Tony Abbott’s clarion call for action against Russia after the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine was, to many in Europe, almost a throwback to a different age. The 37 Australians who died when pro-Kremlin Ukrainian separatists shot down the plane on the afternoon of 17 July would probably still be alive if Vladimir Putin’s closest and most economically powerful neighbours and trading partners had taken a robust attitude towards him, and his support of separatists, when the extent of his cynical land-grab became apparent early in the northern spring this year. Instead, cowardice and the prospect of sheer financial advantage took over, nothing was done, and Russia saw no impediment to shipping in to Ukraine missile launchers (and, more to the point, the missiles launched from them) capable of bringing down a jet airliner at 33,000 feet.
Some of us in Europe have long regarded Russia as an exceptionally dangerous country, not least because Putin is so obviously amoral, ruthless, unstable and greedy. His regime is called a kleptocracy because of the amount of loot in bribes and from tax revenues he and his cronies have managed to salt away in Swiss bank accounts, London property and villas on the French Riviera. One of the few things European leaders did agree on when Putin’s stooges annexed the Crimea earlier this year was that hitting him and his tame oligarchs in the wallet would be the fastest way to make them see sense.
However, the sanctions that were then imposed on the movement of money affected a very small circle of those close to Putin and did nothing to restrain his ambitions. Britain, now marginalised in the European Union because of David Cameron’s dislike of the federalist agenda there, wanted to go far further: but some of Britain’s key partners, notably Germany and France, would not hear of it, and that began the sorry trail of inaction that led to the 298 dead of flight MH17.
Germany imports about 40 per cent of its gas from Russia, under deals struck years ago and which have nicely lined the pockets of at least one prominent former German politician. Gerhard Schröder, who preceded Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany, used his time in office to campaign for a new pipeline to bring gas in from Russia to Germany; and then, having left office, went on to become chairman of the shareholders’ committee of the pipeline company, and picked up other jobs in the energy industry.
Germany exports 36 billion euros worth of goods to Russia every year and it fears retaliation on both fronts if it supports tough sanctions, such as closing European financial markets to Russian money and freezing assets not just of individuals but of big corporations held in Europe. Visitors to Moscow will have seen the streets teeming with BMWs, Audis and Mercedes-Benzes, and high-quality German electrical goods also find a willing home there. Germany is supporting much of the European economy and spending billions of euros trying to stop the common currency imploding. If the industries that earn Germany money lose one of their big export markets, then German power (which in this era, for the moment at least, is economic rather than military) is seriously compromised. And if Germany can no longer pay the bills of economically weak nations such as Greece, which should never have been allowed to join the European single currency bloc in the first place, then the euro could collapse and, with it, the whole European project.
Frau Merkel was, however, foolish not have moved against Putin in the spring. Having your energy supplies cut off in April in Europe — if that had been what Putin chose to do if cut off economically by Europe — would have given those countries heavily dependent on Russian gas the best part of six months to find other sources of supply before winter threatened to set in again.
Putin has power because a cadre of rich Russians find it in their interests to keep him there. If their earnings from the energy business collapsed, and if they no longer had access to their property and their money in European cities and European banks, life would rapidly become deeply unpleasant for them. Faced with the loss of his power bases, Putin would have been driven to the negotiating table long before now, and taught where exactly his place was in a supposedly civilised world. Instead, 298 blameless people are dead.
Someone with Mr Abbott’s moral clarity on the matter will find the response of Putin’s near neighbours incomprehensible: and that, indeed, is the view of many of us in Europe. Europe, and not just Germany, is terrified to make an enemy of him. Italy, for example, gets 26 per cent of its gas from Russia, and the idea of the heating going off in northern cities such as Turin, Genoa, Milan or Venice in December or January is unbearable. France is building two Mistral-class helicopter warships for the Russians, perfect for parking in the Black Sea and using to attack towns and villages in Ukraine — for example. France’s amoebic president François Hollande — known to his critics at home as Monsieur Flanby, after a cheap and cheerful wobbly jelly dessert popular with French children — first of all said that he couldn’t possibly cancel the contract because hundreds of jobs would be lost in the otherwise run-down port of St-Nazaire.
Now, following an outcry after the shooting down of flight MH17, M Hollande has indicated he might let the Russians have only one of the ships. He still awaits the chorus of approval from the world at his decision to help facilitate the murders of only half the number of innocent people as might otherwise have been the case.
So long as countries such as Germany, Italy and France find it is in their financial interest to treat with Putin, there will be no sanctions worthy of the term against Russia. Therefore Russia will carry on supplying separatists in Ukraine, and indeed in any other former Soviet territory where a Russian diaspora wishes to break free of its non-Russian rulers, with the means to advance the cause of Greater Russia.
Predictably, Putin’s mouthpieces said when the plane came down that it had been shot down by pro-European Ukrainians: but when that, quite quickly, started to defy belief, he said that the country over which the plane blew up was the one responsible for the catastrophe. That is a little like blaming Scotland for the Lockerbie bombing, or America for 9/11.
But it should not have taken this act of mass murder to open people’s eyes to Putin, and to the damage he can do in the world. Britain has done next to nothing to hold Russia to account for the murder of a former KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, by polonium poisoning in London in 2006, even though one of Putin’s agents put the poison in his tea. It continued to invite Putin to meetings of the G8 and G20 long after his associates were murdering journalists or businessmen who refused to do his bidding, long after he was blatantly rigging elections, long after the courts in Russia ceased to dispense anything resembling justice, and long after his kleptocratic practices had been exposed.
An ethical foreign policy may be a work of fantasy, but a country does have to have some standards. In doing so much as it does to shore up Russia’s ruling elite, Europe suggests to the rest of the world that it has no standards at all. On behalf of the families and friends of the 37 people who will now never come home to Australia, perhaps Tony Abbott would like to ask Frau Merkel how many BMWs, Audis, fridges and washing machines she thinks each of those lives was worth.
Simon Heffer is political columnist at the Daily Mail and a former deputy editor of The Spectator. He is author of several books, including most recently Simply English and High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain.