Staunton, January 26 – As horrified as many people around the world are about the British court’s finding that Vladimir Putin was behind the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko, both analysts in both the West and Eurasia say that Western governments “will do as little as [they] can get away with” against the Kremlin leader.
As James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia program at London’s Chatham House writes, Putin can’t be happy with the findings of the British court but he doesn’t appear to have a great deal to worry about as far as a serious Western response is concerned (chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/weak-response-litvinenko-inquiry-will-not-deter-russia).
“It is one thing to be a 'distinctive' voice in world politics, but another entirely to be outed as a probable murderer – as the final report of the inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko accuses him of being,” Nixey writes, adding that “the Russian response has been a familiar mixture of bluster, misrepresentation and conspiracy theory.”
“Fortunately for the Kremlin, the British government would like to move on too. Its outrage is probably genuine, but there has clearly been a decision to do as little as can be got away with. The actual substance of the British response has so far been confined to freezing the assets of the two accused assassins.”
Russian and Ukrainian analysts have reached the same conclusion, and that is likely to drive policy in both Moscow and Kyiv, with the former deciding that it has little to lose by continuing on as before given the absence of penalties and the latter recognizing that it is far more on its own than the brave words some Western leaders have suggested.
In a commentary for the Apostrophe portal, New York-based Russian historian Yuri Felshtinsky says that the London High Court’s findings do not threaten either Putin or Patrushev in any way either now or as long as they are in office (apostrophe.com.ua/article/world/2016-01-26/putin-planiroval-idealnoe-ubiystvo---znakomyiy-litvinenko-raskryil-detali/3075).
“Can something be done to punish these ‘probable’ murderers?” he asks rhetorically and immediately responds, “no.” As long as Putin is in office as president, he can’t even be banned from visiting England.
Of course, Felshtinsky continues, “this is a formal approach to the issue. Informally … Putin will face certain practical problems with visits to Great Britain.” And others will arise “at international meetings at the highest level because it will now be necessary to shake the hand of ‘a probable’ murderer.”
But that isn’t a problem for KGB officer Putin, the historian says. “He is ready to extend his hand to anyone. And with Putin’s successor as head of the FSB, Patrushev, there is also nothing to be done. He won’t travel to England, and during trips to other countries he will in all cases have diplomatic immunity as secretary of Russia’s Security Council.”
“It is possible to try to punish Putin, Patrushev and members of their families with economic sanctions. But certainly if they have money or property in Great Britain, all of this will have been registered under other names and it won’t be easy to find it even if there is a desire to do so.”
The situation of the two who carried out Litvinenko’s murder, on the other hand, is different. “They won’t be travelling abroad to civilized countries ever again. And most likely they even earlier didn’t keep any money in England.”
“One could broaden the sanctions list and introduce sanctiosn not only against the participants of the murder but also against Russia as a state because Litvinenko’s murder was a state murder, and in this, one can give free range to the imagination because there is no limit to such sanctions.”
“But it is a big question as to whether Great Britain which without enthusiasm approached the investigation of Litvinenko’s murder all these years will do so,” Felshtinsky says. “Prime Minister Cameron mistakenly considers that Great Britain needs Russia for joint actions against the Caliphate in Syria.”
Moreover and however that may be, the British leader “simply doesn’t want to worsen relations with Russia and Putin.” And consequently, the Russian analyst says, he “is not certain that Great Britain will impose real sanctions against Russia even though all the declarations are quite harsh, including those of Cameron himself.”
“What can one do with a man – I have in mind Putin,” Felshtinsky says “-- who started the Second Chechen war in 1999, the war with Georgia in 2008 and the one with Ukraine in 2014, who has not taken responsibility for the shooting down over Ukraine of the Malaysian airliner?”
And thus he concludes that “nothing will be done about Putin despite all his ever-more numerous crimes” until perhaps there is a tribunal in the Hague – and if that occurs, the Kremlin leader’s involvement in the murder of Litvinenko will “hardly be at the top of the list” of charges against him.
Ukrainian political analyst Sergey Taran comes at the issue somewhat differently. He says that the West, believing that “a bad peace is better than a good war,” now desperately wants to lift sanctions against Moscow, not increase them, and thus is prepared to reward Moscow for even taking part in negotiations (nv.ua/opinion/taran/pochemu-na-zapade-zagovorili-o-snjatii-sanktsij-93258.html).
Given that Moscow is now quite willing to “give the appearance of a willingness” to fulfill the Minsk accords, “European politicians have begun to speak about lifting sanctions.” And they don’t want to let the Litvinenko case get in the way of improving relations with Moscow.
“There is nothing new in this,” of course, he continues. And “no one should expect any sensational events because Russia is physically incapable of complete fulfilling the requirements of Minsk 2. It will not withdraw its forces.” Instead, it will lie and say it has fulfilled them when it has not.
But in the current environment that may be enough. The West “wants to incline Russia to talks so that it will cease to terrorize Ukraine,” as if talks were sufficient to do that. “This is a quite passive position, but in it there is a certain sense. The West has given Russia a choice: sanctions or negotiations. Russia doesn’t want sanctions so it shouts about negotiations.”
“Ukraine must understand,” Taran says, “that negotiations are negotiations” and that there is no guarantee they will yield agreements. Moreover, “after the Budapest memorandum, no one in Ukraine has any illusions regarding the reliability of agreements. The main guarantee of security for [Ukrainians] is their own strong army.”
Russian analysts have reached the same conclusions about the West and its desire for lifting sanctions, turning the page on Ukraine, and resuming relations with Moscow regardless of what the Kremlin has done. An article by Aleksandr Nosovich on the Rubaltic portal today is typical (rubaltic.ru/article/politika-i-obshchestvo/260116-nato/).
Nosovich suggests, because he is writing primarily about the Baltics, that if NATO is serious, it needs to rein in Poland and the Baltic countries rather than encourage these opponents of Russia. But what is most obvious is his clear conviction that time is on Russia’s side, that the West will seek to restore ties with Moscow and that all Moscow has to do is wait.
In that environment, he implies, all talk about doing more now that Putin has been identified as likely behind a murder in a Western capital with radioactive materials is just that, talk and something both Russia and its leader can safely ignore.