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Malaysia Airlines flight MH17: Britain and France should focus their anger on Vladimir Putin


Public indignation over the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 a week ago remains high. It is only natural for our leaders to identify with and amplify emotion of this sort, both to improve their standing among voters and, if possible, to have some impact on the future behaviour of the Russians.

Often a degree of dissembling creeps into exercises of this sort. We may like to suppose that, by barring some oligarchs from travelling, we are dealing President Vladimir Putin such a grievous blow that he will repent and become a changed character. Sanctions, of course, never work like that. Often they are little more than a means of discharging collective emotion. Conversely, truly effective sanctions, such as a ban on oil and gas imports or financial services, would have far too heavy an impact on EU economies to be politically tolerable.

However limited the sanctions all can agree on, it is vital for the West to remain united over Ukraine and over the atrocious human consequences of Russian policy there. In this respect, David Cameron’s grandstanding on the issue this week, telling MPs that “future military sales [to Russia] from any country in Europe should not be going ahead”, was grossly misjudged.

By assaulting French warship sales to Russia, he may have pleased his Europhobic party colleagues but he infuriated the French, who promptly and justly called him a hypocrite. Britain itself, it emerged, still has hundreds of arms export licences to Russia, while the City benefits greatly from its close ties to Russian oligarchs, among them Roman Abramovich, who in Russia is nicknamed “Putin’s purse”.

Changing the behaviour of a regime as  rotten and dysfunctional as Mr Putin’s will be no easy matter, even if the Government is sincere about wanting to. If Western Europe shows itself to be in disarray over sanctions, any pressure we might collectively be able to exert will be undone.

Solidarity is essential: it was remarkable to observe the sobering effect on the Donetsk separatists and their Moscow backers in recent days of the international coalition of victims, led by the Malaysians and the Dutch. That is the model to follow. Mr Cameron should get off his high horse, whatever its provenance.