Opportunities to praise Mrs May are as rare as whale droppings, but yesterday she kindly provided one. In the process, she showed Trump how a residually free nation should talk to criminal regimes.
Then again, Mrs May has more reason to be cross with Putin’s junta: it was in London, not New York that it committed the world’s first and so far only act of nuclear terrorism.
“Russia’s actions…,” she thundered, “threaten the international order on which we all depend.”
She then provided a brief list of said actions, including “Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea [which] was the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation has forcibly taken territory from another in Europe.
“Since then, Russia has fomented conflict in the Donbas, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption.
“This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish ministry of defence and the Bundestag, among many others…
“So I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed.”
Mrs May probably has little experience dealing with neighbourhood Russian thugs, of whom Putin self-admittedly is one. So perhaps I can offer some unsolicited advice:
An appeal to their good side won’t work, even if accompanied by a litany of transgressions the thugs have committed. This will only elicit a scowl and a contemptuous question “So what are you gonna do about it?”.
The only thing to do about it is to deliver a hard punch on the nose – and then hold your own in the ensuing fight. Win, lose or draw, there’s every chance you’ll be left alone after that: thugs want to bully, not to fight.
But it takes two things to answer that question in such a decisive manner: muscular strength and, much more important, guts. Extrapolating to current geopolitics, the US may have the strength, but not the guts. The UK has neither.
So the preemptive punch option isn’t on the table. But something has to be, for otherwise Mrs May’s tough talk would be just that, talk.
But then she uttered a sentence that, perhaps inadvertently, constituted a veiled deadly threat to Putin’s junta, deadlier than any other any Western politician could possibly make.
We are, she said, “strengthening our cybersecurity and looking at how we tighten our financial regimes to ensure the profits of corruption cannot flow from Russia into the UK.”
Putin and his clique are, not to cut too fine a point, thieves. To their credit, that’s not all they are: their other pursuits include murder, blackmail, racketeering – and that’s before we talk about the activities that upset Mrs May so.
Further to their credit, they mostly steal not from us, but from their own country, robbing it blind. Some of the money stays in Russia, taking the shape of tasteless palaces, private jets and other trinkets too numerous to mention.
But the surplus far exceeds such expense items. What are they supposed to do with it? Put it into a Russian bank? Mention this possibility to any Russian, and he’ll smile sardonically.
Out of one corner of his mouth, he’ll be smiling at the very idea that a fortune, ill-gotten or otherwise, can possibly be kept in a country where property protection not only doesn’t exist now but has never existed – and where most criminal sentences have been accompanied by confiscation since, well, for ever.
The other corner will be used to smile at a naïve outlander who doesn’t realise that these people’s fortunes don’t belong to them. At best, they are leaseholders, with the freehold staying in the hands of the ruling junta.
They are the junta at the moment, but fortune is fickle in general, and in a gangster economy especially. At any second, they may be charged with a real or imaginary crime and dispossessed. What protects them is proximity to the leader, but he himself is a hostage to circumstance: a coup can oust him tomorrow, and he won’t be able to protect anybody’s fortune, including his own.
The conclusion is obvious: the money must be exported to the West, laundered and kept relatively safe from political upheavals. ‘Relatively’ is the operative word here: Putin’s typological predecessors showed that absolute security doesn’t exist.
In 1917 many prescient Russian moneybags transferred much of their wealth abroad in anticipation of the Bolshevik putsch. But, as Comrade Stalin said, “there are no fortresses Bolsheviks can’t take”.
The prescient ones were arrested and tortured until they coughed up the Western account numbers and passwords. If they managed to flee Russia, that fate befell their families. If the families fled too, well, to quote Joe Lewis, they could run, but they couldn’t hide. (Ask Mrs Litvinenko; she’ll tell you.)
Still, relative security is better than none, and Russian ‘oligarchs’, including the national leader, have managed to transfer to the West a neat sum estimated at a trillion dollars. The estimates of Putin’s cut vary from a derisory $40 billion to a healthy $200 billion, and even the lower amount would be a shame to lose.
Hence the deadly nature of Mrs May’s implied threat. For Western governments have the power to arrest those accounts or even, in an extreme scenario, confiscate them.
Whether or not Mrs May meant that, Vlad and his jolly friends could only interpret her words one way: “Boys, behave – or you can kiss your money good-bye”.
Such a development would represent a catastrophe worse than a nuclear strike on Moscow. The boys have prepared shelters deep enough and hard enough to protect them. The people they’ve robbed would perish, but you don’t seriously think this lot would care?
Their money on the other hand is the raison d’être of Putinism. Well, perhaps not the whole raison, but the way of keeping score in the diabolical game they’re playing. Losing it would mean losing the game.
Incidentally, it’s easy to determine which Russian money sitting in Western banks represents proceeds of criminal activity. All accounts in excess of a few hundred thousand are. All of them are an unmissable target.
So Mrs May is on to something. Whether she realises it or not.