Yesterday’s report into the death of Alexander Litvinenko was shocking and deeply disturbing. But it was not a big surprise, as we have always known that this terrible act had a connection to the Russian state.
The government must now send a strong signal to Moscow: state-sponsored murder is an outrage, in the UK or any other country.
Litvinenko’s murder was a blatant violation of British territory and sovereignty, and the prime minister, home secretary and foreign secretary must now convey a clear message to Moscow that this cold-blooded and cowardly assassination was completely unacceptable.
The first step has to be to reiterate, in the strongest possible terms, that the prime suspects (Andrei Lugovoi and Dimitri Kovtun), must be extradited to face prosecution in a British court of law. The foreign secretary should use the next Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels as an opportunity to build a common EU position, and should also meet urgently with Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, to reinforce the extradition demand.
Second, visa bans. We need to make a detailed assessment of who is involved in this murder, in addition to the actual perpetrators, and to take action.
I understand that Marina Litvinenko has drawn up a list of those she thinks were involved in planning the murder, and supplying the radioactive murder weapon. It’s important that the home secretary sits down with her to discuss the next steps: the family are very significant in this sense, and she will have much useful information to share.
But banning Vladimir Putin himself from the UK would be counter-productive. My view of diplomacy is that one door must always be left open; there must always be a way of engaging, keeping the dialogue going.
Concerns have been raised in the context of Syria. But that is a multilateral issue. The Litvinenko affair is a bilateral matter.
We must continue to engage with the Russians on Syria, and encourage them to put pressure on Assad to call free and fair elections. That is a top diplomatic priority.
Third, we need a wide-ranging review of our entire relationship with Russia. The foreign affairs select committee is now conducting such a review, and all issues should be on the agenda.
Fourth, as Andy Burnham said yesterday, action around athletics are a valid point, and I agree with his view that the 2018 World Cup should not be taking place in Russia. We need to start building a coalition across Fifa to make a clear statement. It is simply not appropriate that a country that appears to have engaged in state-sponsored murder is hosting an international football tournament. Let’s not forget the telling impact that rugby boycotts had on South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Fifth, we should look at expelling from the UK some or all of the officers in the FSB; that will doubtless lead to some tit for tat, but that is the nature of the beast.
And sixth, we must empower HMRC to act more effectively on the millions of pounds of “hot” Russian money that is daily pouring into the London economy and its real estate market.
There are no quick fixes to Britain’s relationship with Russia; it’s going to take a very long time to repair. But the ingredients for change are there, and they may well become more influential in the coming months and years.
Russia’s achilles heel is its economy, and particularly its over-reliance on oil and gas. When I was living and working in Russia oil was trading at well over $100 a barrel. Today it can be bought for less than $30.
Every day that another dollar comes off the price, the greater the pressure on the Russian economy, and the greater the political pressure on President Putin.
The Russian people have entered into a sort of contract with him, based on sacrificing some freedom and rights in return for economic growth, stability and security. For years this deal has worked well, but with the bottom falling out of the oil market it will become increasingly difficult for him to keep his side of the bargain.
We must redouble our efforts to engage with Russia’s younger generations, whether through culture or the huge desire to learn English. Russians love coming to the UK, and it is through those people-to-people connections that we can begin to reinvent the bilateral relationship.
It is equally important that Britons develop a better understanding of Russian culture, history and identity. It is an enormous land-mass, with a border impossible to defend. So the Russian psyche is dominated by a palpable sense of “encirclement anxiety”, a constant need to look over the shoulder, that people really are out to get them, and that they would rather be feared than liked.
If the British media, establishment and people can come to understand what drives the Russian government to act as it does, we may one day be able to shift the relationship from one based on suspicion and sabre-rattling to one based on mutual respect and co-operation.
But, as things stand today such an aspiration is, tragically, little more than a pipe dream.