From cyber-warfare, to interference in the US election, expansionism in the Crimea and in Ukraine, data-mining and propaganda ‘bots’ all over social media – Vladimir Putin’s mafia state really is stretching its tentacles.
Salisbury probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when someone mentions the Bourne or Bond films – until now. But the poisoning of Sergei Skripal his daughter, Yuria, in the town was something way more sinister and certainly no accident.
Should the police investigation find Russian involvement, it fits in with a wider pattern of Putin imposing himself and Russia on the world stage – for all the wrong reasons. His brinksmanship has found a definite Western European target in the UK. Even a year ago the Russian Ambassador to the UK was describing relations between the two governments as at an all-time low – and the Salisbury poisoning appears to be another example of Putin seeing how far he can push a Western democratic nation.
This is nothing new. The 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko – who became the first known victim of lethal polonium 210-induced acute radiation syndrome – carried out in London by the Russian FSB and signed and stamped off by Don Putin himself.
Unfortunately, the UK government has done little in terms of an effective response. The best our Defence Secretary can come up with is telling Putin to “go away and shut up” (yes, he actually said that).
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry was right to call the Salisbury events “prima facie evidence” of Kremlin involvement. Putin’s latest move is way below the line of acceptable espionage and warrants a substantial and effective UK response.
Media use Salisbury to attack Corbyn
Unfortunately, there has been limited debate in the media about how the government should respond to events. A lot of the coverage has been focussed on Jeremy Corbyn, who is under attack from both the Tories and backbenchers in his own party; more for the simple fact that he is Jeremy Corbyn than for anything to do with his response to the attacks.
The BBC photoshopped an image of the Labour leader in front of a USSR-style Kremlin and did a whole interview with it blown up in the background. You don’t have to be a tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist to believe this sort of subliminal messaging takes more than it adds to the debate over UK-Russian geopolitical relations.
I don’t subscribe to the ‘BBC is in the grip of the right-wing’ conspiracy, but when @BBCNewsnight pull this sort of stunt, it really doesn’t help. It’s tabloid, it’s cheap, and I’m not sure how it fits with the first of its values: “we are independent, impartial and honest.” pic.twitter.com/miD5I8CDh0
— Ben Sellers (@MrBenSellers) March 16, 2018
We need to target sanctions at the mafia state, not ordinary Russians
With Corbyn taking a hit in the polls over the last few weeks, the media seem to have done their job. Perhaps now we can focus on the UK’s response. Kicking out 23 Russian diplomats is a good start, so fair play to the government.
All of this is symbolic, however, so we shouldn’t be worried by Russia’s mirrored response. What we should be worried about is how Putin’s mafia state is using dark arts – including poisoning, as we’ve seen recently, hacking and interfering in Western political processes – to undermine stability both within and between the US, EU and UK.
Western sanctions on Russia thus far have been ineffective and have disproportionally impacted normal Russian people – rather than the crooks and oligarchs in and around the Russian government. Russian economic expert Andrey Movchan observed:
“For Putin, the sanctions are useful in helping him alienate the public from any Western-backed opposition leaders or from those who still proclaim that the West is a model for Russia’s future development.”
Military-type solutions would be ineffective at best and disastrous at worst. Working solely in the confines of international laws and conventions is also a limited approach – nor does Boris Johnson have the skill nor experience to go toe-to-toe with a world-class diplomat like Sergey Lavrov and come out on top.
Instead, a mixture of financial and information-based sanctions would be a much wiser path for Theresa May to take. By taking strict measures against oligarchs and other powerful individuals associated with the Russian government – alongside countering the influence of RT and social propaganda, Britain has a chance to show Putin that if you play with fire, you get burned.
This way, the UK would strike back at Putin in a way which both undermines his oligarch state and also empowers its citizens, who of course are hardly different from me and you.
Russian oligarchs are terrified of the West freezing gold and currency reserves. The Russian Finance Minister said as much last November: “If our gold and currency reserves can be arrested, even if such a thought exists, it would be financial terrorism.”
Regrettably however, the UK has played an instrumental role in legitimising Russian oligarchs in recent years – yet this has largely gone under the radar. Nearly £800million of dirty Russian money was moved through London between 2010 and 2014 – and US Federal Reserve and Treasury efforts to prosecute HSBC over corporate money laundering and other white-collar crime were killed off by the UK government in 2012. A recent US congressional report said the UK interventions “played a significant role in ultimately persuading the DoJ [Department of Justice] not to prosecute HSBC” and instead make the bank pay a fine.
