Ukraine crisis puts Britain's Cameron on spot over Russian donations

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron came under pressure over the Ukraine crisis on Wednesday after he was forced to defend a party political donation from the wife of a former minister in Russian President Vladimir Putin's government.

Lyubov Chernukhina, the wife of Vladimir Chernukhin, a former deputy finance minister in Putin's government, agreed to pay 160,000 pounds (US$272,500) to Mr Cameron's Conservative Party at a fund-raising gala this month in exchange for a game of tennis with Mr Cameron and Mr Boris Johnson, the mayor of London.

But that and other donations to Cameron's party to fund its campaign for re-election in 2015 have come under scrutiny after the British leader called for sanctions on Mr Putin's "cronies and oligarchs" following the downing of a Malaysian plane in eastern Ukraine last week.

The opposition Labour Party has questioned Mr Cameron's credibility to talk tough on the issue at the same time as his party is taking donations from people with links to the Russian government, which it said were worth 910,000 pounds. And abroad, French politicians have accused Mr Cameron of hypocrisy for criticising France's sale of two Mistral warships to Russia, while doing nothing that would affect Russian interests in Britain, home to many wealthy Russians.

Mr Cameron, who lawmakers queried on Wednesday on why Britain had granted licences to sell arms to Russia, said criticism of his party's funding was misplaced and that it would not be handing back Chernukhina's donation.

"Of course I wouldn't accept money from someone who is a Putin crony but my understanding is that this person certainly isn't that and has lived in Britain for many years and is now actually a British citizen so I don't think that would be the right approach," Mr Cameron told British TV.

A source close to Mr Cameron's party said Mrs Chernukhina's husband had been sacked by Mr Putin and could not be credibly described as having any links with the Russia's government.

Documents from Britain's electoral watchdog show that Mrs Chernukhina had made three previous cash donations to the Conservative Party totalling 5,500 pounds since August 2012. Another donation of 10,000 pounds, in April 2012, was rejected because she was not eligible to vote at the time.

Labour called on Mr Cameron to be honest about Russia-linked party donations.

"People will be surprised at the extent of Russian wealth bankrolling David Cameron's re-election fund," Sheila Gilmore, a Labour member of parliament, said in a statement. "There can be no impression of conflicts of interest or hypocrisy at such an important time."

Mr Johnson told Sky News that he would not play tennis with any crony of Mr Putin's.