It was hardly an X Factor moment of dramatic tension when the state-run media announced a landslide victory for President Putin in the Russian elections with 76.7 per cent of the vote – they could have declared it was 176.7 per cent and no one would have batted an eyelid.
I almost felt sorry for the Russian people who will have never experienced the stomach-churning excitement of an unpredictable exit poll. We of course have gotten used to that over here – at least our politics isn’t dull … totally bonkers, perhaps, but certainly not boring.
So, while Putin’s win was not a surprise, it does have important consequences – especially for the West and the old geopolitical order.
The first thing to remember is that while Putin is very much off our Christmas card list, he is still very popular at home. His “strong man on steroids” image is carefully controlled and we are regularly treated to pictures of him stripped to the waist astride or wrestling something from the animal kingdom with his moobs out – it’s all very alpha. But it kind of works.
He sends a message to his people that he is their protector, their defender and their ultimate patriarch. This is, of course, combined with a hyper-aggressive nationalist message that it’s a case of Russia against the rest of the world – especially the West.
The spy-poisoning events in Salisbury are unlikely to have had a huge impact on the elections, but it does play into the narrative that everyone is against Russia. Yesterday, as the 23 expelled Russian diplomats left their homes in London, Russian television played the Slavic Women’s Farewell, a deeply patriotic piece of music which gained popularity during World War One, when Russian soldiers left their families and homes to go off and fight for their country. You get the vibe about how this expulsion is being played out in Russia and how it suits the Putin narrative.
The Salisbury poisoning has raised the tricky, sticky and icky question of how foreign leaders handle Putin and no one really has the right answer – there may not be one. Theresa May was right to be tough in her language about Russia and to say either they were involved or they lost control of a deadly chemical weapon, which also makes them responsible. She was right to expel the diplomats and she reflected the seriousness of the situation. Two people are critically ill and may not survive; a police officer was injured; and experts warn that the effects of the nerve agent may be far more widespread and profound than any of us dare to think about.
This was a serious incident. Imagine if this chemical had been released somewhere with more people around or on the London Underground – it doesn’t bear thinking about. This is big stuff. Nicola Sturgeon struck the right chord when she said: “Cool heads [are] certainly required but also a firm response. Russia simply cannot be allowed to launch attacks on our streets with impunity.”
Jeremy Corbyn misjudged the mood in parliament in his initial response and failed to condemn Russian involvement in terms which were clear enough – although he clarified his position in subsequent media interviews the next day. He focussed on attacking the Conservatives for their financial links to Russian donors. That is, of course, an issue – but it looked like small politics in the face of something with such big consequences. Your first responses as a leader matter in politics – particularly when national security or tragedy are involved.
We all remember how wrong May got it just after the fire at Grenfell. These things stick. In a bid to deflect from that, Corbyn fans then got into an almighty stooshie with the BBC’s Newsnight over whether they had photo-shopped a picture of him wearing a hat which would have been bordering on The Thick of It if the wider circumstances weren’t so grim.
Mind you, Corbyn’s response was Churchillian compared to the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson who said that Russia should just “go away and shut up”. Of course, the Russians must have been clutching their sides watching that.
But Corbyn does raise some important questions and issues about where this goes next. That raises the bigger question of how we now handle Putin. We need to approach him through international diplomacy and with our allies. We should also crack down on the dirty money – much of it Russian – that flows through London. The National Crime Agency estimates that £90 billion of criminal money is laundered through the UK each year – four per cent of our GDP. We should also introduce a version of the Magnitsky Act, which would allow us to freeze the assets of and place travel bans on foreign officials involved in corruption and human rights abuse.
And politicians – past and present – should not take money to appear on Russia Today, especially after all this.
But once you do all those things, where do you go? Russia is hardly going to fess up to the attacks at Salisbury.
The international weapons experts may be unlikely to conclusively prove it was directly linked to the Kremlin, despite the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. The Home Secretary has opened up an investigation into around 14 suspicious deaths of Russians in the UK in recent years.
This is all beginning to make McMafia look like Call the Midwife.
After political leaders tut and shake their head at Putin and maybe enforce some more sanctions, what more can we do? No-one in their right mind wants to risk military conflict and no-one is suggesting that. We – and the EU – do a lot of business with Russia in terms of energy. Corbyn yesterday said that he would still “do business” with Russia and PEuropean Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also congratulated Putin for his election win and called for positive relations with him. And why is that?
Because although Putin isn’t the most powerful man on the planet (that will be President Xi of China), he’s probably the most terrifying. He has a strategic, calm and brutal manner. He trades on the threat of chaos, disruption and political mind games. He actually doesn’t have to do much as we’re all so scared of what he might do to us from cyber-warfare to turning off the gas to Europe. If Trump’s the guy who’d flush your head down the bogs at school and be done with it, Putin’s the guy who’s going to terrorise every aspect of your existence starting with your favourite pet. Be afraid…