It has been proved beyond any doubt that the Novichok attack on British soil was perpetrated by two GRU agents, whose identity, if not real names, has been established.
Britain now holds the distinction of being the only Western power targeted for both nuclear (2006 polonium murder of Litvinenko) and chemical attacks on its citizens.
Yesterday Theresa May delivered a scathing attack on Putin’s junta, hinting at retaliation, probably involving cyber warfare, further sanctions and travel bans. However, her attack wasn’t scathing enough.
While saying that the authorisation for the crime had to come from the highest tiers of the GRU, Mrs May stopped short of naming Putin himself as the culprit.
Security Minister Ben Wallace tried to fill that blank, or rather pretended to. Asked if Putin himself bears responsibility for the murders, he replied: “Ultimately he does, insofar as he is president of the Russian Federation and it is his government that controls, funds and directs the military intelligence…”
This sounds as if he actually said something, whereas in fact he said nothing at all. Nicely done, Ben. That’s the stuff political success is made of.
Yes, in some oblique way a dictator is responsible for all crimes committed on his watch. This much goes without saying, meaning it didn’t have to be said.
In fact, Mr Wallace fudged the issue as much as Mrs May did. Putin is responsible for the nuclear and chemical attacks on British subjects on British soil not in some oblique way, but in a most direct one. He was the one who issued the orders.
Anyone even remotely familiar with the chain of command in Russia will know that no GRU officer, no matter how high up, has the authority to initiate an action with far-reaching geopolitical ramifications.
Such an order in today’s Russia can only come from the Botox Boy, who sits at the top of what he calls ‘the vertical of power’. Russia’s power structure has eschewed horizontality from time immemorial, so Putin continues a fine tradition there.
I realise that diplomatic protocol doesn’t encourage referring to the leader of a foreign state as a murderer. Yet this protocol isn’t always followed, and at times it’s more honoured in the breach than the observance.
Assorted US presidents and British prime ministers haven’t shied away from describing in such an uncomplimentary way Messrs Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad – and even Erdoğan, president of a country that happens to be a NATO member.
What has Putin done to deserve a special dispensation? He, after all, combines in his person a KGB thug and a global gangster, and he leads a state blended out of the same ingredients, one that’s demonstrably hostile and threatening to the West.
Of course the aforementioned gentlemen didn’t possess nuclear weapons, and Putin does. But refusing to point an accusing finger at him for that reason would brand our leaders as cowards and flat track bullies. Surely they can’t be such awful things?
Even articles calling for stiff measures against Russian gangsters who live, or keep their loot, in Britain have to dilute the message with the kind of disclaimers that bespeak ignorance.
A piece in yesterday’s Times, for example, says that not all Russian money sitting in London banks is ill-gotten gains, though much of it is. Fair enough, a Russian computer programmer who works in London and keeps a few thousand in a NatWest current account is no mobster.
But if we’re talking about millions, never mind billions, such amounts can’t be made in Russia without at least passive collaboration with the ruling mafia. And typically the collaboration is far from passive – those Russian billionaires are to a man Mafiosi themselves.
Choosing targets for financial sanctions, such as the impounding, freezing or – my personal preference – confiscating of Russian assets is thus a no-brainer. It’s like firing a sawn-off shotgun point blank at a flock of pigeons pecking breadcrumbs in Trafalgar Square: you can’t miss.
Some pundits do say all the right things, but one questions their moral right to say them. Dr Mark Almond of Oxford is one such man.
In today’s Mail he bemoans that Putin’s strategy seems to be working in that he has already succeeded in recruiting allies among EU members:
“Last month, he was a guest at the Austrian foreign minister’s wedding, and Vienna’s Right-wing government is one of the loudest voices in the EU clamouring for improving relations with Moscow.
“In Italy, the new government is led by a critic of sanctions against Russia, so imposing new ones is unlikely to win Rome’s support.”
All true. But Dr Almond forgot to mention that his is another loud voice “clamouring for improving relations with Moscow”. The difference between him and those European countries is that he does so not in the national media but on RT, Putin’s propaganda channel, where he’s a frequent guest.
That’s like a British academic c. 1938 writing articles in Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer. No honest man, especially one who seems to know what’s what in Putin’s Russia, would ever agree to take RT’s rouble. If such an offer were made, he’d reject it indignantly and then wash his hands afterwards.
I happen to know Dr Almond: in 1995 we met in Minsk, where we and a few others were observers at the Byelorussian election.
Over what the Russians call “a shot of tea”, I said that all those glasnosts and perestroikas hadn’t changed anything in Russia. They were nothing but window-dressing on a transfer of power from the Party to the KGB.
Dr Almond was horrified. “We aren’t allowed to say that,” he said with a quiver. “The most we can get away with is regret that the march of democracy in Russia is slightly slower than expected.”
That was opportunism, nowadays a necessary job qualification for academic success in Britain and elsewhere in the West. But being a willing tool of what in effect is enemy propaganda is much worse, as William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, could have testified.
One can only ask how many more crimes Putin has to commit before his ‘useful idiots’ in the West stop being useful. Would an airborne Spetsnaz landing in Kent do the trick?