We have been here before, the nation waiting to see what steps a Prime Minister would take after Russian-state sponsored poisonings took place right here in the UK. In November 2006, Polonium 210 left trails around London when Mr Lugovoi and Mr Kovtun murdered Alexander Litvinenko, former Russian security agent and British citizen, with this particularly barbaric method. We wondered at Russia’s nerve in launching this attack right in the British capital. But at least with Polonium 210 there was a strange reassurance in the idea that Russia had not expected us to be able to discover the substance. Fast forward to March 2018 and we see another Russian security agent and British citizen attacked in a more blatant and public way, left with his daughter on a bench, both of them suffering the horrific consequences of nerve gas in sleepy Salisbury. Unsurprisingly, a policeman was also affected. There was no question this time that we would know very quickly what substance had been used and which country it came from. Neither we nor the Russian state could pretend we did not know what was used and who was behind it.
Back in the Litvinenko case, the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair promised that “no diplomatic or political barrier” would be allowed to hamper the investigation into Litvinenko’s death. Predictably, Russia refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi and the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the UK ensued. But political determination dwindled and by the time the Home Secretary of the day in 2013, one Theresa May, had to decide whether to allow a public enquiry into Mr Litvinenko’s death, she refused to allow one and she admitted that preserving government relations with Russia was a “factor”. In other words, let’s not stand up for the Litvinenko family or the UK’s security. Economic ties and appeasement came first. It took the High Court to force the issue. When Mr Litvinenko’s widow, the admirably courageous Marina, finally got the closest she will likely see to a day in court, Sir Robert Owen concluded that “that the FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by [Nikolai] Patrushev [head of the security service in 2006] and also by President Putin”. The Prime Minister of the day then, David Cameron, said then that he was not ruling out taking further steps against Russia over its “unacceptable breach of international law”, but admitted that Britain had to maintain “some sort of relationship with them” to seek a solution to the Syria crisis.
In other words, we have been very weak in our responses to Russia’s aggressive behaviour over the years and this has only emboldened them. In terms of these poison attacks, after Litvinenko, we essentially sent a written invitation to the Kremlin, saying “Come on over! Bring your deadliest potions!” We were too busy preserving economic ties and being nervous, we were nowhere near robust enough in our deterrents. We emboldened then and it wasn’t just the UK. We see now that Russia funding Marine Le Pen in France and meddling in the US elections are becoming commonplace behaviours.
So it was heartening to see Prime Minister Theresa May address parliament and expel 23 Russian “diplomats” (accepted code for undeclared spies), as well as increasing powers to detain people suspected of hostile state activity and check private flights and freight from Russia. She also announced powers to seize assets and suspended high-level diplomatic contact. Might we have liked her to go further? Shutting down the propaganda television station Russia Today would have been very tempting, but there seemed no doubt it would have led to British media correspondents being expelled from Moscow, just when we need them there the most to report on the reality in Russia. Was her announcement everything we hoped for? No. But it was robust, serious and determined. And the Prime Minister spoke like a person whose eyes had been well and truly opened and who was determined to protect the UK, which is of course the first duty of a national leader. She appeared to have lost all illusions about the Russian government and was unafraid to be frank about that.
Not so, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. We probably didn’t need much more proof that he is unfit to be Prime Minister but he certainly gave us that proof today in his limp response to Prime Minister May’s address. While many Labour MPs gave their unequivocal support to Mrs May and their condemnation to Russia, Mr Corbyn waffled about the need to follow protocol with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, against a backdrop of jeers against him from both sides of the house. An unnamed backbencher quoted in the Guardian put it best when they said of Jeremy Corbyn: “Putin’s constant and shameful apologist might just as well stand aside and let the Russian ambassador write the speeches and brief the media himself.”
Several people over the years tried to help us understand what we were dealing with in President Putin. They included Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Berezovsky. Of course they are all dead now and not here to witness all of us, apart from Mr Corbyn, collectively coming to our senses about Russian aggression.