Government has not backed up Russian sanction claims

9 March 2022
What was claimed

The UK has sanctioned £258.8 billion of Russian bank assets, while the US has sanctioned £240 billion and the EU £38.8 billion.

Our verdict

The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office has not explained how it has calculated these figures or detailed what they represent, so they cannot be verified, and it is unclear whether they are comparable.

On 5 March 2022 a number of Conservative MPs, including the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency Jacob Rees-Mogg, tweeted a chart claiming that the value of Russian bank assets sanctioned by the UK was higher than those sanctioned by either the US or the EU.

The chart shows £258.8 billion worth of Russian bank assets sanctioned by the UK, compared with £240 billion by the US and £38.8 billion by the EU. Mr Rees-Mogg said: “The City of London leads the way in the effects of sanctioning Russian banks.” We’ve had lots of readers asking us to check this claim.

It’s not clear who first created the chart, but in reply to our email to Mr Rees-Mogg, the Cabinet Office confirmed that it was based on figures from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) which were published in a Telegraph article and also tweeted, in part, by the department the same afternoon.

However, we don’t know exactly what these figures refer to or how they were calculated. No further source was cited in the chart or the Telegraph article, and we cannot find any evidence of the FCDO having published this data. When we asked the FCDO for more detail, it repeated only that the £258.8 billion figure was the total value of bank assets designated for sanctions—ie, added to the sanctions list.

This means we can’t say what these statistics truly represent, whether they are reliable, or whether they are comparable with each other. For instance, we don’t know whether the figures only cover assets sanctioned since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or what criteria have been used to count assets affected by the different sanctions.

The UK Statistics Authority says: “Policy, press or ministerial statements referring to regular or ad hoc official statistics should be issued separately from, and contain a prominent link to, the source statistics. The statements should meet basic professional standards of statistical presentation, including accuracy, clarity and impartiality.”

The situation with sanctions is still changing rapidly. What follows is the best info we have as of 5pm on 9 March. We’ll continue to ask for the source of this data and will update this article if necessary.

What do we know about UK sanctions?

Statistics on the value of sanctions against Russia do not seem to be published in an official format, but the government does publish official data listing sanctions against both people and organisations related to Russia and Belarus.

A number of Twitter users replied to Mr Rees-Mogg with a different chart, which claimed to show the total number of “entities” sanctioned by different countries. It said that the UK had at the time sanctioned 16 entities since the start of the invasion, far fewer than the number of sanctions applied by the EU (490) and the US (118).

This second chart, which originated in a Bloomberg article from which it has since been removed, used official data from several countries compiled by a company called ComplyAdvantage. It has also been widely shared on Facebook, and the Independent used the same figures in an article on 7 March about Mr Rees-Mogg’s claims.

However, the FCDO said Bloomberg was “inaccurate” and that “[the] UK has sanctioned 228 individuals, entities & subsidiaries since invasion”.

We have asked Bloomberg why the original chart was deleted, and what the correct figures ought to be, but it has not yet told us. However it has said in a correction attached to its article that the chart “inaccurately described UK sanctions”.

ComplyAdvantage told us that it has not yet seen any reason to believe that its numbers were inaccurate. It told us its figure for the UK was based on its analysis of entities added to the UK Sanctions List since 24 February, when the full invasion of Ukraine began.

We also asked the FCDO for the source of its alternative figure but it did not provide one. Its tweet indicates that the 228 figure includes not just the individuals and entities that appear on the official UK sanctions list, but also subsidiaries of the companies mentioned, which appear not to, at least in some cases.

This means that again we’ve not been able to verify the government’s claim by identifying the full list of individuals, entities and subsidiaries it counted.

Counting the number of sanctions applied by looking at the official list is complex, given the way the data is presented. But when we checked, using data updated on 8 March 2022, we could see 14 individuals and 14 entities from Russia or Belarus who had been sanctioned since 24 February. That’s similar to the 29 individuals and entities found on 9 March by German fact checkers Correctiv, who are tracking sanctions globally and have been counting since 22 February.

We need better data

Clearly it is important to understand how much the UK and other governments could be doing—and how much they are doing— to sanction people, companies and organisations associated with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

However, as the information above shows, there’s currently some confusion over exactly how many sanctions have been applied. It’s also difficult to measure the impact of sanctions by simply comparing different sets of numbers, and very easy to misunderstand the numbers we do have—particularly when new sanctions are still being introduced around the world.

For instance, on 22 February the European Union voted to sanction all 351 members of the Russian parliament who voted to recognise the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

This added 351 to the total number of entities sanctioned by the EU, but it doesn’t tell us on its own how important these sanctions were, because some of these politicians will be more influential than others, and some will be more seriously affected than others.

There are also different types of sanctions. For instance, at the time of writing Sovcombank, which is on the UK Sanctions List, is subject to an asset freeze, whereas Sberbank is subject to a “prohibition on correspondent banking and sterling clearing”. These different measures are likely to have different effects.

There are also many potential pitfalls when using the data from the UK Sanctions List, which may not be obvious at first. For instance, not everyone on the Russian list is a Russian national—and not every sanctioned Russian national is on the Russian sanctions list. Some people are also subject to more than one type of sanction—for instance both an asset freeze and a travel ban. 

And when comparing the UK’s approach to sanctions with other countries, it’s important to take into account other factors. For example, the UK may have designated a greater value of bank assets for sanctions than the US or the EU, but that might be a smaller proportion of total Russian bank assets—or other assets—available to be designated.

In short, when using numbers to describe the sanctions, it is important to be very precise indeed.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

We deserve better than bad information.

After we published this fact check, we made the Office for Statistics Regulation aware of these claims. 

We also contacted Jacob Rees-Mogg, Rachel Maclean and Danny Kruger to request they ask the FCDO to publish this data.

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