Tom Ball

The British government must not let Russia off the hook

The British government must not let Russia off the hook
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On the day that Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned, Arsenal were hosting CSKA Moscow for the second leg of a Champions League group stage match. The game ended a goalless draw with the home side left frustrated by a series of squandered chances.

Watching the game that evening from his box above the stands was Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire tycoon who had fled Russia six years earlier and been given political asylum in Britain. Two boxes over and former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi was also watching the game. As he would later claim, Lugovoi had travelled from Moscow the day before to watch his home team in action.

But Lugovoi also had business to attend to in London. In the few days he spent in the capital he met with a number of friends and associates, including his former boss Berezovsky, with whom he shared a bottle of wine at the oligarch’s offices in Mayfair.

More well known is his meeting with Litvinenko. A few hours before kick-off, Lugovoi met with Litvinenko – another former KGB officer – to discuss Lugovoi’s new security consultancy back in Russia. They were joined by a man named Dmitri Kovtun and another unnamed figure, who has not been seen or heard of since. The four men drank tea and discussed a possible business partnership, and afterwards Lugovoi went to Highbury, and Litvinenko went home, fell severely ill that evening and died three weeks later having ingested a massive dose of poisonous radioactive material.

The next time Arsenal hosted CSKA Moscow in a European football tournament was in April of this year, and again a former Russian agent, along with his daughter, was lying in a hospital bed, having been poisoned with a Russian-produced chemical weapon while out for the day in Salisbury. Against all the odds, and nearly all expert opinion, Sergei and Yulia Skripal were released from hospital and are now most likely in the USA, where they will spend the rest of their lives in hiding under state protection.

The same cannot be said, however, for Dawn Sturgess, who died last month, the only known fatality from the assassination attempt. Sturgess and her partner Charlie Rowley, who has now been discharged from hospital, are collateral damage in a dangerous game of retribution that the Russian state has been playing on British soil for years.

An extradition request for the failed assassins, is expected to be issued within the next few weeks. It will have no effect whatsoever, as it did in 2007 when Britain requested the extradition of Lugovoi. Officials, of course, are aware of this and when the refusal duly arrives they will have to plot their next move. This may well take the form of further diplomatic expulsions, but given the fact that Britain has already expelled 23 Russian diplomats – which Russia in turn responded to by expelling 73 British diplomats – this may seem rather pointless.

The most logical step to take next is to hold a public inquiry. Thus far, the case has been fenced off from public knowledge by a stockade of government D-notices that prevent the media from releasing information deemed so sensitive as to harm national interests. Holding a public inquiry would give an open airing to the facts and events surrounding one of the biggest international stories of 2018. It would put to bed any doubt over Russia’s guilt that lingers on in certain quarters, particularly following the extraordinarily successful PR exercise of the World Cup.

It would also go some way to atoning for the mistakes made in the wake of Litvinenko’s assassination, when the Home Office of the day, as well as the subsequent Tory-led Home Office (at that time under the ministership of Theresa May), refused to hold a public inquiry until as late as 2014, for fear of damaging relations and burgeoning economic ties with Russia.

Litvinenko’s wife, Marina, was tireless in her campaign to have the case heard publically, and now she is rightly calling again for an open hearing, for the sake of ‘Britain’s international standing’. Which is quite right. Last time Britain let Putin off the hook with a weak response, Russia proceeded to invade Georgia in 2008 and the Crimea in 2014. Now relations are as bad as they have ever been, with the national security council designating Russia as a top-tier threat, because since then Moscow has incrementally ratcheted up its acts of aggression.

Holding a public inquiry would be the first step in firmly establishing Russia’s culpability from which the government could then in good faith consider targeted sanctions, asset freezes and visa bans that affect those close to the seat of power who have a presence in the UK, individuals such as Igor Shuvalov, until recently Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, who owns millions of pounds’ worth of Westminster real estate.

The Skripal poisoning like the Litvinenko poisoning was deliberately overt and gruesome. Russia has maintained chemical weapons laboratories since the 1920s and knows how to kill without leaving a trace, but the slow and painful methods subjected on the Skripals and Litvinenko were purposefully selected as both revenge and as a warning to other would-be traitors to the Kremlin.

A government that performs these sorts of acts is not a government we should consider delivering clemency to for the sake of trade deals or eased relations. Doing so would only increase the chance of it happening again.