How to deal with Putin without crossing moral red lines

Whether for fear of commercial or political backlash, governments are too easily knocked off a principled course

Share

How do you solve a problem like Vladimir Putin? This week, the piercing grief of families of the victims of downed Malay Airline Flight MH17 added pressure on Western leaders, as they scrambled to figure out how to respond to evidence the Kremlin supported the Ukrainian separatists suspected of the atrocity. The Russian President’s peasant cunning dictates he hits his foes where it hurts, then denies all responsibility. To thwart these feral tactics, whilst retaining the moral high ground, the West must learn something from Putin’s playbook.

Whether or not the rebels intended to target civilians, including 10 Britons, it is an international crime. The culprits must be brought to book, and that includes all those involved. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said the tragedy was a “direct result” of Russian backing. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, cited intelligence showing that Russia supplied the separatists with the offending missiles and trained them how to use them.

While the US imposed targeted sanctions on Putin’s inner circle, oligarchs, banks and energy companies, Europe has been slower to act. Riven by political differences and paralysed by vested commercial interests, the European Union (EU) confirmed Putin’s instinct that – when push comes to shove – his outlandish behaviour carries light consequences with his rich neighbours.

Eastern Europe fears the lights going out were Putin to tamper with their gas supplies. Germany imports 30 per cent of its energy from Russia, exporting $44bn worth of goods each year in return. Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande explained he had no intention of cancelling the lucrative sale of Mistral aircraft carriers to Putin. The leader of his Socialist Party, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, spat back that the British were hypocrites for even suggesting France cancel the order. After all, he opined with Gallic indignation, given the number of Russian oligarchs in London “David Cameron should start by cleaning up his own backyard”. So much for EU solidarity.

For Europeans, the short-term price of holding a robust line in the face of this outrage has trumped the moral hazard inviting its repetition. Yet, moral hazard also risks political humiliation, as John Major’s government discovered after the Matrix Churchill case in 1992, when the prosecution of a UK firm for selling arms to Saddam Hussein collapsed upon evidence of government collusion. In response, UK arms export controls were beefed up – although questions linger about outstanding UK sales to Russia of sniper rifles, drones and component parts.

As for the French charge of London giving refuge to Putin’s cronies, we’ve been here before. In 2012, the Government pledged to consider following the US lead, in legislating for mandatory visa bans and asset freezes on Putin cronies connected to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer tortured to death for exposing the biggest tax fraud in Russian history. Ministers backed off, as diplomats and spooks warned of the harm it would do to their bilateral relations – even though the US suffered little more than a cruel, but ineffectual, ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans. When I inquired whether any of the so-called “Magnitsky 60” list of Russian suspects had been allowed to travel to Britain recently, Home Office lawyers declined to answer, claiming that disclosing whether alleged torturers have set foot in the UK “would or could likely prejudice the operation of immigration controls in place to protect the UK”. How exactly?

The truth is, whether for fear of commercial or political backlash, governments are too easily knocked off a principled course in this kind of case. So, take the decision out of their hands. The beauty of the Magnitsky model is that, by Parliament creating a presumption of UK visa bans and asset freezes on any individual connected to such a crime, we would be beating Putin at his own game. Hitting the kleptocrats who bankroll him, whilst shrugging our shoulders with plausible deniability at an independent process Ministers can’t readily interfere with. That may explain why five former Foreign Ministers backed the call for a UK Magnitsky Act, two years ago, along with a unanimous House of Commons. Sure, the national interest might demand the occasional legitimate exemption. But, then, the Foreign Secretary would have to justify it to Parliament – not something that could be done lightly, or without good cause.

The list of crimes triggering such sanctions should include torture and other international crimes, including the kind of terrorist attack inflicted on Flight MH17. Any visa ban or freeze on UK assets should be determined independently, based on evidence (including protected intelligence), and with an opportunity to appeal. A UK Magnitsky Act would deliver our strongest response to Putin (short of a blunt trade embargo that few other countries will support). But, it should apply globally, not just to Russia.

As the relative clout of Western liberal democracies declines, Britain instinctively wants to trade and engage with rising nations. Yet, whether it is dealing with the Kremlin, Egyptian military dictators or the Chinese Communist Politburo, we need an approach that nurtures relations between nations, whilst denying nasty individuals the ability to buy up property in Knightsbridge, send their kids to Wellington College, or drop by the Kings Road for a bit of light Christmas shopping.

Britons today expect their foreign policy to have some moral red lines. We can embrace global trade, whilst politely saying: no torturers or terrorists please, we’re British.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission, 1st yr OTE £30-£40k : SThree:...

Middleware Support Analyst

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Senior Java Developer/Designer

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: My client are looking fo...

Domino Developer and Administrator

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Domino ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Medical staff members burn clothes belonging to patients suffering from Ebola, at the French medical NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Monrovia  

The reality of Ebola: Buckets of chlorine in the streets, and no one shakes hands any more

Patrick Jamiru
Good2Go is the sexual consent app  

Good2Go: It's proper Sex and Relationships Education that will help end assault, not an iPhone app

Sian Norris
Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?