The tragedy in Kemerovo brings forth a much greater one

There is a story developing in the aftermath of the Kemerovo shopping mall fire which is getting uglier by the day. It concerns this man:

Last week Igor Vostrikov was a successful businessman, married with three young children. Today he says that he has “nothing more to lose” and will fight for justice to be served.
Vostrikov recalls that his wife, Elena, had been “beyond panic” by the time she reached him at around 4pm on Sunday. Elena, who had been in the cinema with Vostrikov’s sister and three of their children ‒ a seven-year-old girl and boys ages five and two ‒ knew that her husband was away in a nearby town, so she initially called her mother-in-law when smoke first began pouring into the movie theater.

But miles away, Vostrikov knew differently. Elena told him on the phone that she was “suffocating,” and he instructed her to get down on the ground and breathe through a wet cloth.

“Why aren’t they coming to save us?” his daughter asked. Recalling the moment when he stopped hearing the voices of his children in the background, he now thinks that they may have already been dead, even as Elena stayed on the line.

“Igor, we are burning here, I love you,” she said. He continued talking into the phone for several minutes, but there was no reply.

By the time Vostrikov arrived in Kemerovo, the death toll was rising. His wife, sister, and three children are among the 64 who have been officially declared dead.

For a man to suddenly lose his wife, sister, and three young children in this way is a level of tragedy I can barely imagine. News reporters quickly picked up on his anger and grief, and his name began to spread around the internet. Most people felt desperately sorry for him.

However, at some point in the past few years, Vostrikov had posted remarks on social media which were supportive of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, and derogatory towards Ukraine. This enraged Ukrainians online who openly said they had no sympathy with someone who made such remarks, and losing his family in a fire was an act of karma. Now we’re getting stories like this:

I expect this already deeply unpleasant situation will now get even worse.

Among the rather disgusting remarks aimed at Vostrikov was one that had some merit, and that’s the regime which Russians praise for “recapturing” Crimea and putting those uppity Ukrainians in their place is the same one which presides over corruption and dysfunction such that deadly fires in shopping malls occur. It is unlikely you can have one without the other, they are two sides of the same coin. It’s a point I’ve made often in the past, that the characteristics of Putin’s regime that Russians cheer are the same characteristics which make their life harder on a daily basis. Very few see it that way, though.

But the main point of this post is to highlight what an absolute, utter, appalling tragedy this pointless conflict between Russia and Ukraine is. As I said before:

It is well known that civil wars are fought with more bitterness and brutality than those between different peoples, and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine looks to me far more like the former.

Without even trying I can name six people I knew in Sakhalin whose surname ended with the Ukrainian -enko. If I rummaged through my memory banks I could come up with another six. Ukraine and Russia were so intertwined in the Soviet era and before that people would move from one to the other interchangeably. The cultures were so similar that one could move to the other and nobody would know you were an outsider.  Nikita Khrushchev passed himself off as a Ukrainian for years, even though he was Russian. By contrast, Stalin and Beria remained stubbornly Georgian and Mikoyan Armenian. I would bet that if you were to ask a Russian whether they had a Ukrainian grandparent, relative, or a relative living in Ukraine most of them would say yes. Okay, maybe not most, but a lot. The cultural and physical border between the two was all but non-existent for years.

There is no easy dividing line between Ukrainians and Russians, and the origins of this conflict seem to concern how people want to be governed in future rather than by whom, and had little to do with ethnicity, language, culture, national security, or any other excuse that’s been wheeled out by the hardliners on each side since.

A few years ago no Ukrainian would have dreamed of saying a Russian deserved to lose his family in a fire, and no Russian would have gloated on the internet about Russian military victories over Ukraine. The whole thing is so pointless, and the wounds will take decades to heal, assuming they ever do. This artificial driving of a wedge between two peoples reminds me of the way many Scots now see England, despite there being little meaningful cultural differences between the two peoples that an outsider could coherently describe. I’d like to say the relations between Scotland and England are not as poisonous as those of Ukraine and Russia, but I’m afraid I can’t. Ten minutes on Twitter will tell you there are people north of the border quite capable of telling an Englishman his family deserved to die in a fire because of his place of birth or political beliefs.

