The Litvinenko Inquiry – Clear eyes, cold heart, crossed fingers

There were two aspects of the Litvinenko Inquiry report, released yesterday, that surprised me. First, Sir Robert Owen, the Chairman of the Inquiry, having pulled no punches in stating who he thought had committed the murder in 2006, then went on to link the crime to President Putin in the strongest terms he was able to, given he was not speaking in a court of law.

This I find interesting, not only because I happen to believe it is correct (which you are quite at liberty to write-off as my love of Britannia and Pavlovian defence of the establishment). Apart from that, I find it interesting because of the difficult position it leaves the British Government in, a point I have alluded to in earlier blog posts about this inquiry (Parting Shots, Reading the Signals, Enemy at the Gates, Deeper Issues Deeper Questions, Small Details Big Impact).

If Sir Robert had really been acting as a government stooge he would have reined in his more inflammatory conclusions so as to leave the Prime Minister some wriggle room. David Cameron could then have huffed a few statements here and puffed a couple of asset freezes there, as he retreated behind a smokescreen of Davos-Migrant crisis-EU Referendum headlines, hand-wringing his way out of sight. So we can be reasonably assured of Sir Robert’s independence.

As it is, Mr Cameron has had to confront the issue head-on. And by issue, I mean the realities of global power politics. In his response, he was critical of Russia and then said: “But do we, at some level, go on having some sort of relationship with them because we need a solution to the Syria crisis? Yes we do…with clear eyes and a cold heart”. And that’s the nub of it: right now, there is greater need for a workable relationship with Russia, than there is to be seen to stand as a beacon of justice in the world. It’s called Realpolitik; one of the more enduring ideas Russia has imported from Germany.

Without a court of law, in which evidence could have been challenged and the accused offered a chance to explain their actions, the Inquiry was never going to be able to prove anything or hold any person or state entity to account. So, as expected, Russia has been all but accused of illegal actions, but by having to load the report with ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’ numerous times, they are able to dismiss any accusation of foul play.

They knew this all along, of course. Which led to my second eyebrow-raising moment. I was expecting a more sophisticated and nuanced response to the report from Russian officials and media. In typical fashion there was an immediate attempt to muddy the waters sufficiently to obscure the overwhelmingly compelling evidence.

The Russian Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, dutifully went through the motions of rebutting the report’s accusations in what, were it a Hollywood spy movie, would have been described as a ‘dialled-in’ performance. Andrei Lugovoy, one of the two alleged assassins, suggested Sir Robert Owen had “gone mad”. And Russia Today then waded in by casting aspersions on the Inquiry and its Chairman. They stated:

The report stresses that its conclusions are based on many witness opinions that “would not be admissible as evidence” and that in his report Sir Robert was not bound by strict procedural rules that apply to court hearings.

I won’t play ‘he-said-you said’ over this, all I’d ask is that you follow this link to the Inquiry report and have a look at the relevant passage, paragraph 9.205 on page 242, and make your own mind up. As I said: an unsophisticated response. (In none of the rebuttals will you find an explanation for the trail of polonium-210 linked to Lugovoy and Dmitri Kovtun.)

So where does it all leave us? I think the Inquiry has produced the most accurate findings it could, given the limitations of the proceedings. We can be reasonably sure we now know what happened and why. The reality of the relationship between nation states had been laid bare for all to see, if it was ever in doubt. And a spotlight has been thrown on the regressive, reductionist and brutish state of Russian politics in 2016.

What happens next, I think, is up to Mr Putin. Mr Cameron cannot take any meaningful action, so Russia need not damage international relations further. In a few weeks, disappointingly but realistically, most of the world will move on. But if Russia miscalculates in Ukraine, Estonia (which hosts a sizeable minority of Russian nationals that Mr Putin has talked of ‘needing protection’) or Syria in the near future, the demands for some sort of concerted diplomatic action could become overwhelming.

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Stormy waters

sailorsAt best it warrants only a footnote in this nation’s proud sporting history, but you need to be aware that in 1985 I jointly won the Enfield Lawn Tennis Club’s Under-16s doubles trophy with my mate, Jason Caddis. Of course, achievements of this magnitude don’t just happen by accident.  No, they take many afternoons whacking tennis balls in the back garden, some of which would sail over the fence onto Mrs Cuomo’s lawn next-door.  Why do I mention this? Because there was more bureaucratic foot-dragging and mutual suspicion involved in negotiating the safe return of my tennis balls than was exhibited yesterday by Iran and America over the repatriation of the US sailors who had strayed into Iranian waters.

I wonder why. On the one hand, the rapprochement between the two countries has lost no momentum since the historic deal in July last year regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The International Atomic Energy Agency adopted a resolution in December over the outstanding thorny issue of Iran’s ‘possible military dimension’ to her nuclear energy programme. It concluded that the “coordinated effort” to develop a nuclear weapon ended in 2003.

But on the other hand, there are last-ditch efforts in the US Congress to block the easing of sanctions on Iran and the deal has not been universally welcomed in that country either. As Norman Lamont told the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) round-table on Iran recently, many in the country fear a toxification of Western culture. Furthermore, if any ‘peace dividend’ of the release of an estimated $100 billion in frozen Iranian bank accounts is not felt by the population fast, President Hassan Rouhani could be fatally undermined. The hawks are waiting to pounce, says Ali Ansari, Professor of Iranian History at St Andrews University. “How much foreign policy is for foreign consumption?” he asked at CMEC. Without a consensus  between Rouhani, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the ideological custodians of the revolution, the deal would never have happened in the first place. That goodwill could easily dissolve.

So the idea of an enduring nuclear deal, money-taps turned on and a moderate and pragmatic guy in charge could easily turn into a nightmare. A diplomatic spat over navigationally-challenged sailors could have been all it needed. There is, after all, a Pavlovian response to the word ‘Iran’ from many in the US, according to Nicholas Soames, Chairman of CMEC. Hence the flurry of diplomatic activity to contain the situation. (John Kerry, US Secretary of State, thanked Iran for their “cooperation and quick response”.) But such a demonstration to the world (and internal audiences in both the US and Iran) of mutual respect and a workable relationship was helpful. Perhaps even stage-managed, if you fancy indulging your inner conspiracy theorist.

Shashank Joshi, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank, says that Iran (i.e. Rouhani) cannot let the deal falter. Iran is currently facing crises in Yemen and Syria (where it has thousands of troops), a potential split with Russia over the future role for Assad and a question mark over its relationship with Hezbollah. So the benefits of a lifting of sanctions are clear.

But how overt can the West make its support for Rouhani without (a) undermining him in the view of the hardliners, (b) cosying up to a country killing thousands of anti-Assad fighters in Syria or (c) adding to existing Saudi fears that having got rid of Saddam the West is actively encouraging shiism?

Don’t forget that as soon as the banking sanctions are lifted, Iranian oil will flow into an already saturated market, where the price has collapsed from $100 a barrel last year to $30 today. Saudi Arabia is content to see the black stuff go cheap so it can make whatever it can before the days of easily extracted oil ends – 30 years? But as Iran has a much more diverse economy than Saudi Arabia, hastening the end of easy-oil will only add to the tension between the two countries as Iran would likely fair better economically.

So, huge imponderables and challenges ahead for a region already on fire. The nuclear deal will very likely increase the tension within Islam. But as Norman Lamont said, the deal is worth having (and sanctions lifted) as it will prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons; it’s not about trying to solve all the region’s problems. Whether it adds to them is another matter.