The UK is facing a new round of tit-for-tat reprisals from Russia following a shock move by NatWest to freeze the bank accounts of Kremlin-funded news channel RT.
British journalists could be among those targeted by the Kremlin in the aftermath of the decision to close UK accounts being used by the broadcaster, previously called Russia Today.
RT revealed the bank’s action yesterday, declaring that facilities had been withdrawn “without explanation or redress”, adding that it was “incomprehensible”.
An MP from Russia’s ruling party has warned that its parliament will demand an explanation from the UK.
City A.M. understands that the English-language broadcaster was given 60 days notice of the closure in a letter issued on 12 October, with concerns raised over whether the accounts met internal risk criteria and regulatory requirements.
A spokeswoman for NatWest parent Royal Bank of Scotland last night said: “These decisions are not taken lightly. We are reviewing the situation and are contacting the customer to discuss this further.” NatWest’s letter to the news organisation said it reached the decision after “careful consideration” and its decision was final.
It comes as tensions between the UK and Russia escalate, with foreign secretary Boris Johnson calling for protests outside the Russian embassy in London in response to Vladimir Putin’s military campaign in Syria.
Experts warned last night that Putin will point the finger of blame at the UK government.
“Although the UK government likely had nothing to do with this, the Kremlin will nevertheless see government involvement,” Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society, told City A.M.
He said reprisals against British citizens in Russia, particularly journalists, were likely, adding: “After Alexander Litvinenko died, Britain sent [Russian] diplomats back to Russia, and the Russians sent the same number back to Britain. There is a history there of tit-for-tat and like for like, so we can expect action and reprisals against the BBC as the state-backed public broadcaster, like journalists being ejected from Russia.”
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The high-profile anti-corruption campaigner and Putin critic, Bill Browder, told City A.M.: “Russia’s relationship with everyone is at an all time low because of Syria, Ukraine, cyber attacks and cheating at international sport.”
The founder of Hermitage Capital added that [the Russian] “reaction fits with Putin’s strategy of pointing to the battles he is fighting on the international front to deflect from those at home.” Browder has campaigned for justice for his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian jail in 2009.
The Treasury declined to comment but a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said: “It’s a matter for the bank and it’s for them to decide who they offer services to based on their own risk appetite.”