It’s tragic. How the hell did it come to this?



This morning I woke up to news that:

Yulia Skripal, the daughter of ex-spy Sergei Skripal, is improving rapidly and no longer in a critical condition, says the hospital treating her.

The BBC understands from separate sources that Ms Skripal is conscious and talking.

However Mr Skripal remains in a critical but stable condition, Salisbury District Hospital said.

Doctors said Ms Skripal, “has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day”.

Which comes as a bit of a surprise. A couple of weeks back we were told that this was a “weapons grade” nerve agent (as opposed to the sort you hand around at parties) and multiple times more deadly than sarin. Since then we’ve had the policeman who was exposed walking out of hospital, and now one of the principle victims is sitting up in bed, probably complaining about NHS food.

On Wednesday, police said the Skripals first came into contact with the nerve agent at the former Russian spy’s home in Salisbury.

Forensic tests show the highest concentration was found on the front door.

From what I can tell, the nerve agent was smeared on the door handle of the Skripals’ home. As a way of exposing someone to it, this seems risky. What if it washed off in the rain? What if the target wore gloves? What if a visitor turned up, taking the bulk of the poison away with them, and you end up killing the wrong person? Now I don’t know anything about murdering people, let alone with nerve agents, but there’s no denying this job was botched. Neither of the intended victims is dead and one seems to be making a reasonable recovery.

The whole thing sounds rather amateurish to me, something you wouldn’t normally associate with FSB assassins. Now Russians do botch jobs: if you’d have hired a chap to fix the electrics in a flat in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in 2007 chances are he’d have shown up with a carrier bag containing some ancient tools, two of which were lump hammers (the second one is his screwdriver), and a couple of weeks later you’d open up the junction box to find a fork in place of the fuse. But when it comes to knocking off political opponents at the behest of the president, Russians tend to get the job done properly. So it’s all a bit strange.

In addition, as I’ve already made pretty clear on this blog, I haven’t yet heard a plausible theory as to why Putin would order this hit and this method would be used. Various theories might work if it were one or the other, but the two combined leave us mainly with complex conspiracies which claim to know the inner workings of Putin’s mind and portray him as some kind of villain from a Batman film.

Now here’s what worries me. The BBC said the police are interested in speaking to Yulia Skripal once she’s well enough to answer their questions. Well yeah, I bet they are. But are they more interested in hearing what she has to say or making sure whatever she says fits the narrative the government assembled long before she woke up? You can be sure that whatever she says, the public will be told nothing that will make the government or police look bad.

I don’t believe governments and police departments engage in complex conspiracies from scratch, starting with a blank piece of paper. But I do believe they would burn whole neighbourhoods to the ground to cover up their own incompetence, or maintain a narrative once they’ve set the ball rolling in a particular direction. We are now in the middle of a full-blown diplomatic crisis with Russia into which we’ve roped several other countries, and it is still escalating. Now we find one of the two key persons is able to talk for the first time, perhaps shedding vital new light on what happened. Let’s face it, nobody has the slightest idea what she might say. Could we not have waited a little bit?

I know there are people out there who think any delay in issuing accusations, threats, and ultimatums would have “played into Russia’s hands”, but they seem awfully blasé about this whole thing. Contrast this with when MH-17 got shot down and Putin was visibly shaken, until he realised that what passes for EU leadership was not about to jeopardise business opportunities in Russia just for the sake of a couple of hundred dead passengers, and Obama might have to make a decision. Then they launched an absolute whirlwhind of disinformation, knowing full well they were culpable. This time they seem content with straight-faced denials and heavy sarcasm. They’re acting like they know full well they had nothing to do with it and at some point Britain and its allies are going to have egg all over their faces.

Of course I might be wrong, but I believe I’m justified in thinking the British government would stop at absolutely nothing to ensure this doesn’t happen, the truth be damned. I hope Yulia Skripal has a decent lawyer present when she talks to the police, one that is representing her interests and not the government’s. Who is representing the public’s interest in all this is anyone’s guess.


