Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Alexander Litvinenko

Yesterday, the British Government announced its response to the refusal of the Russian Government to extradite former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi, the man whom police suspect was guilty of poisoning prominent dissident Alexander Litvinenko in November last year. In my view, there's five questions with which you can approach situations, where you are considering taking action against a third party who has transgressed against you:

1. Is your planned response proportionate?

2. Does it demonstrate adequately your distaste/resolve?

3. Might it be effective in changing the third party's behaviour?

4. Is it still worth doing, even if it turns out to be ineffective?

5. Is it wise?

Announcing a review of the extent of UK cooperation with Russia over a range of issues, Foreign Secretary David Milliband stated that as an initial step, he would suspend visa facilitation negotiations with Russia, including discussions to speed up existing application procedures. So far, so good - such actions will impact directly on every Russian official travelling to the UK. Visa restrictions would also hurt the new Russian super-rich, who increasingly see London as their playground. In all, it would represent a mildly humiliating loss of status, which would over time begin to chafe on the Russian government and the upwardly mobile business elite.

By making a declaration that the UK authorities would continue to pursue Mr Lugovoi by seeking his extradition if he travels outside Russia, Milliband has also managed to place a severe restriction on his movements. On my ad-hoc 5 tests, Milliband's responses discussed thus far merit a 'yes' on each count. Which makes it all the more inexplicable that he would then throw away all the benefits of such a calibrated response by seeking to expel 4 Russian diplomats, thereby opening the door to a response in kind from Moscow.

The tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions of the Cold War always carried with them an element of theatre, and this is no exception. However, Milliband has now given the Russian government the opportunity to play to the domestic gallery, and made some sort of retaliation inevitable. Already, comparisons are being made in Russia with the refusal of the UK to extradite Boris Berezovsky. Despite the strong suspicion of Kremlin involvement in the murder, President Putin is now well on his way to claiming the domestic moral high ground.

As others have noted in this morning's press, this isn't the start of another Cold War. However, there is a range of issues, looming both already large and over the horizon - Iran, North Korea, energy supplies, the future of Kosovo, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty - where the cooperation of Russia is going to be vital to the interests of the Western powers.

That's not an argument for diplomatic capitulation, or to forget the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Just as the West has an interest in cooperating with Russia over these matters, the Russian government also has an interest in becoming better integrated into Western economic and military structures, as it seeks to re-establish its position in the world. It is only by linking Russian interests and objectives with those of Europe and the US that any kind of mutually satisfactory outcomes can be agreed on these issues.

Anyway, we watch and wait for the Kremlin's response. As we do, for me, It's hard to avoid the conclusion that in its desire to be seen as tough, Gordon Brown's government has risked sacrificing long-term influence, without gaining anything compensatory in the short term to set against that risk.

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