Theresa May’s announcement yesterday that there would be an inquiry into the death in 2006 of Alexander Litvinenko is one of the most important of these unsolved problems that keeps returning to haunt the UK’s relationship with Russia.
At the time, Litvinenko’s gruesome murder contributed significantly to the deterioration of the UK’s relations with Russia, already troubled as they were by a variety of disputes over asylum and extradition, and British criticism of Russian conduct in Chechnya. British requests in May 2007 for the extradition of the prime suspect Andrei Lugovoi to be tried in the UK were rejected by Moscow, and, in consequence, political relations and practical cooperation in a number of areas largely ceased. The murder became shrouded in numerous conspiracy theories and became the defining symbol for many in the West of the brutality of Putin’s Russia. Although in many ways economic relations continued – even grew – since 2007, the political relationship has never really recovered, and the Litvinenko problem has festered in the relationship ever since, often implicitly but also re-surfacing to prominence in 2012 and last year.
But the timing of yesterday’s announcement, in the wake of the MH17 disaster and more or less simultaneous with the UK government’s urging the EU to increase sanctions on Russia, is peculiar. British officials have suggested that it is coincidental that the announcement was made when it was. This is possible. It might simply be the result of the churning of bureaucratic wheels in response to the High Court’s decision in February that the Home Office should reconsider its request to hold an inquest rather than public inquiry into the murder. The Home Office had made this request citing economic and “international relations” reasons, since, for the last three years the British government has been seeking to improve relations with Moscow. And it had been making some – albeit quite low profile – progress.
Even if it is coincidence, however, it does not look like it. It appears to be a u-turn signifying the end of the government’s attempt to shield the rebuilding of UK-Russia relations from the Litvinenko question. The inquiry will have the power to call on the British security and intelligence services to provide evidence, and it will seek to establish how Litvinenko died and where responsibility for his death lies – including whether there was Russian state involvement – and make recommendations.
At the same time, the decision also could be interpreted as a means of showing British intent in two ways. It suggests first that whatever decisions the EU reached at the meeting on Tuesday, the UK would seek to adopt its own position towards Russia regardless of whether the EU decided to increase sanctions or not. Indeed, it also appears as an attempt to widen the toolbox. So far, sanctions, although internally divisive, have appeared as the West’s main (only?) tools in attempting to respond to the current crisis and build pressure on Moscow. The Litvinenko inquiry adds another dimension to the tensions, and serves to shift the focus beyond questions of imposing restrictions on Russian money in London.
Coincidence or not, it is highly unlikely that this will be seen in Moscow as a 'coincidence'. Instead, it will probably be seen as coordinated government action directed against Russia, particularly as part of a wider and sustained hostile Western information campaign against Russia. The return to the headlines of the image of Litvinenko on his death bed in hospital, combined with the related conspiracy theories, will be seen by Moscow as part of an ongoing attack directed through the media on the Sochi Winter Olympics and the representation of Russian actions during the Ukraine crisis, particularly in the wake of the MH17 disaster.
If it will contribute to a further souring of the air between London and Moscow, what it will achieve in practical terms, however, is a different and equally important question. First, the inquiry itself may produce interesting and perhaps some unexpected findings about the case, not least about those involved. And then there will have to be a decision made on what to do with the recommendations – that is when the more difficult calls will have to be taken
Second, it is very unlikely – verging on the inconceivable – that Moscow will reverse its position and extradite Lugovoi, whatever the findings and recommendations of the inquiry. There will be little that the UK can do to oblige Russia to do so, and Russia is not alone in refusing to extradite suspects to the UK on the basis of its constitution.
Third, as a result, it will contribute to the razing of most of whatever progress has been achieved during this government’s term in office of rebuilding the political aspects of the UK-Russia relationship. If this decision has been taken deliberately, and is part of a thought through process, and is based on questions of justice, then such ramifications will have been anticipated. If, however, it was taken on the basis of momentary political expediency – then the decision and its timing leave much to be desired and the consequences will likely be deleterious.
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