Russia’s continuing brutality in Chechnya is the root cause of the Beslan massacre. So why does Blair grovel to Putin? The answer, says Simon Heffer, is oil
Were any of us unlucky enough to be Vladimir Putin, we too would be keen to make the rest of the world think that what happened in Beslan last week was yet another chapter in al-Qa’eda’s campaign of international terrorism. Luckily, you would have some evidence to bear out your theory. Some of the hostage-takers were Arab mercenaries. Some Chechen separatists have been trained abroad and have received funding from international organisations. There is evidence that an externally inspired campaign is under way not so much to secure Chechen independence from Russia as to destabilise that whole region, setting predominantly Muslim Ingus against predominantly Christian Ossetians. Yes, if you were Mr Putin you would not wish to suggest in any way that your own prehistoric policy towards Chechnya — one of many brutal, offensive and downright unacceptable ways in which you have behaved over the last five years or so — was more to blame than ‘international terrorism’.
Before the West rushes to welcome Mr Putin’s Russia into the family of shared suffering caused by terrorism, it might care to pause and reflect on the real nature of the state whose people suffered this ghastly tragedy in Beslan; and on the real nature of its government. To use a phrase fashionably in the news in another context, Russia is a kleptocracy. It is in many respects, and increasingly, a gangster state. Its politicians and officialdom are widely and systematically corrupt. Its recent presidential elections were rigged. Its media are not free — this week the editor of Izvestia was sacked for criticising Mr Putin’s Chechnya policies. The observation of basic human rights is in many respects no better than under the old Soviet regime. Rule is arbitrary and often violent. There is in many cases little distinction between businessmen and criminals. While being in itself the victim of attempts at destabilisation, it is seeking to destabilise other regimes in its orbit, notably in the Baltic states.
Yet Russia is also a country with which Britain is seeking ever closer ties. We are one of the greatest overseas investors in Russia. The Prime Minister himself has gone to great lengths to show his personal affection and regard for Mr Putin. This week Downing Street declared that now is not the time to discuss Russia’s policies in Chechnya. In fact, there could not be a better time. In the past five years, and on Mr Putin’s orders, the Chechen capital of Grozny has been all but obliterated, the Russian armed forces there have behaved viciously, and the old fascist/communist staples of detention camps and ‘disappearances’ have become a routine part of life in Chechnya.
Why, when Russia behaves in a way that would normally have a Labour government calling for sanctions against it, does the Blair administration turn a blind eye to Putin’s excesses and brutalities? Is it simply that, with the Cold War consigned to history, our government has decided that never again — whatever the provocation — must a nation so considerable and so geographically near as Russia be in the enemy camp? Wasn’t that why, after all, Mr Blair rushed to Moscow at the end of April last year to try to make friends with Mr Putin after the two men had become estranged over the Iraq war?
Certainly, no effort was spared to patch up the quarrel. After Mr Putin proved to be rather charm-free on Mr Blair’s visit to him, the boat was pushed out two months later when he paid the first visit to Britain by a Russian head of state since 1874. At the state banquet in his honour at the end of June 2003 the Queen herself recognised that there had been differences in the preceding months but argued the need for Britain and Russia to remain ‘firm partners’. More to the point, she said that Mr Putin and his programme of ‘reforms’ had her — for which read her government’s — ‘admiration, respect and support’.
That was heady stuff. The fact that you can be locked up in Russia without trial simply for having political ambitions (ask Yukos oil boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky) would, to take just one example of Mr Putin’s behaviour, seem worthy of neither respect nor admiration, and definitely ought not to be supported. Then Her Majesty went on: ‘We support your efforts to create a modern, prosperous and dynamic state, and we look forward to working with you on this and on many international questions on the basis of our shared values.’ If Her Majesty’s ministers, who wrote such guff for her, seriously believe that we in this country share ‘values’ with someone so wedded to the notion of the abuse of state power as Mr Putin, then God help us too. In his own observations on the Anglo-Russian relationship, Mr Blair said that ‘the things that bind us together in politics, security and economics, are very important. Together we can achieve our mutual goals of global stability, economic growth and international development.’
As if to satisfy the beliefs of all left-wing conspiracy theorists, money, notably oil money, appears to have been more behind this breathtaking act of international grovelling than any basic fear of re-opening the Cold War. On the eve of Mr Putin’s visit Mr Blair said that oil and gas deals signed with the Russians by British firms would soon make us the biggest investor in that country. The Putin visit was marked by a Russia-UK energy conference to celebrate these investments. BP announced it was investing $6.75 billion and setting up Russia’s third largest oil company, TNK-BP. Shell announced that it would be part of a consortium putting $10 billion into the oil industry in Sakhalin, in the Russian Far East. The two countries also signed a memorandum of understanding about their future co-operation in constructing a $5.7 billion, 1,200 km gas pipeline under the Baltic from Russia to Britain.
If Britain is not currently aware of how much it might come to depend on Russia for energy, it is only because we have not been listening. The Labour MP and former energy minister Brian Wilson said at the time of Mr Putin’s visit that Britain will be generating 70 per cent of its electricity by gas by the year 2020 and that 90 per cent of that gas will be imported, much of it from Russia. Then, in recent weeks, we should all have seen the effect on the price of crude oil whenever it has been feared that Yukos might stop production as a result of the company’s (and Mr Khodorkovsky’s) persecution by the Russian government. Only last week a court in Russia was reported to have agreed to a request from those prosecuting the imprisoned oligarch that would prevent the company from accessing its bank accounts and therefore engaging in production. The request was to enable the authorities to help themselves to $2.6 billion of Yukos’s money which they claim belongs to the state. The price of New York light crude rose 42 cents a barrel on the news, and London Brent 48 cents.
When Mr Putin came to London he put on a white tie and, looking the very model of a 1930s capitalist, told captains of industry at a Guildhall dinner that he was pushing through reforms that would take his country’s economy further along the ‘European vector’. Judging by the way in which they showed such willingness to reach for their corporate chequebooks, they believed him. Our Foreign Office, too, has long had great ambitions for the future of the Russian economy. In Moscow in 2001 I remember being astounded to hear a senior British diplomat say, in all seriousness, that Russia had the potential within a couple of decades to join the EU. Yet Mr Putin has a strict order of priorities, at the top of which comes the preservation of himself and his regime. Mr Khodorkovsky got very rich very quickly — at the age of 40 he was worth $8 billion — on the back of a deal he did with Boris Yeltsin. Once Mr Putin got wind of the fact that Mr Khodorkovsky was considering a career in politics, it was conveniently discovered that he had probably committed fraud and tax evasion.
That was 11 months ago and he has been awaiting trial ever since. His friends and counsel expect the trial to be held in secret. The effect has been devastating on Yukos and on its shareholders, many of whom are British. Even the normally emollient British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Roderic Lyne, has been forced to express his concern at the indirect consequences to British shareholders of the Russian state’s treatment of Yukos. It is quite likely that Mr Khodorkovsky was chancing his arm in some respects. However, the whole case is a paradigm of what is wrong with Russia: no real democracy, and no real rule of law as the civilised world would understand either concept.
In the aftermath of the horrors of Beslan, Mr Putin will be relying on the goodwill of the civilised world to a greater extent than ever before. Clearly, in terms of that world’s energy needs, it increasingly relies on Mr Putin too. It should alarm us that problems with Russian oil supply can affect the price of crude in a way that we thought only problems in the Middle East could. But the West is doing itself no favours, and Russia neither, if it continues to f