin, but in recent years the Conservative party has received almost £4 million in donations from individuals with close links to the Russian Government, which has clearly created a conflict of interest that has prevented any meaningful action. Enough is enough. Our national security and our reputation as a country that believes in and upholds the rule of law are at stake. We need a root-and-branch overhaul of the broken system; we need an economic crime Bill; we need a registration of overseas entities Bill; we need a total overhaul of Companies House, so that it is empowered to be a guardian of propriety rather than a passive library; and we need the full implementation of the Russia report.
Ukraine is being attacked by a rogue state that is intent on destroying democracy, liberty and the rule of law—a state led by a thug who orders mafia-style hits on the streets of our country. We must stand firm against Mr Putin and his cronies, and we will, but the Government must also take stronger action, and they must do so now.