Immoral and Reckless Russia Deserves A Swift and Severe Response
To paraphrase the great football manager Brian Clough; we are not yet sure where the Putin regime sits on the list of suspects for the nerve agent attack on Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia – but it is probably in the top one.
It is hard to imagine who else might have carried out this sickening crime. Ordinary gangsters cannot realistically acquire or handle nerve agents. Few states have them either. Of those that do, only Russia appears to have a motive for attempting to murder Mr Skripal. It also has a record of being immoral and reckless enough to risk harming British police officers, medical personnel and other innocent bystanders.
The Putin regime perpetrated the world’s first act of nuclear terrorism when it murdered another exile, Alexander Litvinenko, in London in 2006 with polonium-210, spreading the lethal radioactive substance around various public places in the process. They may now have followed that crime with a chemical weapons attack.
Once the British security forces have identified the perpetrators, the government must respond swiftly and severely. The first duty of any state is to protect its territory and citizens. Britain’s actions need to meet that responsibility.
As the Russia expert and former senior “Economist” editor, Edward Lucas, recently told Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, “we need to start treating Russia rather as we treat terrorism”.
the British government must change its mindset
Handling Russia’s aggression requires a similarly coordinated approach including financial, political, cyber and other security measures. Bringing together these aspects provides plenty of scope to punish Putin and his cronies.
In doing so, the British government must change its mindset. Britain (and its allies) have been too tolerant of Russia’s conduct. Concerns about their relationships with Moscow and potential Russian retaliation have been overemphasised.
This feeble approach has emboldened rather than deterred Russia. Aside from its murderous activities on British soil, Russia has interfered in the West’s elections and referendums. It has also damaged our interests by intervening militarily in Ukraine and Syria.
The Putin regime’s repeated aggression partially disguises its fundamental weaknesses.
Russia has little to offer the world apart from oil and trouble. As a result, it has few, if any, committed allies. Most of Russia’s military is unsophisticated and outdated. Its economy is technologically backward and half the size of Britain’s.
The money the corrupt Russian elite has stashed in the UK and its dependent territories is a personal vulnerability that can be targeted immediately. Britain already has the appropriate anti-organised crime legislation to tackle Putin’s “mafia state”. The “proceeds of crime” law allows unexplained wealth to be frozen and seized. It should be enforced extensively.
Many Kremlin-connected individuals regularly visit the money, family members and property they have secreted in Britain. Their UK visas should be cancelled until Putin is out of office or his conduct around the world changes dramatically.
our stance, and that of our allies, against Russia needs to be stiffened significantly
Much is made of Britain and Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas, and the Kremlin’s threats to turn off the taps. But our energy suppliers are increasingly diversified. Moreover, it is often overlooked that Britain and some countries in Europe rely far less on Russian energy resources than Russia does on selling them to us. Oil and gas represent 70% of Russia’s total exports and provide 52% of federal budget revenues. These are not materials that can simply be shipped elsewhere instead. Massive, costly pipeline and port infrastructure needs to be built first. This curtails Russia’s real ability to restrict supplies.
To emphasise Russia’s chronic dependence on one export product, Britain should join the campaign to halt the expansion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. This step would generate strong support from the many European countries who are negatively impacted by this project.
Clearly, working with our allies more widely will increase the impact of measures against Russia. Brexit and Trump are undoubtedly complicating factors. But Trump will not be around for ever – possibly not for long at all. His dubious Russia-related behaviour will compel the next US administration to be seen to crack down hard on the Kremlin.
Most of Europe shares our overriding interest in countering Russia’s malign influence. Even if we leave the EU, we are still a leading member of NATO. Its original (and increasingly revived) reason for existence is to provide security against Russia. NATO’s cyber warfare capacity is believed to exceed Moscow’s. Now might be the time to prove this to the Kremlin.
Finally, Putin’s attitude is partly driven by his paranoia that the West is attempting to overthrow his regime. We are not. Despite the threat it poses to us, realpolitik prevents that. We can exert greater counter-pressure though.
A simple first step would be to increase the information pumped into Russia, to provide an alternative narrative to the Kremlin’s brainwashing of public opinion through its control of the Russian media, i.e. the truth. The details of dubious assets stashed abroad and who owns them should be broadcast widely to the Russian people, particularly when they are directly linked to Putin. This would amplify the anti-corruption campaigns of brave and increasingly popular Russian opposition activists such as Alexei Navalny.
Ukraine could be given much more political and financial support, and military equipment, to assist its fight against Russian occupation. Next door Ukraine prospering as a clean, well-governed democracy is the example to the Russian people that Putin most dreads.
As the British government determines the cause of the attack, it will also currently be considering these measures and more, whilst awaiting the findings of the Skripal investigation. Whilst those results might provide the final straw, our stance, and that of our allies, against Russia needs to be stiffened significantly anyway. The Putin regime has already shown that the gentle approach to it does not work.
About the author
Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.
He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.
All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.
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