In Depth

Rubles rolling into London force Cameron to cool it on sanctions

And how do we know? Because, once again, an official visiting the PM has failed to keep his papers to himself

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NOW it gets personal. David Cameron is against general sanctions against Putin’s Russia over the annexation of the Crimea but he is prepared to impose “smart” sanctions on individual Russians.

As Nick Robinson, the BBC'S political editor, told Radio 4's Today programme this morning, this could upset the estate agents in Hampstead (one of the areas of London, along with Kensington and Chelsea, favoured by Russia's big spenders), and the bursars of some of England’s top public schools (ditto).

But it won't amount to the debilitating economic sanctions threatened by US President Barack Obama on Monday.

He was on the phone to both Angela Merkel and Cameron to drum up support after his Secretary of State, John Kerry, went on the talk shows on Sunday to wave the big sanctions stick ahead of his visit to Kiev today.  

But Obama will have discovered that London, Berlin and Paris are not so gung-ho for a return to the Cold War.

The City of London would lose billions in trade, Germany its lucrative market for BMWs and Mercedes, and France its sales of champagne and luxury goods, if the world leaders pulled the plug on Russia over Ukraine. The West would also lose the gas supplies which it sucks in like a drunk with a whisky barrel.

There is a gulf in rhetoric between John Kerry and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said Putin would have to pay a diplomatic price in sanctions but refused to itemise the bill.

Now we know what Cameron and Hague have in mind as a compromise -  targeted 'smart' sanctions on individuals, similar to those imposed on the leaders of hated regimes in Zimbabwe, Syria and Libya.

And how do we know? Because yet again – when will they ever learn? – a Foreign Office official (believed to be Hugh Powell, son of Charles Powell, Lady Thatcher’s former aide, and now the deputy national security adviser) allowed himself to be snapped by photographers posted outside 10 Downing Street carrying a crucial document.

Enlarged, it read in part: "The UK should not support for now trade sanctions or close London's financial centre to Russians."

It also said ministers should “discourage any discussion [eg, at Nato] of contingency military preparations”. That’s a relief.

The disclosure of the document forced Cameron to deny, via a spokesman, that Britain was putting its financial interests above those of the Ukraine. But it’s pretty clear that is exactly what he is doing, and many would say: "Quite right too".

The document setting out the Foreign Office strategy advises ministers to tell Russians in private about limited sanctions they may face, but to be “generic” in public.

One of the reasons for this strategy was revealed in a briefing given by Downing Street after a phone call between David Cameron, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande. The Prime Minister’s spokesman said the international community should speak with one voice.

"You only use those words if you a spin doctor because you know the international community is NOT speaking with one voice," said Nick Robinson.

"We want to keep all those rubles coming into London, the French want to sell warships to the Russian navy, and the Germans want to keep on buying 30-40 per cent of their oil and gas from Russia while companies invest in Russian companies. At the EU there has been a real resistance to turn tough words into tough actions."

Liam Halligan, an old Russian hand, and economics commentator for the Daily Telegraph, said on the Today programme it would be “mad” to impose general sanctions against Russia or talk about a return to the Cold War. Cameron and Hague appear to agree with him.

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