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

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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.

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