Photographer: Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images

U.K. Closing Kremlin TV’s Bank Account Latest Strain With Russia

  • Russian state broadcaster’s NatWest account about to be shut
  • Putin is accused of interfering in the U.S. election campaign

Russia lashed out at the U.K. for closing state-run broadcaster RT’s British bank account, the latest sign that relations between Western democracies and Vladimir Putin are at their worst since the end of the Cold War.

Natwest, part of the state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, told RT that its banking facilities will be withdrawn, without explanation or right to appeal, according to the Moscow-based broadcaster. The lender said that while the account was still open “these decisions are not taken lightly” and “we are reviewing the situation.” A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Theresa May, Helen Bower, said any decision by the bank was made independently.

The episode unfolds as the U.S., a key U.K. ally, has accused Russia of meddling with its presidential elections through hacking and releasing e-mails, as tensions mount in Syria. RT has been accused of acting as the Kremlin’s mouthpiece in its coverage of conflicts that have pitted Russia against the West. The U.K. and Germany are weighing sanctions against Russia for its bombing of the city of Aleppo, where 250,000 people remain trapped.

War Crimes

U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, on the job for just over three months, has been forceful in his criticism of Russia. He has encouraged protests outside the Russian Embassy in London over what he said were war crimes. At the United Nations, Russia blocked demands for an end to its air strikes over Aleppo, the fifth time its used its veto on Syria.

European ties with Russia, a major energy supplier to the region, took a blow in 2014 over the annexation of Crimea and have been plunging to new lows over Putin’s military involvement in Syria to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad during a six-year civil war that has unsettled the Middle East and widened a rift between the West and Russia.

Russia has hovered over the U.S. election campaign coming to a close with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton accusing Moscow of being behind a series of hacks to undermine her campaign. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has said Russian intelligence agencies are involved. Her adversary, Donald Trump, has refused to accept those findings and at one point called on Russia to conduct more cyber-espionage on his rival.

Putin Denies

Putin has denied accusations of interference and publicly has said he will work with whoever gets elected in November.

The Russia leader has accused the U.S. and its allies of whipping up “anti-Russian hysteria” and said this month that Russia won’t give in to “blackmail and pressure” over its military campaign in Syria. Clinton, who served as the top U.S. diplomat, oversaw the decline in relations with the former Cold war foe, from the failed reset back in 2009 to disagreements over the crisis in Libya and Syria.

RT, which broadcasts in English and other languages, has been reprimanded by the U.K. media regulator Ofcom for biased or misleading reporting on Syria and Ukraine. The channel, which has about 60 staff in the U.K., said it has faced numerous measures in the country and elsewhere in Europe in recent years impede its work.

Political Motives

“There’s absolutely no doubt that the motives are completely political,” RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan said of the move to close its bank account in an interview published on Business FM’s website.

In an e-mailed statement, the Russian broadcaster said the decision was “not at odds with the countless measures that have been undertaken in the U.K. and Europe over the last few years to ostracize, shout down, or downright impede the work of RT.” RT’s press office declined to say whether it had found another U.K. bank to replace its NatWest accounts.

NatWest didn’t have any consultations with the U.K. government before its decision, Bower told reporters Monday.

“It’s a matter for the bank, it’s a matter for them to decide who they offer services to based on their own risk appetite,” she said. “More broadly do we want to make sure that misinformation is not being spread or put forward? Of course we do.”

— With assistance by Svenja O'Donnell, and Michael J Moore

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.