Although the events in Salisbury must remain our immediate focus it is necessary to take a wider perspective, writes Mike Gapes
Vladimir Putin has responded not just by expelling 23 British diplomats but also by closing down the British Council in Russia – something which will be very damaging to the many young Russians who benefit from its excellent English language programmes. Putin has done it because he wishes to reduce British influence on the new generation of Russians and to send us a gesture of defiance. It is a sign of his weakness, not of strength.
Although it has a vast land area Russia has a relatively small economy. It is a mafia state kleptocracy presided over by a personality based clique of ex-KGB/FSB officers. Despite vast natural resources it has failed to diversify its economy, making it vulnerable to volatile gas and oil prices and sanctions.
Russia has never been a pluralistic democracy. Vladimir Putin was installed into office as prime minister in a deal to protect the family of the ailing alcoholic president Boris Yeltsin twenty years ago. He ruthlessly concentrated power by using the war in Chechnya, responding to terrorist attacks with brutal force and by intimidating (and even removing) journalists and political opponents. Putin now has another six-year term as president, having engineered the barring of his main opponent, Alexei Navalny, from standing.
Last year the Commons foreign affairs select committee said ‘given the Russian leadership’s apparent intent to develop a siege mentality, particularly for domestic purposes, it is uncertain to what extent constructive engagement would have been possible.’
It concluded, ‘the Kremlin is prepared to be disruptive in foreign affairs. This opportunist, tactical approach to foreign policy means that Russia is already making strategic mistakes and pursuing short-term advantages rather than advancing a long-term, coherent, sustainable vision for its role in the world.’
Calls for a ‘robust dialogue’ or ‘constructive engagement’ with Putin are naive and misguided.
Since the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium in 2006 the Putin regime has invaded Georgia and occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia, launched cyber warfare against Estonia, sent ‘little green men’ to Ukraine and shot down Malaysian airliner MH17 killing 298 passengers.
We can expect more such behaviour.
As I told Parliament last week, ‘the Russians will retaliate and we will then be in a tit-for-tat process. They think we will back down. We have to say, resolutely and strongly, that we are not backing down…all members of parliament should stand together.’
We must now take robust action against Russian dirty money whether in London or in international tax havens including those in British overseas territories and crown dependencies.
Vast sums are stashed abroad in overseas accounts or huge unoccupied properties. A considerable proportion could be vulnerable to unexplained wealth orders or to a British version of the American Magnitsky Act, which is aimed at targeting those behind human rights abuses or illegal actions like the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.
It is at times like this that we need the strength and solidarity of the European Union. Stopping Brexit would be the most significant blow to the malign agenda of Putin.
This article was originally published on March 19th, 2018 in Progress Online. This can be found here.