Snapchat Diplomacy

Staying on the subject of Russia, consider this:

This is a pretty major allegation, one that even two years ago would not have been made without strong supporting evidence. But nowadays, accusations that Russians are “interfering in democracy” can be thrown around like confetti without anyone having to produce the slightest shred of evidence. We’re all just supposed to believe our dear leaders, who would never lie about such things for their own ends.

Now of course Russia engages in mass disinformation, and they have done since at least 1917 and probably before that. But nothing I’ve seen comes even close to what they were up to during the Cold War, when they were deeply embedded in western academia and funding trade unions. The only reason this is an issue now is because Hillary lost in 2016. I don’t mind dealing with Russia in a robust fashion – and we should have after MH-17 and the annexation of Crimea – but not for this reason.

And “interfering in democracy”? If that was an offence which got diplomats expelled from a country, US embassies around the world would be staffed mainly by janitors on local contracts. The US actively supported Boris Yeltsin in elections, and boasted about it, for goodness sake.

I have no problem with Canada throwing out these diplomats in solidarity with Britain over the Skripal poisoning, but spare us the bandwagon-jumping bullshit justification tagged on the end. If these four were doing what Canada accuses them of in any meaningful sense, they should have been turfed out independently of what happened in the UK. I suppose one shouldn’t expect anything else from a government headed by Justin Trudeau, but this smacks of someone wanting to fit in rather than a serious policy decision. This whole business is not being handled well at all.


Russia’s trolling is a response to western immaturity

This is actually quite funny:

The Russian Embassy in the United States has posted a poll on Twitter asking people to choose which US Consulate-General should be closed after the announcement of the closure of the Russian Consulate-General in Seattle amid the US decision to expel 60 diplomats from the country.

Here’s the actual poll:

This isn’t the first time a Russian embassy has engaged in a spot of trolling, indeed the Russian embassy in London seems to take a delight in it:

Naturally, this has had people huffing and puffing that this is not behaviour expected of a diplomatic mission and that it is all extraordinarily undignified, but I have a sneaky suspicion they might be missing the point.

The fact is, long before Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were subject to a nerve agent attack, many of Russia’s critics – including heads of government – lost any right to be taken seriously by the Russian government when they engaged in a lengthy and high-profile campaign of absolute bullshit in which they accused Russia of throwing the US election. Despite there being no evidence whatsoever of the Russian government “hacking” the DNC’s servers, nor of their trying to influence the US election in favour of Trump, nor of Trump “colluding” with Russia, swathes of the western ruling classes and the media repeated these allegations to an international audience – and continue to do so. Seeing an opportunity to explain away other setbacks both real and potential, politicians seized on the all-seeing and all-knowing Russian bogeyman and doubled-down on the bullshit, such that national newspapers now claim Russia was behind Leave winning the Brexit referendum.

None of this should have happened, and you can be damned sure were the Soviet Union still intact and the Cold War raging, you’d not have western politicians shooting their mouths off about Russia like this. Their diplomatic clout would not have been spent inventing stories to explain why their own voters rejected them at the polls, but would have been reserved for serious matters – such as a double-agent being poisoned on British soil.

I know Russians well enough to believe this crisis isn’t being taken lightly by the government or their respective embassies, but they’ve taken a sober decision that mockery is a reasonable course of action for those who have spent almost 18 months engaging in behaviour which is…well, extraordinarily undignified. Perhaps Russia’s embassies will tweet in a more mature manner once their counterparts have grown up themselves. Indeed, I expect they’ve been waiting for some adults to enter the room for quite some time. I said at the time of Skripal’s poisoning that western leaders cried wolf once too many times over Russia, and now they’re not being taken seriously. They only have themselves to blame.


Another deadly fire in Russia

This is bad:

At least 53 people have died in a fire that tore through a shopping and entertainment complex in the Siberian coal-mining city of Kemerovo.

As many as 41 children may be among the victims, officials say, and more than 10 are listed as missing.

The blaze started on an upper floor of the Winter Cherry complex while many of the victims were at the cinema.

Video posted on social media showed people jumping from windows to escape the flames on Sunday.

“According to preliminary information, the roof collapsed in two cinemas,” Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a statement.

