Post-Litvinenko It is time the UK Confronted Putin’s Posturing Aggression

The Litvinenko Inquiry’s conclusions were not a surprise to those familiar with the case. Rather, the bigger question they spark is how to handle Russia - a state willing to scatter radioactive poison around London to eliminate its opponents and to jeopardise European security by invading its neighbours when they do not conform to its will.

After two decades in the Foreign Office, I have some sympathy with the view that its role is to pursue Britain’s interests in the world as it is, not how we would like it to be. Russia is a significant power in the Eastern half of our continent and, to a lesser extent, parts of the Middle East and Asia. Like the UK, it has a permanent seat on the United Nation’s Security Council. As such, we cannot avoid dealing with it completely.

Many commentators and policy-makers go further by citing specific reasons to avoid antagonising Russia. These include trade, energy supplies and the need for its cooperation in solving several major international crises. But this approach overstates Russia’s strength and significance. Following it for much of the last decade has resulted in weak foreign policy choices that are not in our interests.

THE UK has strong economic and security interests in preventing a return to the days when dictators could change European national borders by force

The British government has largely absented itself from the crisis in Ukraine, so in one sense we hardly need worry about upsetting Russia over an issue in which we are not involved.  But we cannot stay sidelined because the UK has strong economic and security interests in preventing a return to the days when dictators could change European national borders by force. The Litvinenko Inquiry’s findings provide an ideal cue to correct our mistake by reclaiming the foreign policy and military leadership role that our European partners expect from us. At a minimum, the UK should be the leading advocate for strengthening NATO’s forward defences in the member states most threatened by Russia and stiffening the spines of those tempted to backslide on sanctions. Any appeasement over Ukraine must be limited to helping Russia to find an exit from a crisis that is entirely of its own making.

Russia, along with the UK, France and Germany, was undoubtedly an important partner in the long search for an agreement on the Iran nuclear issue. Since the deal was done, though, the role of these four intermediaries has fallen away. After decades of estrangement, the nuclear accord has opened the way for the US and Iran to talk directly to each other and this matter has essentially become a bilateral one.

The fading of Russia’s influence elsewhere in the Middle East and hankering to reassert itself as an international power may be the main motivation for its military intervention in Syria. What is clear is that Russia is attacking the freedom-seeking people we support and has no intention of participating significantly in the fight against ISIS. Indeed, Russia is actually assisting the jihadists by bombing the opposition forces who provide the best bulwark against ISIS.

Having inserted itself into the Syrian war, Russia now has to be included in the peace process. But it is tied to an Assad regime that has no prospect of re-establishing its authority and is unsustainable in the long-run. As a result, there is little need to tailor our policies on other issues to suit Russia. Much more than us, Russia will ultimately require the cooperation of the international community to find a way out of the mess in which it has entangled itself.

Trade is another reason cited for not taking a stronger stand against Russia’s excesses. Again, Russia’s importance in this area is often overstated. Despite its vast size and relative proximity, Russia is well outside the UK’s top ten trading partners according to HM Revenue & Customs statistics and lags behind much smaller countries such as Belgium and Switzerland.

A significant proportion of the trade that does exist is in the oil and gas sector - a supposed British vulnerability to Russia that is also frequently exaggerated. Whilst it is true that Russian resources are an important part of our energy supply mix, it is rarely mentioned how much Russia relies on selling its oil and gas to us and our neighbours.

RUSSIA is much weaker than it appears. We will only end its aggression by exerting our true weight

The Russian economy is almost entirely dependent on oil and gas exports, particularly to Europe. For all the periodic bluster about switching supplies to China, this cannot be done overnight. International sanctions and Russia’s own dilapidated industry severely handicap its ability to procure the necessary extraction and distribution technology. Nor, in any case, do the Russians really want to end up with the Chinese having them over a barrel instead. There are reasons why Russian oil and gas supplies to Europe did not stop during the darkest days of the Cold War and those factors are even starker for Russia now.

The Russian elite also have a personal reason for needing us more than we need them: London. The capital has long been the favourite bolthole for well-connected Russians seeking respite and a place to stash assets away from the regime with which they collude. For example, whilst working at our Embassy in Moscow, I remember the small talk at a meeting featuring a senior Russian government figure seeking his British counterpart’s advice on the best high-end UK public school for his child. That the fees were in excess of his entire annual official salary seemed not to worry him. Few Brits fret about not being able to nip over to their flat in Moscow for the weekend but the prospect of UK asset freezes and travel bans fills such influential Russians with dread.

The Litvinenko murder took place over nine years ago. It was an early harbinger of how being overly-accommodating has encouraged Russian belligerence and disregard for our interests. The results of the inquiry into the case should trigger a reversal of our approach. Russia is much weaker than it appears. We will only end its aggression by exerting our true weight in relations with it. This means maintaining sanctions, solidifying our military deterrence and ending London’s role as a repository for ill-gotten Russian assets.

More about the author

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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