With a Russian election next week, it is not hard to see why Vladimir Putin may be attempting to shore up his nationalist base by ordering a public hit on a former double agent living in Britain. But how should we respond, asks Robert Philpot
While the perpetrators of the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia have not yet been identified, the finger of suspicion has rightly been pointed at Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The pair were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury on Sunday after they had been poisoned using a nerve agent. They remain unconscious in a critical but stable condition, while a policeman who came to their aid is similarly seriously ill in hospital. Twenty-one people have been treated as a result of the incident.
With Putin facing the first round of elections next weekend, it is not hard to see why the Kremlin may be attempting to shore up his nationalist base by ordering a public hit on a former double agent living in Britain. The president has taken the precaution of barring his most credible challenger from the race, the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, but no doubt fears that many Russians will correctly view the election as a sham that it is not worth their time participating in.
Indeed, shortly after the 2010 spy swap which saw Skripal released from a Russian jail, Putin publicly threatened the lives of ‘traitors’.
And, of course, the Kremlin has form. In 2006, it murdered Alexander Litvinenko, who died three weeks after Russian agents laced his tea with plutoninium. Last summer a Buzzfeed investigation identified 14 other suspicious deaths in the UK which may be linked to Russia, including Boris Berezovsky, a former political rival of Putin, and Alexander Perepilichnyy, who was about to blow the whistle on the president’s corrupt cronies.
On Wednesday, Russian state television mockingly warned ‘traitors’ not to seek sanctuary in Britain, with a news presenter telling viewers: ‘Whatever the reasons, whether you’re a professional traitor to the motherland or just hate your country in your free time … no matter, don’t go to England. Something is not right there. Maybe the climate.’
Under Putin, Russia has become the world’s most powerful rogue state. The Kremlin murders its enemies at home and abroad. It has stoked conflict in neighbouring states and annexed their territory; fittingly, the events of last weekend come almost four years to the day since Russia grabbed the Crimea. Further afield, it bears a huge share of the responsibility for the carnage in Syria, where it has bombed civilians, blocked meaningful international action against the Assad regime’s chemical attacks, and committed war crimes. And, of course, it has sought to meddle in elections in Europe and America, where it has consistently allied with the forces of nationalism and reaction – including Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and the Alternative for Germany – against those of liberalism and progress.
Russia behaves with impunity for one simple reason: because it has been allowed to.
Despite the Boris Johnson’s claims this week of the ‘strength and determination’ shown by Britain since the Litvinenko murder, nothing could be further than the truth.
Successive governments attempted to prevent a public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death. Theresa May, who as home secretary played her part in these stalling tactics, suggested it might damage British-Russian relations. When the government finally gave way, it then sought to play down the findings of Robert Owen’s inquiry, which named the killers and concluded that Putin probably ordered the murder, adopting a strategy of ‘tough talk and little action’.
As Keir Giles of Chatham House noted this week: ‘There have been no costs or consequences imposed on Russia for any of the previous murders so there is no particular reason for them to stop doing it.’
In fact, quite the opposite. Russians who have colluded in the Kremlin’s crimes at home and abroad – and invariably got themselves very rich in the process – are free to travel to Britain and buy property, do business, and send their children to be educated in our schools.
Meanwhile, an unholy alliance of the Kremlin’s ‘useful idiots’ on the hard left and far right excuse Putin’s aggression by blaming western democracies for somehow making Russia feel insecure and unloved.
It is time for a new, tougher approach towards Putin, one that, as Labour’s Madeleine Moon put it this week, recognises that Russia uses ‘instability, uncertainty and violence across the continent as part of its hybrid which is not peace but not war’.
As a first step, if it is found that Russia was indeed responsible for Skripal’s attempted murder, the government should immediately order a full public inquiry. The home secretary should also, as Yvette Cooper, chair of the House of Commons home affairs select committee, has recommended, ask the National Crime Agency to review all 14 cases identified in the Buzzfeed investigation.
Most importantly, however, Britain urgently needs its own Magnitsky Act. Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer and accountant brutally murdered by Kremlin thugs in a Russian jail in November 2009. His crime was to have exposed a $230m tax fraud involving senior Russian government officials.
In response, the US passed legislation in 2012 imposing visa bans and asset freezes on those who murdered Magnitsky, and on those responsible for human rights abuses and acts of corruption elsewhere. Similar Magnitsky acts now exist in Canada, Estonia and Lithuania.
While the UK last year toughened potential financial penalties, it has no comparably comprehensive legislation on the statue books.
In December, Labour’s Ian Austin introduced a bill which would give the government much greater powers to sanction those who have committed acts of corruption and human rights abuses with visa bans, asset freezes and public placement on a list of banned foreign criminals. Like the original US legislation, Austin’s bill attracted cross-party support.
Johnson this week signalled the government may drop its resistance to various ‘Magnitsky amendments’ which have been proposed to the new Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering bill which is currently making its way through parliament.
Such a move would, at last, send a message to Putin’s henchmen that the UK has so far palpably failed to communicate: that they may escape justice in their own country, but they won’t be free to further enrich themselves and spend their ill-gotten gains in ours.
Where ID is, there shall EU be
The campaign for Britain to remain in the single market is undoubtedly in the UK’s economic interest. However, it has been hampered by the fact that allowing freedom of movement to continue doesn’t address one of the primary factors that led to the vote to leave the EU: immigration. This week, Progress has begun the crucial effort to show that it is possible to take greater control of Britain’s borders without committing the massive act of economic self-harm that leaving the single market would necessarily entail.
As deputy editor Conor Pope wrote in the Times: ‘Voters may accept high levels of immigration, but only if they believe it is a conscious decision by a government that can actually control who comes in. Years of unachievable immigration targets under the Tories have left people with no faith in the system, and no belief that the British government can do anything about it.’
There are a range of measures which could be taken that would be perfectly within the rules of the single market. Border force officers could start counting migrants in and out of the country again as they used to do before the famously tough Tory home secretary, Michael Howard, scrapped the practice during John Major’s government. Britain could adopt a German-style worker registration system, which requires EU migrants to visit their local town halls so the government has a better idea about their work status, and stricter, Belgian-style restrictions on how long EU citizens can stay in the country without finding work.
Those of us who opposed the introduction of ID cards under the last Labour government also need to rethink our position. The context in which those discussions took place over a decade ago was very different. Crucially, the technology has moved on too, and could be used to give citizens far greater control over our own data. As Pope correctly argued, civil libertarians now need to ask themselves whether they have a lot more to lose without ID cards.
Deselect the ref
It was surprising to see the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy this week endorse Jennie Formby’s candidacy to become Labour’s new general secretary. The role of general secretary is not supposed be a factional one. Previous holders of the post have attempted to uphold the party’s rules and act as a neutral arbiter in internal battles. ‘This is,’ claimed former National Executive Committee member Luke Akehurst, ‘like a football team endorsing a candidate to be referee.’
Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot
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