Deadly fires are too common in Russia, the most infamous in recent memory being the Perm nightclub fire in 2009 which killed 156 people. As was reported at the time:

Alexander Fridman, a local entertainment producer in Perm, says he has little doubt that corruption has to be factored into any explanation for the Lame Horse tragedy.

“Fire inspectors found violations of the regulations a year ago, yet they didn’t come back to check whether corrections were made. Why was that?,” he asks. “There were hundreds of people gathering at that club every night, yet they never closed it down. The basic lesson is that fire inspectors should not take bribes.”

Amid Russia’s decaying infrastructure and often jury-rigged new construction, the potential for such accidents abound because laws are not enforced, experts say.

“I see this danger everywhere I go, especially places like supermarkets,” says Vyacheslav Glazychev, a professor at Moscow’s official Institute of Architecture. “As long as we have this practice of paying bribes rather than making the needed improvements, nothing will change.”

I have experience in construction in Russia and dealing with the fire safety authorities, and I can confirm that the entire system is a vehicle for graft. There’s actually not a lot wrong with Russia’s fire safety laws, and the design of a new building must include adequate fire protection and safety measures to get approval. However, the fire inspectors have a nasty habit of finding “problems” – even if none exists – and to rectify the situation to their satisfaction you must pay a specific person or company. Once paid, they leave you alone in many cases. So instead of having a situation whereby the fire inspectors are satisfied only once they’ve seen a building is safe, we have one whereby they are satisfied merely by being paid. Note that the building’s owner might not always be at fault here: he has no choice but to pay, and might not be aware that he’s in breach of fire safety regulations (like most Russian laws, following them is not straightforward). It’s the inspectors’ job to identify any non-compliances, but if they’re only interested in shaking people down for bribes who knows what they might overlook?

As well as a multiplex cinema, the shopping centre, which opened in 2013, includes restaurants, a sauna, a bowling alley and a petting zoo.

This is a modern building, not some ramshackle old thing made from wood. There should have been adequate fire protection systems in place (e.g. fireproof cladding), as well as a sprinkler system which would slow the fire’s spread and give everyone enough time to get out. As with previous disasters, the authorities will investigate, widespread corruption and non-compliances with the fire code will be identified, some sap will be fingered and thrown in jail and anyone with money and connections will walk free. Even if the owner is jailed, as was the case after the Perm nightclub fire, you can be sure no senior government official will suffer anything greater than an awkward question or two.


What Putin Is Not

So Vladimir Putin won the Russian presidential election again, which probably didn’t surprise many. The BBC reports the reaction from world leaders is muted, presumably in comparison to the felching that Macron received. This line amused me:

But European observers said that while the poll was conducted efficiently there was a lack of genuine choice.

There are quite a few in the US and UK who know exactly how they feel. Anyway, Putin’s campaign gave an opportunity to those who don’t know much about contemporary Russia to give us their thoughts. Now this tweet is pretty daft:

But the responses aren’t a whole lot better either:

Whatever one thinks of Putin, he is not a ruthless dictator presiding over a regime which tolerates no dissent whatsoever. For example, here’s an article in The Moscow Times, and English language paper, which says:

Women were dealt a heavy blow at the start of 2017 when President Vladimir Putin decriminalized domestic violence, downgrading it to an administrative offense. “We lost that fight,” says Kira Solovyova, one of the founders of the ONA (She) feminist association.

Some within the feminist community have called for a boycott of the elections while others argue that a female candidate is their best hope for improving conditions for women in Russia.

“We have to choose the least of all evils,” Timofeyeva says. Alena Popova, a gender equality advocate, stresses the need for unity. “We have to strategize, to use all the doors we have to promote equality,” she told The Moscow Times.

This is not exactly scathing criticism but it’s hardly praise either, and would not have been tolerated by Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or the Kims. There are also Russian language papers (I forget which ones) which are critical of Putin, and it’s worth mentioning that I wrote this blog from 2006 to 2010 while in Russia, and didn’t hold back from criticising Putin’s energy nationalism. I expect things have changed since then and the place has become more nationalistic and less tolerant of outside critics, but it’s still allowed. I follow at least one prominent freelance American journalist based in Moscow who often makes critical remarks about the government.

