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.


Sport as a metaphor for war

sport photoFriday the thirteenth puns aside, tomorrow could be a momentous and dramatic day for the world. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the athletics governing body, has demanded a response from Russia in the wake of the doping scandal revealed this week in a report by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The head of the IAAF, Sebastian Coe, admitted he was “completely shocked” by both the scale of the doping and the cover-up operations. He is new to the top job (but has held the deputy’s position for seven years), but his decision of whether or not to sanction Russia – named in the report as the chief offender – could have implications that reverberate even further than a doped-up, muscle-bound, unnaturally hirsute Russian female shot putter could hurl her four kilos.

Unsurprisingly, Russia’s immediate reaction to the call for exclusion from all athletics competitions (including next summer’s Olympics) by the Canadian Dick Pound, author of the 335-page report, was dismissive. Continuing the recent communications strategy from the Kremlin of brushing off all criticism by questioning the motives and competence of the dissident voices and brazenly rejecting any suggestion of wrong doing, no matter how compelling the evidence, Russia initially denied the claims in the report. This position has since been revised – to a degree – with President Putin ordering his country’s athletics officials to root out any bad practices. Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s Sports Minister, said “we have nothing to be ashamed of. We have problems, but we’ve never tried to cover them up”. It is doubtful whether the IAAF will agree.

Which leaves Sebastian Coe with a problem. Any ban, regardless of length, will be met with uproar by Russia. But if he feels strongly enough to impose a sanction without going so far as to ban Russia from the Rio Olympics next year, there will be howls of protest from those wanting a stand taken over doping in sport. So let’s assume, for a moment, that Russia is kicked out of the 2016 Olympics. Hold that thought.

The IAAF are not the only world sport governing body feeling the heat right now. Football’s equivalent, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is reeling after widespread accusations of graft and dodgy practice. FIFA’s head, Sepp Blatter is currently suspended whilst investigations into corruption roll on. The decisions to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and, bafflingly, the 2022 tournament to Qatar are being scrutinised. FIFA need to demonstrate the organisation has turned the corner, swept away the illegal practices and is a clean, reputable and responsible body.

What better way then, than to follow the spirit of the IAAF’s (possible) example by fundamentally overturning hosting decisions. Qatar 2022 is already looking doubtful. But If the IAAF point a scornful finger at Russia, would FIFA sniff an opportunity? Strength in numbers is always an attractive policy, especially when you are trying to convince a global audience. So, might they take the very controversial decision to strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup? And if they did, what could the world expect by way of response?

Russia is currently hurting. Sanctions are biting and the oil price has collapsed. Crimea and Ukraine have been two successful foreign policy adventures (as far as Mr Putin is concerned) but there are domestic grumblings. There is even the suggestion, from a surprising number of Russia-watchers and nationals alike, that the crash of the Russian airliner in the Sinai last week was orchestrated by the Russian state. I don’t buy that personally, but I have been shocked that the suggestion has been spoken of by many outside the usual conspiracy-theory brigade.  So if Russia were to suffer the double ignominy of expulsion from Rio 2016 and the loss of the 2018 World Cup and given the current political climate, could we expect a reaction in an altogether different arena?

NATO defences have been repeatedly probed in the last few years and just three weeks ago Russia’s ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, said that, as all political contacts with the West have been severed, “the only sphere left is culture”. An overt threat against NATO is out of the question, even accepting Russia’s love of heavy metal. But a more subtle, obfuscated attack might be a possibility. Georgia suffered waves of cyber attacks prior to the fateful and very brief war with Russia in 2008. Could the same (less the actual shooting war) be expected in, say, Estonia, or another Baltic state, an area traditionally considered (by Russians at least) to be in their sphere of influence? Outlandish? Possibly. But ridiculous? Before Crimea, Ukraine and the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17, I would have agreed. But if Russia loses both the Olympics and the World Cup who knows?

Sebastian Coe has a big decision to make tomorrow.