UK removes sanctions against Russian oligarch Oleg Tinkov

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The UK has removed sanctions against Russia-born tycoon Oleg Tinkov, the most outspoken billionaire to criticise Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The Foreign Office said on Thursday that Tinkov would no longer be subject to sanctions following an appeal during which he argued the UK had sanctioned him in error and enlisted the support of Richard Branson as well as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a major opponent of the Russian president, to make his case.

Whereas most Russian oligarchs have spoken out against the invasion only in guarded terms, Tinkov has denounced the “crazy war” in Ukraine and renounced his Russian citizenship last year in protest.

“I can’t watch my former countrymen killing and robbing civilians for no good reason,” he wrote on Instagram in October. “I hope more businessmen will follow my example and stop working for fascism, give up their businesses and citizenship.”

He said the Russian government last year forced him into a “fire sale” of his stake in leading fintech TCS over his anti-war statements.

Tinkov, who did not immediately comment, had argued that lifting the sanctions against him would help encourage other Russians to oppose the war publicly like he had.

The foreign office said: “Having considered all of the factors in this case, including the actions Mr Tinkov has taken following his sanctions designation, we have revoked his designation. We keep all sanctions designations under review.”

The UK government considers public condemnation of Russia’s war in Ukraine a factor that can contribute towards sanctions on a Russian individual being lifted, according to people familiar with the criteria.

Other prominent Russians who have spoken out against the war in guarded terms or only privately have struggled to overturn the sanctions.

On Thursday, the US sanctioned Alexei Kudrin, a longtime Putin confidante known for his liberal economic views who resigned from the government last year.

Kudrin, who has not stated his views on the war in public, is negotiating a deal with the Kremlin to split up tech giant Yandex. The US Treasury said he had “close ties” to Putin and was sanctioned for “for operating or having operated in the technology sector of the Russian Federation”.

Tinkov is the most prominent Russian to have successfully challenged western sanctions since Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine last year, and the only one to base his argument for lifting sanctions on his opposition to the war.

Unlike many of Russia’s richest men, Tinkov built his fortune from the ground up without significant state support, selling a beer-and-dumplings empire before moving into fintech.

“While he was a wealthy Russian businessman he has never been an oligarch,” Branson, who Tinkov often cited as his inspiration, wrote in a statement cited by the Times earlier this week. “I have always known him as a self-made dynamic entrepreneur. That is why I have supported him and continue to do so.”

Most other applicants have focused their efforts on technicalities. Former Sberbank executive Lev Khasis, whom the UK removed from the sanctions list earlier this month, argued that he was sanctioned incorrectly because he left the state-owned lender before the war began.

Tinkov was sanctioned at the same time in March last year as Eugene Shvidler, another prominent Soviet-born businessman, shortly after the UK seized their private planes.

Lawyers for Shvidler, a US-UK national who is known for his close business links to Roman Abramovich, the sanctioned former owner of Chelsea football club, claimed in the High Court on Thursday that the UK had used him as a “poster boy for sanctions” with ministers seeking to make “political capital” from his designation. The UK government is opposing his application.

If Shvidler’s application to revoke his designation is successful, it could pave the way for further legal challenges by other individuals wanting to be removed from the sanctions list.

Lord David Anderson KC, barrister for Shvidler, claimed to the High Court that two of the businessman’s five children, who are all UK nationals, were forced to leave their British schools after their father was put on the sanctions list last year, causing them “extreme distress”. 

Anderson told the court that there were several “unusual” features about his client’s case, including the response to the seizure of his two private planes in March 2022 as he was put on the sanctions list.

The aircraft seizures were referred to in tweets by Grant Shapps, the UK’s former transport minister, which have now been deleted, the court heard. Anderson also told the court that it was unusual for a UK citizen to be included on the sanctions list.

David Corker, lead lawyer in Tinkov’s case, claimed Shapps and then-foreign secretary Liz Truss were chasing headlines to look tough in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion.

“Just round up the usual suspects.” That’s my impression of what Truss was doing,” he said. “Tinkov had a plane on the tarmac at Luton airport and it gave Shapps a chance to talk about yet more oligarchs’ toys.”

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