That’s not to say that Putin is a tolerant man – he isn’t – but he is not totalitarian as the commenters above suggest. If you are a threat to Putin or his circle, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky was, you will be crushed like a bug. If you’re a journalist exposing corruption and other malfeasance on the part of Russian government figures, you’re taking your life in your hands. If you are a politician who might lay a glove on Putin in a fair election – such as Boris Nemtsov or Alexei Navalny – you will wind up dead or in jail. But if you’re an ordinary Iosif and you express disapproval about Putin to another ordinary person – or even one who’s not – you’re not going to be arrested, tortured, jailed, and killed. Russia is a police state on some levels, but not in the context of suppressing political dissent among individual citizens.

Now obviously one has to be careful. You’d not want to be mouthing off about Putin if you held a government job, or were interacting with government officials or a bunch of young patriotic males. I am sure a certain candour is required if you want to succeed in a state-owned bank, for example. But this is hardly unique to Russia. How well do Republicans get on in American academia? How much tolerance would a British teacher be afforded if he confessed to voting Tory? Would anyone working for the US government agency on climate change have been able to openly criticise Obama?

So yes, going around Russia bad-mouthing Putin will likely land you in a spot of trouble, but it won’t be the police or FSB who take an interest. And with a bit of common sense and politeness, you’d find that criticising Putin is permitted in Russia. Unbeknown to western commentators, Russians are not a bunch of knuckle-dragging thugs who have swallowed Putin’s nationalistic tub-thumping wholesale (although they did like the snaffling of Crimea). They know what Putin is like, and probably wouldn’t mind a change, but the question is “who and what”? Streetwise Professor gets to the nub of the issue here:

The fundamental problem isn’t Putin’s specific personality. It is that his personality and behavior are well-adapted to Russian political culture and its society. The issue isn’t Putin per se. It is Russia, and it is a problem that long preceded Putin and which will long outlast him.

There are some people out there who think if it weren’t for Putin, Russia would be like Brooklyn. Russians, who have skin in the game, are a little less certain. Most Russians I know acknowledge that things could be better, but they also know things could be much worse. For the most part, educated Russians between 20 and 50 have opportunities their parents could only have dreamed of, as well as double glazing, reliable electricity, a car that functions, and foreign holidays. These same people remember the carnage of the post-Soviet era as well as the currency crisis in 1998. For the large part, Russians trust that Putin will not bring about a catastrophe of those proportions, and are justifiably concerned that whatever follows him might. They simply don’t think rolling the dice to improve things a bit is worth the risk of things getting an awful lot worse. I spoke to two highly-educated, westernised Russians on this very point recently, and both agreed that they’ve seen enough chaos in their lifetimes, thanks very much. It’s easy to preach revolution when you’ve never had to live through one yourself.

Like many long-serving authoritarians, Putin has done an excellent job of convincing Russians that he is a safe pair of hands and without him the country will fall into ruin. He has got away with it because, in part, it is true – and would be for any Russian leader. Russians don’t deal with change very well, particularly at the top of their government. That’s not to say I agree with what Putin is doing, and I have said several times that he should have departed in 2008 when his second term was up. But it is important to understand why he is still president after 18 years, and that any replacement might be worse or dead within a week. It’s not Putin that needs to change, it’s Russia. Hyperbolic comments from western journalists and policymakers isn’t going to make that any easier.


If gates are left open, people will walk through them

This, from Brendan O’Neill, is worth a read:

[T]he political elites cannot come out and say ‘We no longer want Britain to be a democratic sovereign nation’. So they developed a pseudo-progressive language to describe and justify their weakening of British sovereignty. They claim to be post-borders. They argue that the nation state is over. They say any defence of the nation is nationalism, and nationalism is dangerous. They insist that in a globalised world it is futile to try to erect borders against flows of people or goods or capital, and so on. And they seem ignorant of the message that their anti-borders, anti-nation political myopia sends to both the British people and the world at large. It tells British people their views don’t really matter, certainly not as much as cleverer people in Brussels. And it tells the world that Britain is a pretty porous place, not really that keen on protecting its borders. That it is a post-country, effectively, beholden to external influence and flows rather than being assertively, democratically sovereign. Perhaps now we might think about the kind of message this self-denuding cult of post-nationhood sends to more confident nations like Russia.

