Britain on Monday denied being involved in the reported closure of the NatWest bank accounts of Kremlin-funded RT television network, a decision that Moscow decried as politically motivated.
“They have closed our accounts in Britain. All the accounts,” wrote RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan on Twitter.
She later said that NatWest has not blocked RT’s access to the accounts and it can still withdraw its funds.
Simonyan told TASS state news agency that “we consider this decision to be absolutely political.”
The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement that it would “demand the British authorities explain the situation.”
It suggested this could be “an act agreed with official London to eliminate a news resource inconvenient for British officialdom.”
This would be a “gross breach of the basic principles of freedom of speech,” it warned.
The British government, however, denied being involved in NatWest’s affairs.
“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,” a spokesperson for Prime Minister Theresa May told AFP.
No new sanctions or obligations relating to Russia have been put on UK banks by the British government since February 2015.
RT published on its website a letter from NatWest dated October 12 saying it has reviewed its banking arrangements with RT and “reached the conclusion that we will no longer provide these facilities.”
The letter from NatWest, owned by Royal Bank of Scotland, does not give any reason for this decision, which it says is “final” and not open to discussion.
The bank says it will close RT’s accounts by December 12.
NatWest responded to RT’s announcement without confirming the details of the letter published by the television network.
“These decisions are not taken lightly. We are reviewing the situation and are contacting the customer to discuss this further.
“The bank accounts remain open and are still operative,” a bank spokesman said in a statement.
In a statement sent to AFP, RT called the move “incomprehensible and without warning,” adding it followed “countless measures” from Britain and Europe to “ostracise, shout down, or downright impede the work of RT.”
Simonyan told the RBK business news site that she had “no idea” of the reason for the closure of the accounts, but suggested it could be linked to the fact that “we are expecting new British and US sanctions against Russia.”
“Possibly it’s linked to this,” Simonyan said.
The RT editor-in-chief told Rossiya-24 state television that the decision included some personal accounts of senior staff working in Britain.
Senator Igor Morozov told RIA Novosti state news agency: “We must answer in kind and freeze the accounts of the BBC in Russia.”
– Kremlin view –
RT, formerly known as Russia Today, has the slogan “Question more” and was set up to present news from the perspective of the Kremlin. It has been criticised as a slavish propaganda tool for President Vladimir Putin.
Ties between Russia and the UK are at their lowest since the Cold War over the crisis in Ukraine and Moscow’s bombing campaign in Syria.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on October 1 that there was evidence that Russia’s bombing of Aleppo qualified as a war crime.
The foreign-language network that is primarily aimed at audiences in Europe and the United States broadcasts 24-hours a day in English, Arabic and Spanish.
It has a British outlet called RT UK that broadcasts from London.
Simonyan on Saturday said that RT journalists working abroad were under “monstrous pressure”.
“They are summoned to embassies, questioned, threatened and pressured,” she said on a Russian television talk show.
RT has previously had problems with British television watchdog Ofcom, which ruled in November 2014 that it “failed to preserve due impartiality” in covering war-torn Ukraine.
The bank decision came as ongoing legal action involving claims against Moscow from shareholders of defunct oil firm Yukos founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky has led to freezes of Russian assets abroad including those of state media.