James Nixey
Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme
The British government needs to face the fact that Vladimir Putin's agenda is fundamentally opposed to UK interests.
Vladimir Putin and David Cameron fly by helicopter to observe the 2014 Winter Olympic facilities on 10 May 2013. Photo by Getty Images.Vladimir Putin and David Cameron fly by helicopter to observe the 2014 Winter Olympic facilities on 10 May 2013. Photo by Getty Images.

Even for a thick-skinned president such as Vladimir Putin, and his unapologetic regime, last week's newspapers cannot have been comfortable reading. It is one thing to be a 'distinctive' voice in world politics, but another entirely to be outed as a probable murderer – as the final report of the inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko accuses him of being. The Russian response has been a familiar mixture of bluster, misrepresentation and conspiracy theory.

Fortunately for the Kremlin, the British government would like to move on too. Its outrage is probably genuine, but there has clearly been a decision to do as little as can be got away with. The actual substance of the British response has so far been confined to freezing the assets of the two accused assassins − Dmitri Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi − and it is surprising this had not been done long ago. All other measures were already in place, in the form of EU-wide sanctions and visa bans in response to Russia's aggression in Ukraine. Everything else is just words. 

There are a number of reasons why the UK government has not taken significant further action:

  • They fear that a firm response will cause British commercial assets in Russia to be expropriated. Russia is only a moderately important export market but some UK financial services companies and energy companies are over-extended there. 
  • It is in the nature of politicians and diplomats to want a quick fix of better relations through mollification. This quick fix necessarily entails drawing a veil over such inconvenient truths as one country murdering the citizens of another in its capital city. 
  • Russia is ‘too big and too important’ to antagonize further.
  • Russia has had considerable success in encouraging Western diplomats to believe that no major international problem can be resolved without it.
  • The UK is too caught up in tactical issues to think broadly about what needs to be done with Russia.
  • The government believes, erroneously of course, that Russia has half a point on many international issues, including debates over spheres of influence, missile defence and NATO enlargement.

The first of these explanations for the UK's reluctance to respond more robustly should not be taken lightly. Asset expropriation is a significant weapon, albeit with far-reaching consequences for both sides. The others are products of training and education, but above all of mindset and conditioning. British diplomats and politicians are too schooled in the necessity of maintaining good relations, even with odious regimes, to recognize when they are beyond repair.  

In particular, the emphasis in statements by David Cameron on maintaining relations with Russia because of the Syria crisis is either misguided or disingenuous. President Putin may indeed have succeeded in convincing this government that no resolution in Syria is possible without Russian cooperation. But this overlooks the fact that Russia will pursue its own agenda in the Middle East whatever the UK may think or say; and it is an agenda which is fundamentally opposed to this government’s proclaimed interests and values.

If, instead, this bizarre statement is not based on sincere belief, then only one interpretation is possible. David Cameron has said he needs Russia for Syria because he cannot publicly name the true reason: the British government wants Russian money in London,  even at the expense of the safety of UK citizens.

The report from the Litvinenko inquiry ought to provide the UK government with an opportunity to reassess its relationship with Russia, and place it on a foundation of realism. Assessments of Russia over the past few days have at least been more honest, including recognition that this is a country that wishes the UK harm. Logic, to say nothing of repeated experience, shows that a ‘strongly worded response’ will be insufficient to deter similar future actions. In truth, perhaps nothing can deter this regime from taking such action should it regard it as in its interests. But a response greater than words will at least give the current and future Russian regimes pause for thought.

Conversely, a weak response or one consisting only of words will merely encourage Russia that these acts go unpunished. British and Russian citizens alike who have offended President Putin should therefore continue to live in fear in London. In addition, any Russian who was considering following the example of Litvinenko and others and cooperating with British intelligence services will now surely be rethinking their options for self-preservation.

The next step should therefore be a belated discussion of counter-measures: concerted efforts to lobby for Russia's exclusion from international sporting events (participating or hosting); bring subtle pressure on Russian oligarchs with both assets in London and links to Vladimir Putin; raise searching questions about the deaths of other Russians such as Boris Berezovsky and Alexander Perepelichny (the inquiry’s findings into the former were inconclusive, and the investigation itself had its flaws); press for more vigorous counter-intelligence and security measures across the EU; and ask whether Russia’s intelligence presence in the UK (with and without diplomatic cover) is consistent with normal practice and, if not, take appropriate measures. When the reciprocal expulsions follow, Britain should grin and bear it. These are all potential areas of Russian vulnerability and therefore promising places to start.

Russia’s crime is now well understood by the British public and politicians alike. The cumulative evidence is too great for it not to be. What has yet to filter through to policy-makers is why a more substantial government response will be more effective than the current cravenness.

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