Indeed, we should not be surprised that a nation whose political and intellectual elites continually say ‘We are post-nation and we are open to the flows and fluxes of the globe’ might also find itself more open to the opportunism of states that have scores to settle here. After all, we effectively said: ‘We have no borders.’

I have to say, having seen over the last few years acts of despicable violence carried out on British soil by people who were in every meaningful sense foreigners (and in some cases unequivocally so), I find the outrage over Russians running about killing people a little…inconsistent. If Putin were a little less pasty and a bit more Muslim, I doubt we’d be making such a fuss. I’d find all this tough talk over Russia a lot more convincing if we’d not been so pathetically weak in every other area of national security, protecting the public, and looking out for our long-term interests.


Putin’s Motivation

I’ve read a few places speculating as to what Putin’s motivation for trying to kill Skripal might be, and a common one is this (the whole thread is very good and worth a read, it’s just this bit I take issue with):

Ever since Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested, tried, and jailed everyone in Russia got the message loud and clear that Putin’s hold on power was not to be challenged. When I lived in Russia 2006-10, it was an established fact that you didn’t mess with the FSB, and Putin ruled supreme. Since then, we’ve seen the assassination of Boris Nemtsov and the arrest and constant harassment of Alexei Navalny – both prominent critics of Putin and potential political challengers.

Putin is undoubtedly facing threats from within his circle and those just outside it, some of which he may not even know about. But anyone who fancies their chances will know beyond doubt that should they challenge his rule, they will be arrested and thrown in jail or killed. The idea that Putin had Skripal killed in order to send a message to Russians that opposing him is high risk is nonsensical: that message has been well understood by any Russian with a pulse since at least 2008, and it didn’t need reinforcing, and certainly not in a way which causes a diplomatic rift with Britain. If Putin did order this hit, it wasn’t for this reason.


Ultimatums, Evidence, and Threats

Theresa May, who believes every problem can be solved by bullying and threatening the law-abiding citizens of her own country, is finding the approach doesn’t work against nuclear-armed shitlords:

Theresa May is expected to announce a series of measures against Russia after it failed to meet her deadline to explain how a nerve agent was used to poison a former double agent in the UK.

Oh. What does the Head Girl do now? Tell teacher?

Moscow said it would not respond to the UK’s ultimatum until it was given access to the chemical substance used in the attack.

A reasonable request, I think. If the police haul you in and say they’ve found a kitchen knife belonging to you in the chest of a dead man, you are entitled to ask to see the knife rather than simply accept their statement that it’s yours. So if the British government is saying Skripal was attacked using a nerve agent that can only have come from a Russian government source, and is demanding answers, I think it’s reasonable the Russians are given a sample. Sure, the Russians may deny it’s theirs but then you are also free to deny the knife in the dead man’s chest is yours also. Being presented with the evidence is an important part of any system of justice.

Even supposing the Russians aren’t playing games, they have an interest in obtaining a sample. If the Russians have “lost control” of a nerve agent as May herself suggested, they might need a sample to see what lab it came from, or where it was stored. We know that the nerve agent Novichok was developed in the Soviet Union, and the US did everything it could to secure stockpiles of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons when the regime collapsed, but it’s certain some stuff fell into the wrong hands. A load of this Novochik was produced in Uzbekistan, not the most secure country in the world. The assertion that this simply must be a Russian government operation because Novichok was used isn’t very strong, in my opinion. There’s also the question of how secret the formula was. Yes, this agent was developed in the Soviet Union but could it have been copied and produced elsewhere? One way to answer these questions is to show the Russians the substance and ask them. Maybe they’ll lie, or maybe they won’t. But why is Britain reluctant to share a sample with them? What are they afraid of? Nobody is asking these questions, and the government and media seem happy to just gloss over the request as if it’s completely unreasonable.

