No Government can allow violence to be perpetrated upon its soil and most certainly not by another country’s forces, as a state has no greater duty than to keep its citizens safe. For that reason alone, the Prime Minister had to speak out about the attack upon Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
Theresa May was also right that the evidence does point towards Russian involvement, though the case isn’t conclusive. Past actions, the modus operandi and even the nerve agent used make it look like the work of a state agency. So, maybe not proof beyond reasonable doubt but it certainly casts a huge shadow of suspicion.
Where I take issue with her is how she’s acted on Brexit and where that leaves Britain’s ability to act.
For there to be effective actions over the Salisbury incident and more widely to curtail Russian actions elsewhere, international co-operation’s required. Yet, on that front, she and her Brexiteer colleagues have played right into Russian hands. When solidarity is required she has undermined it, deserting the organisation best placed to face down Russia, side-lining allies and pursuing false friends.
For sure, expelling some diplomats and restricting international engagement with Russia sends a message of reproach. But, it was ever thus through the Cold War and it’ll hardly make a dent in the Russian machine, whilst having the Royal Family and Ministers boycott the World Cup is frankly laughable.
Sanctions on Russian oligarchs and others who are in the UK and have invested much of their ill-gotten gains here are long overdue. There’s been far too close a relationship between many senior Tories and some of these people. Questions are rightly being asked about substantial donations from dubious sources.
But, beyond that, actions to freeze or confiscate assets will be limited. There are legal restrictions on what can be done, and more importantly, the reason that many people, not just Russians, are in London and the UK is they can hide and move their money pretty freely. Transparency International and other nations have long complained of London, never mind British dependencies, being the source of financial obfuscation to put it mildly.
If it’s being applied to Russians, what about other nationalities where a few oligarchs and their super rich also use London, the British Virgin Islands or wherever to launder their cash? The UK has been far to free and easy in welcoming investment. But, with Brexit looming, that was what many sought – a global trading entrepot welcoming cash from everywhere and asking few questions. They’re unlikely to roll back on that.
There’s still the possibility of closing down RT which would be popular with some, but so what? Many can’t even get it, let alone want to watch it. It might also result in a retaliatory closing down of the BBC Russian service, problematic for efforts to sustain wider democratic society there.
For Russia is far from benign under Putin as not just individuals in the UK have discovered to their cost, but entire countries and even her own citizens. Georgia may have been foolish in its provocation of the Russian Bear but it paid a heavy price when the tanks rolled in.
Ukraine has seen the Crimea annexed and parts of its eastern border lands fall under Russian control. Moldova and Georgia have seen similar territorial loss with what to all intents and purposes are Russian client states established. They may have Russian minorities or even majorities in parts but annexation by force is illegal under international law and many are frankly almost bandit states.
The Baltic states have likewise seen Russian minorities stirred up, threats made to democratic nations and even cyber-attacks perpetrated upon them. As a consequence of all that international sanctions have been applied to Russia but despite that Putin and the regime survive.
Russia has financial challenges despite huge natural wealth, and faces marked population decline. But, it remains a country prepared to endure hardship, even at great suffering to its people to achieve its aims, and it’s been ever thus from the days of the Mongol hordes, through Napoleon to Nazi Germany. International solidarity is what’s required and there May’s been found wanting. The organisation best placed to deal with it is the EU, yet not only is she seeking to exit it but she’s been alienating almost every major leader within it.
Her Brexiteer zealots have argued it was Nato that kept the peace in Europea after the Second World War and in that they have a point, given establishment dates and military power. But, future security and a long-term solution is more likely to be provided by a closer working of the EU than through Nato, which has lost its way over recent years.
Formed to keep the USA involved in Europe as a bulwark to the USSR, it has seen America firstly pivot towards Asia and then became about getting other nations’ “boots on the ground” involved in American ventures. Trump has also undermined it with caustic comments about other member nations.
So, whilst it might be Nato troops that provide immediate defence, the long-term solution is through closer European integration. Rather than pursuing trade deals with Singapore or Saudi Arabia, the UK should have been showing greater solidarity with the Ukraine and closer integration with the Baltics.
An offer of solidarity from Trump is as empty as his commitment to a free trade deal. For him, it’s about America First not a safer Europe, never mind his courting of Putin. Europe is threatened not just militarily but economically by Russia through supplies of natural gas.
Working together for common solutions both to protect borders and identify new resources is essential. May now seeks support from those she’s treated with disdain and undermined.
She’s swapped our natural allies to pursue mythical relationships and now we face the consequences. For it’s a common interest in our shared European home that best fends of the Great Bear.