Outgunned and undermanned, Britain’s ‘FBI’ takes on Putin’s cronies – and loses

But the UWOs were successfully overturned in the High Court after Nazarbayeva and her son brought in lawyers from top firm Mishcon de Reya, arguing the properties were nothing to do with ex-husband Rakhat Aliyev and that Nazarbayeva was an “independent… economically-active woman” with her own means. 

Judge Ms Justice Lang criticised the NCA for making “flawed” and “unreliable” assumptions. 

Academics, however, have claimed that some of Nazarbayeva’s wealth came from sugar company JSC Kant, received in her divorce from Aliyev – and that the judge should have questioned assurances from Kazakh authorities overseen by her father. 

Helena Wood, a senior fellow and economic crime expert at the Royal United Services Institute, believes the flaws were at least partly down to mistakes by “overstretched and underpaid” NCA staff. 

This could present further dangers today, as exposing the true source of funds spirited into London by Kremlin-linked Russians requires specialist knowledge and long-term commitment. 

Much of their cash comes from the sometimes chaotic privatisations of assets in former Soviet states in the 1990s, since mixed up with legitimate funds.

Wood adds: “You can’t go back to Russia and ask them for evidence and intelligence about oligarchs.  

“The problem we’ve got now is we’ve frozen a load of mansions and yachts. But how are you going to then seize them? There has to be another process. Otherwise, all that’s going to happen is at some point, we’ll have to unfreeze them.”

Prof Michael Levi, a criminologist at Cardiff University, says the NCA has also traditionally focused on other forms of serious organised crime, including the international drugs trade, trafficking and modern slavery. 

“All these things were seen to be a much more serious threat than a bunch of billionaire Russians,” he says. “It will now take time to develop those capabilities – and it requires a huge amount of investment.”

There have been notable successes in recent years, including the NCA’s seizure of £5.6m related to the “Azerbaijani laundromat” run by a Azeri politician Javanshir Feyziyev.

Meanwhile, the international corruption unit has recovered assets worth £407.3m – ten times its £39m budget over five years – of which £200m has been returned to the countries from which it was stolen.

But this unit has had its budget cut by the Foreign Office, according to Spotlight. 

Prof John Heathershaw, a kleptocracy expert at Exeter University, says Usmanov’s complicated financial manoeuvres, of transferring ownership of his mansions to family members, signal a “bigger structural problem” that will continue to hobble the NCA unless it is tackled. 

He believes ministers must pass laws that force private sector firms to disclose more useful intelligence to the NCA about their kleptocratic clients – with the threat of punitive fines if they fail to do so – and set up a specialist economic crime court with expert judges. 

“Financial opacity is more extensive in the UK and we’ve set up our financial system to allow that,” he adds. “It’s the same reason why the Government delayed sanctions – because they don’t actually know where these things are.”

Like Benton, he believes this problem “ultimately goes back to capacity”. 

“You’ve got absolutely enormous volumes of funds coming into London from kleptocracy all over the world,” he adds. “But at the moment what we have now means it is like finding a needle in the haystack – that needs to change.”

The NCA announced on Friday a three-year funding settlement from 2022/23, providing greater certainty.

A spokesman added: “Since its inception in 2013, the NCA has frozen, confiscated or returned over £1bn of assets and in the 11 months of this financial year alone, has frozen or seized resources valued at £188m and recovered those valued at £35.5m.

“We continue to work closely with partners, across government and the private sector, to protect the UK from corrupt and illegal money flows, including working at pace to establish a new Combatting Kleptocracy Cell.”

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