Given some are talking about invoking NATO’s Article 5, I’m not too sure I want to trust the mere word of a spectacularly dim prime minister heading an incompetent, shambolic government presiding over government departments with a habit of lying. Anyone remember Saddam’s WMDs? I’d like to see a third party – perhaps a neutral government like Norway or Switzerland – take a look at the nerve agent and list every possible source, with as much help from the Russians as they can get. It would do no harm to let the Americans have a look at it, too. Basically, I’m deeply unhappy about the British keeping it to themselves and issuing ultimatums. If they have evidence, it must be displayed for all to see.

So, what will May do? The BBC has some suggestions:

Expel senior diplomats, perhaps even the Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, and known Russian intelligence agents

Okay, and we’ll see some of ours kicked out of Moscow. Standard stuff.

Take some sort of action to bar wealthy Russian oligarchs from accessing their mansions and other luxuries in London, as suggested by Tory MP and House of Commons foreign affairs committee chair Tom Tugendhat. One way this could happen is through the use of Unexplained Wealth Orders, which allow government officials to seize assets including property until they have been properly accounted for

Y’know, there are some of us who were wondering why this was allowed in the first place. I remember when Roman Abramovich first showed up in London and bought Chelsea Football Club. Rather than engage in a sober analysis of where he got the money, the media got all excited about which players he would buy, and nobody in government raised an eyebrow. In fact, the one voice that has consistently asked the British government to not allow dodgy Russians to turn up in London with bags of stolen money and live the high life has been the Russian government.

A boycott of the Fifa World Cup in Russia later this year by officials and dignitaries – a symbolic move that UK allies are unlikely to emulate

Only officials and dignitaries? Would anyone in England even notice?

Pass a British version of the 2012 US Magnitsky act, which punishes Russians involved in corruption and human rights violations with asset freezes and travel bans.

Okay, fair enough. But I suspect once British businessmen start being tossed in Russian prisons for various “violations” this won’t seem like such a good idea.

Taking Russian broadcasters such as RT (formerly Russia Today) off the air – broadcasting regulator Ofcom has said it will “consider the implications for RT’s broadcast licences” after Mrs May speaks on Wednesday.

So we’re going to use what is supposed to be an independent broadcasting regulator as a political weapon. Yes, this is right up Theresa May’s street. And the Russians have their response ready should this happen:

Not a single British media outlet will be working in Russia if London decides to shut down RT broadcasting in the UK, Maria Zakharova, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said.

This will of course include the BBC, which peddles almost as much ignorant, ill-informed, ruling-class propaganda as RT. It will also include the Moscow bureau of The Times, which is fitting given how often its columnists demand RT is shut down.

But this is my favourite:

A string of deaths on UK soil are to be reinvestigated by the police and MI5 after claims of Russian involvement, Home Secretary Amber Rudd says.

Presumably because they didn’t do a proper job the first time around. What other reason could there be?

The deaths that Buzzfeed identified include those of Boris Berezovsky, an outspoken critic of the Kremlin

Mr Berezovsky was found hanged in his bathroom in 2013. Police said a post-mortem showed no sign of a violent struggle.

I have a pal who is involved in the security of Russian oligarchs in London. He thinks the idea that Berezovsky hanged himself is laughable. It is worth noting that Berezovsky had many enemies, not just Putin. He fought a high-profile court battle with Roman Abramovich  between 2011-12 over who owned the assets they’d both looted in the 1990s, which he lost. Ironically, the Russians frequently complained that by granting Berezovsky political asylum, the British government was sheltering a gangster who ought to be facing criminal charges back home. Like I said a few paragraphs ago, the most consistent critic of dodgy Russians being allowed to set up shop in London with no questions asked is the Russian government.

And what is the threat to re-open the Berezovsky case, exactly? The coroner returned an open verdict, saying:

“I am not saying Mr Berezovsky took his own life, I am not saying Mr Berezovsky was unlawfully killed. What I am saying is that the burden of proof sets such a high standard it is impossible for me to say.”

What Amber Rudd seems to be suggesting is that, if the case is re-opened, the finger will point at Putin. Sorry, but is there something we’re not being told? I was under the impression an inquest into someone’s death in Britain was carried out professionally, thoroughly, and competently and the verdict sincere, but it appears they can be revisited and a different result obtained if it suits the political whim of the current Home Secretary. Now I’d not be the slightest bit surprised if Plod has covered up the murder of Boris Berezovsky for one reason or another, but it would be a spectacular own goal to admit this in the course of accusing Russia of malfeasance.