Hit Putin and his cronies in the pocket
London is arguably the key financial centre in the world. Without doubt, it’s the most important financial centre for crooked Russian oligarchs and politicians.
Theresa May has enormous leverage over Putin in this area and could bring his mafia state to its knees.
First, she should put an end to the government’s habit of interfering with any potential criminal investigations of banks on the vague grounds of “financial stability”.
Second, the Financial Conduct Authority and the National Crime Agency need to be properly resourced to ensure that they can handle reports of suspicious transactions – and by extension, stop the City-sponsored cleaning of dirty Russian money. In 2016, a system by which banks and other financial institutions could report suspicious transactions received 381,000 submissions, but it was designed to handle just 20,000.
In a radical yet entirely justified move, we should work internationally to freeze the assets of wealthy Russians, impose travel bans on oligarchs – and look into potential gold and currency freezes. We should extend these particular sanctions to Putin himself, if for no other reason than to call him what he is: the head of an oligarch state built on dirty, stolen and blood money.
Britain’s tax havens allow dirty Russian money, cleaned by UK banks, to be hidden offshore. We had the Panama Papers in 2016, the Paradise Papers last year – yet we’re doing next to nothing serious about severing the complex financial mechanisms involved in tax avoidance, shell companies, non-doms and the rest of the phrases we aren’t supposed to understand.
Maybe we should just get rid of tax havens completely, given the untold amount of damage to our economy and politics they appear to cause.
Perhaps we should also delve deeper into Russian influence over UK politicians. At least 8 Tory MPs have taken large sums of money from a single Russian individual, Alexander Temerko.
Re "Tories should return Russian donations" story, be good to ask the individual MPs incl:
Brandon Lewis £28k
Liam Fox £10k
Nigel Adams £33k
Craig Whittaker £5k
Guto Bebb £16k
Michael Ellis £10k
Mary Robinson £5k
Simon Hart £6k
what they were providing to deserve such generosity.
— Matt Thomas (@Trickyjabs) March 11, 2018
Moreover, the fact that the Tory party has received at least £2 million of Russian money was quickly swept under the carpet when it warranted headline news. Conservative Friends of Russia and well-known figures in the leave campaign would also be worth having a closer look at.
Many Russians are thirsty for unfiltered democratic and Western viewpoints. Although they respect Putin for bringing order to a Russia decimated by Mafia-led anarchy in the 1990s, it’s not uncommon in Russia to openly state how life is better for the average person in other countries.
Due to the complex nature of censorship and propaganda in Russia, it’s very difficult to access any information not vetted in some way by the Kremlin. This is compounded if you don’t speak a foreign language, as almost all foreign news in Russia is accessed via InoSMI (Foreign Mass Media), whose website provides a selection of foreign news in Russian – carefully translated and framed by the Russian state.
In the UK, Russia Today (RT) has been hugely successful for Putin, most likely due to the lack of trust in mainstream UK media outlets creating a vacuum of credible coverage, particularly of UK foreign policy. For some journalists, working for RT is the only way to report on what they strongly believe is ignored in elsewhere in the media. But closing it down just reinforces Putin’s tightly controlled depiction of the West and would undermine the idea that a free press is fundamental to democracy.
Why not play Putin at his own game here? The BBC should set up a Russian language network; providing a mixture of anti-Putin propaganda and a rose-tinted view of the West. If the BBC’s use subliminal messaging in the UK is anything to go by, this would be highly effective at undermining Putin and emboldening democratic opposition movements in Russia.
BBC News is, after all, fundamentally a state-backed propaganda device – yet it benefits from worldwide credibility. If we want to really undermine Putin’s mafia state and help ordinary Russians – and our own national security – then we should use all the tools of soft power available to us.
We also have immense regulatory power and could pile the pressure on Putin by squeezing his oligarch cronies dry. UK banks who have been shamefully involved in the rise of the Mafia state should also be investigated and potentially prosecuted. This would act as more of a future deterrent than any fine.
Britain could give Putin’s mafia state a taste of its own medicine, using both our power over financial regulation and our own flavour of the dark arts of soft power and propaganda. Maybe then, Putin would think twice before yet throwing another geopolitical left jab at the UK.
Rich Dawson is the Lead Editor of indx media. He writes on range of topics from politics, economics and culture; to music and sport.