By Robert Service (THE TIMES, 26/11/06):
The last dictated words of Alexander Litvinenko charged the Putin administration with his murder. They may yet provoke an emergency in Anglo-Russian relations. At present the truth about the killing is unknown and perhaps will never be discovered. But should it turn out that agents of Russia’s security services organised an assassination in a London restaurant, a dagger will have been plunged into the heart of British diplomacy.
The UK has not covered itself with glory when handling official Russia since the 1990s. Tony Blair has lavished constant praise on President Vladimir Putin. They have been filmed in softly lit venues in London and Moscow. They have exchanged presents. Their wives have been photographed out together. Blair has mentioned him with affectionate warmth. He has not been alone in this. George Bush and Gerhard Schröder have spread as much unction on their diplomatic relations with Russia.
However, in May 2005 Bush spoke up for universal human rights on his trips to Lithuania and Georgia and called for respect for their state sovereignty. Dick Cheney, US vice-president, and Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, have delivered a harsh commentary on the Russian administration. Schröder scandalously continued to eulogise the progress being made by Putin’s Russia and was rewarded with a directorship of Gazprom, the state-owned Russian gas giant, on losing the German election.
It is true Blair has remonstrated with Putin about the disrespect for civil rights in Russia. He has also complained about the war in Chechnya. But the mildness of his language has been remarkable. Diplomats who witnessed Blair’s sessions with Putin were distinctly underwhelmed by the purely formal tone of British objections.
Blair has even allowed Putin to dress him down in public for failing to accept that Russian military action was an integral theatre in the global “war on terror”. Blair, to be fair to him, never overlooked the atrocities in Chechnya. But not once has he shown an understanding that those atrocities are much more than a local affair.
The Chechen danger has been exploited in Moscow as an excuse for countless lurches into authoritarianism. Putin has used it to justify his persecution of the media. Only the bravest criticise fundamental government policy.
The murder of Anna Politkovskaya seven weeks ago remains under investigation. Putin made only the most cursory denunciation of the crime, and the fact that Politkovskaya was a persistent commentator on the brutality of the Russian army in Chechnya has left more than a trace of suspicion that the Federal Security Bureau was involved in her liquidation.
The Foreign Office has plenty of personnel who fully understand the misguided basis of Downing Street’s Russian agenda. The so-called war on terror is not helped by the pulverising of Chechnya. The opposite is true. Chechnya, like several other troublespots from Palestine to Kashmir, has provided perfect propaganda for Islamist terrorists. Funds and volunteers have flooded into the country. Chechnya is run by Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s protégé, who has carried out a campaign of unspeakable barbarity against fellow Chechens.
Blair has persisted with his belief that quiet diplomacy will reap a dividend. There are, of course, British interests in need of protection. As the UK’s dependence on energy imports increases, so the reliance on sound economic ties with Russia is bound to grow. Furthermore, BP has bought its way into the potentially lucrative region of the Russian far east and the British government has sought to enable its business to proceed productively. Yet it is doubtful that diplomatic soft soap will make much difference.
Europe is Russia’s favourite customer for its oil and gas. The Russian authorities have raised the possibility of constructing new pipelines to China and selling their resources to Beijing. But a future pipeline is not the same as a ready-made conduit that pays for itself hand over fist. And the Chinese are notorious for being slow payers.
As regards BP, its fate is unlikely to be influenced by remonstrations. Putin must be judged not by his platitudes about democracy and the rule of law or even by his presumed personal preferences. The Russian authorities have begun to apply pressure to foreign companies that bought their way into the quasi-liberalised economy in the mid-1990s. The question for the UK is what to do in this situation. Russian rulers have recovered their nerve. They had it in the USSR almost until the end and it is a reason for Putin’s high ratings in Russia’s opinion polls that he speaks up loud and proud for his country.
Blair could take a leaf out of his book. In 1971 Sir Alec Douglas-Home as foreign secretary decided he had had enough of Soviet intelligence operations in the UK. To Moscow’s astonishment he expelled 105 diplomats. Some weeks of unpleasantness ensued but relations were not hampered for long. We now have access to archives on the Soviet political leadership in the post-war years. There is no evidence that the strong line taken by London damaged the national interest.
Last week Blair was pouring out his bottle of emollience again, congratulating President Nursultan Nazarbayev on his contribution to internal progress in Kazakhstan. This is the same Nazarbayev who runs a regime notorious for its abuse of human rights. The crunch has yet to come with Russia. But if police investigations link the killer of Litvinenko to associates of Putin, the prime minister would do well to reconsider the basis of his own diplomacy.