May’s government really isn’t handling this well at all, and is making Britain look almost as dodgy as Russia.


Testing Times

Okay, so I’ve spent the morning trying to think of a reason why Putin would order this hit on Skirpal in a way that implicates Russia. Let’s look at something Jean said in the comments:

Quite simple people – as much as Putin would like to see NATO gone, he is far more interested in breaking up the EU. After the last expansion of both organizations, in 2004, he was asked whether he would cooperate with both and he replied that he couldn’t imagine not working with them. He changed his tune in 2005 after the EU commission starting talking about bringing an anti-trust case against Gazprom.

Perhaps unfairly I initially dismissed this, but let’s suppose he’s she’s right. From an outsider’s perspective, Britain and the EU are at each other’s throats, trading insults and seemingly as divided as ever as the Brexit negotiations lurch on in fits and starts. It may suit Putin to test the EU’s commitment to Britain and measure their hostility to Russia. Would the EU rush to Britain’s aid in the wake of a hostile Russian act, or will they mince their words and do nothing? The former would require principles and the belief that Russia is indeed a threat to Germany or France (the rest of the EU doesn’t count). The latter would be driven by EU hatred of Britain over Brexit and Germany’s considerable commercial interests in Russia. It’s not difficult to see how this will play out. I’d not be too surprised if Macron denounced Russia, whatever else you may think of the young French president, he doesn’t just say what everyone else wants him to. But this is weak sauce:

Mrs May spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday and “discussed the wide pattern of aggressive Russian behaviour and agreed that it would be important to continue to act in concert with allies to address it”, her spokesman said.

What allies? Germany? Heh.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the use of any nerve agent was “horrendous and completely unacceptable” and officials were in touch with the UK.

Downing Street said the incident was not an “article five” matter – a reference to Nato rules which say an attack on one member constitutes an attack on all.

No? Why not? I don’t think going to war with Russia is a good idea at all, but if this is a direct attack on the British people by the Russian government, as we are being told, then why does this not trigger Article 5? I know the answer: Article 5 is to be triggered only when it suits the geopolitical interests of the US. Which is fair enough, they’re the ones who will do the bulk of the nuking and the fighting.

So what will the Americans do? This is what the BBC reported:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US agreed with the UK that Russia was likely to be behind the attack.

“We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences,” he added.

“We stand in solidarity with our allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to coordinate closely our responses.”

Naturally, many people who think any hesitation on Trump’s part to launch an all-out nuclear strike on Moscow is proof that he’s Putin’s puppet, but we can ignore these idiots even though they’re many in number. But I don’t see why America is under any obligation to get involved here. Britain isn’t a particularly great ally of the United States right now: the public have generated considerable noise in letting Donald Trump know he won’t be welcome should he visit the United Kingdom, and he should expect mass protests of a size not seen since the Iraq War demonstrations. John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, has publicly stated that he would oppose the current US president from addressing parliament, and both Theresa May and Amber Rudd saw fit to chastise Trump for daring to retweet a video which made Muslims look bad. Sadiq Khan seems to think the office of London’s mayor has a foreign policy element, and that should be directed at criticising Trump. Then yesterday a credible story circulated that an American citizen had been denied entry into the United Kingdom because her Austrian boyfriend says mean things about Muslims.

At this point, Donald Trump would be forgiven for thinking Britain should deal with its own problems for a change. The Russians have attacked you? Oh dear. Perhaps you ought to have focused on Russian agents running around your cities with nerve agents instead of endlessly insulting me and telling me what I can and cannot share on Twitter. If I’m honest, I hope he says just that (see bobby b’s comment here, too).

So this issue is going to severely test the relationship Britain has with the US, as well as what remains of their relationship with the EU. Even if Putin was not behind this attack, he will be paying serious attention to what each leader says, and what actions they’re prepared to support. It seems an overly complicated and risky way to go about it, but perhaps this was his plan all along? We’ve got to consider it. Let’s see what the Russians say today in response to May’s demand for an explanation. I may have to acknowledge Jean called this right from the start.