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The Unacceptable Face of Putinism

21/08/2014 17:07 BST | Updated 21/10/2014 10:59 BST

There isn't a better weathervane of Kremlin opinion than Igor Sechin. The 53 year old former KGB operative has been Vladimir Putin's most loyal and influential lieutenant since they worked together for the Mayor of St Petersburg in the 1990s. Officially he has served as Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, Deputy Prime Minister and now Chairman of Rosneft, the state oil company. Unofficially he has long been leader of the Kremlin's hardline siloviki faction; the group of senior intelligence and security officers who provide the muscle that makes Putin's leadership possible. So when Sechin publicly threatens the life of an exiled Russian businessman, as he did recently, it's worth paying attention. Russia's behaviour could be about to take another turn for the worse.

Sechin's outburst came at the end of a bad period for Russia. Already facing escalating international sanctions and a setback to its covert military intervention in Eastern Ukraine, an international tribunal in The Hague at the end of July found the Russian government guilty of illegally expropriating Yukos Oil a decade ago and ordered it to compensate the company's former majority shareholders to the tune of $50bn.

This was a particularly bitter blow to Sechin who has been accused of personally orchestrated the destruction of Yukos and who's company, Rosneft, subsequently acquired its main production assets. Indeed, Rosneft stands to lose directly if its assets outside Russia are seized to facilitate payment of the award. Incensed by the loss of face and the possible loss of business, Sechin raged about the unfairness of the ruling before turing his remarks directly to Leonid Nevzlin, the largest former shareholder. Nevzlin, he warned, "should take care of himself".

It's hard to interpret this as anything other than a direct physical threat. Given Sechin's status and connections, it certainly deserves to be treated as more than a throwaway remark. Putin's Russia has a long history of using targeted assassination as a tool of policy, both inside Russia and abroad. Outside Russia the targets have usually been armed Chechen separatists. Investigating authorities in both Qatar and Turkey have accused the Russian intelligence agencies of murdering Chechen exiles on their territory.

Russia is hardly alone in carrying out the targeted assassination of those it deems to be terrorists. But it is also now one of the few countries that appears ready to use the same method against non-violent opponents. Rather than a shocking exception, the 2006 murder in London of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko may prove to be an ominous foretaste of what the Kremlin is capable of. Now the subject of a public inquiry, British officials long ago concluded that there was Russian state involvement in the crime.

Yet even in the Litvinenko case the motive was related to national security, or at least the Kremlin's interpretation of it. If Leonid Nevzlin has now been added to a hit list it marks a further escalation of Moscow's willingness to resort to violence beyond its border. After all, the offence that seems to have made him a target was to do nothing more than exercise his legal rights in a court of law.

In the context of the ongoing violence in Eastern Ukraine, it might be tempting for Western governments to treat Sechin's indiscretion as a matter of comparatively little importance. That would be a mistake. If Russia is allowed, in effect, to announce its willingness to resort to state terrorism, there is no way of knowing what consequences may follow. The Kremlin is strongly suspected of involvement in the dioxin poisoning that almost killed Victor Yushchenko shortly before he became President of Ukraine in 2004. Without a clear signal of international condemnation it might consider doing something similar today to President Poroshenko or Prime Minister Yatsenyuk. The message therefore needs to be sent that murder for political ends would put Russia outside the community of civilised nations.

The first step should be for the European Union to follow US policy in putting Igor Sechin on the sanctions list of individuals subject to travel bans and asset freezes. The US included Sechin on its list because of the immense influence he has exerted during Russia's lurch towards authoritarian nationalism. Perversely, the EU chose to exclude him from its own list for precisely the same reason. He is considered too important to be signalled out for punishment because of his involvement in the strategically vital energy sector where Europe's dependence on Russian imports has all but paralysed its capacity to act. That will need to change if the EU wants to challenge the impunity of the Russian elite.

A second step should be for Western governments to issue a formal démarche and put Russia's leaders on notice that the country will be designated a state sponsor of terrorism if any attempt is made to follow through on the threat against Nevzlin or anyone else legitimately standing up to the Kremlin.

Difficult as this may be, the lessons of the recent past have to be learned. Every time the West has shied away from tough action in the face of Russian lawlessness the result has been to encourage its leaders to greater and more dangerous policy excess. It's time to draw a line.