Russia bullies the waves

The destroyer HMS Defender sailed from Odessa to Georgia yesterday, passing 10 nautical miles from the Crimean coast.

HMS Defender stands warned

Since neither Britain nor any other Western country recognises the theft of the Crimea in 2014, the Defender sailed through either international or Ukrainian waters. She was following what Downing Street describes as “the most direct and internationally recognised route”.

Since Putin sees things differently, HMS Defender was harassed throughout her voyage. She was shadowed by Russian warships and buzzed by at least 20 warplanes flying just 500 feet overhead.

When the Defender approached the Crimea, the Russians demanded she change her course. The captain refused, and warning shots were fired. The Russian ministry of defence then advised that next time the shots would be on target.

Our defence spokesmen reiterated Britain’s intent to continue sailing in those waters, if only to uphold the international law of the sea. Yet Putin treats both national and international laws with equal disdain, happily pushing them beyond the breaking point.

Nationally, he gets away with it because no opposition worthy of the name exists. One would hope that such opposition should exist internationally, but that hope is constantly frustrated.

The other day I wrote that Putin’s stance vis-à-vis the West can be summed up in a line straight out of the lexicon of a schoolyard bully: “Oh yeah? So what are you going to do about it?”

That question has been posed many times, if not in so many words, in London and Salisbury, Georgia and the Ukraine, Syria and Germany, Moscow and now the Black Sea. The bully upped the ante each time the West failed to respond decisively, limiting itself to expressing “grave concern” or at best imposing token sanctions.

Anyone who grew up in a crime-infested neighbourhood knows that it’s not a slap on the wrist that can stop a bully, but a punch on the nose. In this context, the punch can be thrown from different angles and, alas, a direct military response isn’t one of them.

Whenever two armed forces come in close contact with each other, they tend to act on Chekhov’s prescription for stage plays: if a shotgun hangs on the wall in Act I, it must fire in Act III. Guns brandished by two hostile parties also obey the intrinsic logic of such confrontations by firing sooner or later.

The discharge may be accidental or deliberate, coming as an emotional outburst of a trigger-happy officer or an extension of policy. One way or another, playing chicken with modern weapons is a dangerous game – especially for the side that’s badly outgunned.

Britain, along with all European countries, fits that description. Decades of refusing to pay the cost of defending the realm have come back to haunt us, as every sensible commentator knew they would.

Britannia no longer rules the waves, not in the Black Sea and not anywhere. We are unable to provide a sufficient escort for our ships to deter the bully, not even if our solitary carrier sails there. Nor is it a valid option to harass Russian ships sailing through the Channel and the North Sea within sight of the British coast – the Russians would simply dare us to fire, and we won’t.

That, however, doesn’t mean we have no valid options whatsoever. It’s just that we should counterattack not in the Black Sea but in the City of London.

The Crown Prosecution Service explains the legalities involved: “Proceeds of crime is the term given to money or assets gained by criminals during the course of their criminal activity. The authorities, including the CPS, have powers to seek to confiscate these assets so that crime doesn’t pay. By taking out the profits that fund crime, we can help disrupt the cycle and prevent further offences.”

‘Proceeds of crime’ is an accurate description of the hundreds of millions in Russian assets held in Britain. It’s a safe, nay irrefutable, assumption that any Russian fortune laundered through British financial institutions or estate firms was acquired and transferred by means regarded as criminal in any civilised country.

Forfeiture of those assets is the only effective means of punishing Russia’s contempt for international laws – much more effective than any military response would be, even in the unlikely event of all of Nato going along.

Russia isn’t governed by institutions customary in the West. It’s ruled by a gang resulting from history’s unique fusion of secret police and organised crime. Over 80 per cent of its members come from a KGB background, but they use their expertise to ends different from those pursued in Soviet times.

Then KGB methods were used to gain a geopolitical advantage over the West, drawing more countries into the Soviet orbit. Ostensibly, Russia pursues similar objectives, but ‘ostensibly’ is the operative word.

Putin’s hybrid war on the West mainly serves the purpose of allowing his coterie to enrich themselves in an unimpeded fashion and enjoy their ill-gotten wealth in the congenial environment of Western resorts.

This worthy goal can only be achieved if the gang stays in power, tightening the screws at home and keeping its finger on the proverbial nuclear button. And its grip on power is contingent on a show of strength, domestically and globally.

Any student of Russian history knows what happens there to rulers perceived as weak – regardless of any other traits or, for that matter, their qualifications and achievements. That’s why Putin uses every trick, subtle or otherwise, to pose as a direct heir to Stalin, one who inherited his muscular DNA.

But Putin’s regime isn’t really a continuation of Stalin’s by other means. It’s a sui generis phenomenon and should be treated as such.

Stalin and his henchmen didn’t launder billions through Western banks, and neither did they buy up Western properties on a massive scale. Funds in those days flowed from the West to Russia – not the other way, as they do now.

And money streams point to the regime’s desiderata. For example, Lenin and his jolly friends feared they wouldn’t be able to hold on to the power they had seized illegally.

That’s why they quickly robbed Russia blind and channelled millions (billions in today’s inflated cash) to European and American banks, hoping to hide behind a pile of money if they had to flee. The money was also used to foment revolutionary unrest in the West, in the hope that the Bolsheviks could continue to lord it over Russia by destabilising the West.

Stalin took over when the fight for domestic power had been won. Consequently, his goals changed: he aimed for world domination, a goal impossible to achieve without Western credits and technology. Hence the flow of money changed its vector: the arrow began to point at Moscow.

Under all post-perestroika governments, but especially under Putin, the vector spun 180 degrees again, although some circular motion came into play too. The West pays for Russian exports of energy and other natural resources, with the proceeds then recycled back to the West.

This is consistent with the aims of the Putin junta, but it also makes it vulnerable. For all of Russia’s natural resources were seized by criminal means, mainly during the roaring nineties, when Mafia wars claiming hundreds of victims raged throughout Russia.

Hence, the CPS would be within its stated legal remit if it were to impound, or better still confiscate, all major Russian assets held in the UK. A quiet word to that effect into Putin’s shell-like would be a stronger deterrent than any flexing of our atrophied military muscle.

Doing nothing is no longer an option, and I hope our powers that be will finally realise this. If next time the Russians sink our ships, rather than warning them, a military response will be the only one possible, and we don’t want that, do we?    

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