Is money laundering a form of strategic corruption?

Professor Robert Barrington looks at the intent behind flows of dark money into the UK – and concludes that the UK is ill-equipped to deal with the threat of strategic corruption. 

Brompton Road Tube Station. Source: Kotomi_/Flickr

When lots of Russian money flows into London and the UK financial system, is there any malevolent intent behind it? Setting aside the unproven theories about Russian funding for the pro-Brexit campaign, there are plenty of examples that throw up red flags – such as the Lebedev peerage, the involvement of Russians as political party donorsoligarchs investing in strategic (though legitimate) businesses, and philanthropic donations to universities.  But these are red flags only because of the nationalities of those involved, not because of proven corruption.

The question of the intent behind such activities has arisen because the dealings of Russia in Ukraine – for some years before the invasion – have brought to the world’s attention an issue that has come to be known as ‘strategic corruption’. This is essentially the promotion of corruption in another country by a sponsoring government to further its national interest or foreign policy objectives. 

The concept of strategic corruption started to appear in the lexicon of corruption terms towards the end of the 2010s.  Alternative framings include ‘corruption as statecraft‘, used by Transparency International in a 2019 report; and the ‘weaponisation of corruption’. The term strategic corruption has gained wider exposure through being included in the US Government’s Countering-Corruption Strategy (2022), where it is defined as: “when a government weaponizes corrupt practices as a tenet of its foreign policy.” This echoes the description offered by a comprehensive article in Foreign Affairs (2020): “a country’s weaponization of corruption against other states in pursuit of national goals.” 

Russia’s involvement in various activities within Ukraine prior to 2022 – for example, in providing covert financial and other support for corrupt politicians known to support Russian influence over Ukraine – is often cited as an example of strategic corruption. However, many of its characteristics do not differ from those used by both sides in the Cold War to advance their national interests and foreign policy objectives.

There are several beneficiaries of strategic corruption, not all of whom may themselves be corrupt:  

  • The sponsoring state which has enabled and promoted corruption in another country. The sponsoring state is a corruptor, but that does not in itself signify that the government of the sponsoring state is corrupt (although it may be).  
  • Those within the ‘corrupted’ state who are the agents of the sponsoring state in carrying out the corruption. For example, a politician or public official who has been encouraged, supported, induced, or coerced by others to act corruptly. These agents may themselves be corrupt – if they are abusing entrusted power for private gain – or they may engage in other forms of wrongdoing, such as treason.
  • The individuals who are corrupted, either directly by the sponsoring state, or indirectly by that state’s agents; they would usually be individuals who are abusing a position of entrusted power for private gain.  

Mechanisms for strategic corruption include:  

  • Corrupt subversion of the political system through political financing or rewards to politicians
  • Co-opting influential individuals through provision of jobs or other benefits
  • Covertly supporting the promotion within key institutions of individuals who are known to be corrupt. 

Scholars and practitioners debate the question of intent. For example, when large quantities of cash are laundered into the economy of another country, it may be unclear whether that activity is in part or in whole intended to corrupt the destination country and its institutions. In such a case, if the money laundering is intended to corrupt the wider context, the activity would fall within the definition of strategic corruption; if corruption within the destination country is a by-product of the money laundering, it is contested as to whether this should be regarded as strategic corruption.  

Where does that leave the UK?  Of course, we do not have sufficient information on intent to be able to make a judgement about the large flows of money from Russia. But it is possible – indeed likely – that several things have been going on at once: 

  • Money being parked in the UK as a safe haven 
  • Money being infiltrated into the UK in order to gain influence or subvert key institutions 
  • Money originally brought to the UK as a safe haven being re-purposed to curry favour with the Putin regime 
  • Money originally brought to the UK as a safe haven being used in ways that promote or engender corruption as a by-product.

In a sense, it may not matter what the intent of Russia has been. The importance of the Russian case is that it highlights what could – very easily – be done by a hostile government through legitimate means. China, Iran, and other governments known to have used strategic corruption elsewhere would not have to do much work to find out how to deploy strategic corruption in the UK. It is exactly this kind of threat that has been worrying the authorities in the US – hence the FBI’s creation of a Foreign Influence Taskforce, among other initiatives.

What is the UK equivalent of such US initiatives? None, as far as we know. Might it fall within the remit of the Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion? Possibly, but that role has been empty now for fourteen months and counting. The truth is that this is one of the many areas related to corruption that is so low on the priority list of the UK government that there has been no coordinated or coherent response.

Further reading

Huss, O. and Pozsgai-Alvarez, J. 2022. “Strategic Corruption as a Threat to Security and the New Agenda for Anti-Corruption”. The Corruption in Fragile States Blog.

Zelikow, P., Edeleman, E., Harrison, K. and Gventer, C.W. 2020. “The rise of strategic corruption”. Foreign Affairs 99: 107.

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