Im-Putin-g the Russian Bear

The appalling death of Alexander Litvinenko, amid a trail of polonium-210 residues has led many commentators to talk of a new Cold War. Fortified by its gas and oil, Putin’s Russia is chesting it out with all its clients, neighbours and global partners. Its hard-nosed attitudes and complete lack of empathy for other traditions is based, many would argue, on a 20th century calumny in which the communist regime ‘purged’ intellectuals, dissidents, refuseniks, the independently minded, non-Russian nationalists, peasants et al. Estimates vary between 20 and 60 million people dying through this political cleansing and the consequences of war. The overall result has been the embedding of a set of cultural values which continues to uphold the state above the individual, where life is cheap and to kill does not involve much moral uncertainty. Meanwhile, in Britain, the life of the individual is held in the highest ethical regard. Litvinenko’s death was one of the first nuclear radiation assassinations and dozens of other British citizens were, to some degree, contaminated.

Now we have entered tit for tat Cold War diplomacy. Britain will deport four embassy workers (Russian secret service) and wait to see what the response is. Almost inevitably it will be more of the same, the tightening of visa restrictions and so on. We insist that the chief suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, be extradited for trial here. The Russians (given their history, summarised above) have an implacable constitutional barrier to any extradition but have offered trial on their soil. Our Government says it would be skewed and have refused. Bad slur. Bad politics. We are becoming involved in a formulaic set of encounters that reduce communication, understanding and a possible way out of the impasse.

What should we do? My own view is that we should take the Russians up on a trial in their own country. They are hidebound by ideology and haven’t a subtle projection of what might happen when such a trial becomes the subject of international interest. TV cameras from every country in the world. All poring over the trial’s processes. Discussions of fairness, openness, honesty. Mother Russia would be on trial for its legal stature. If she blatantly manipulates the due legal process, then she loses face, dramatically. If the evidence is strong enough in her own and international eyes to lead to prosecution, she gains.

Life is a mixture of order and chaos in all its aspects. The more we try to impose logic, pattern and prediction upon it the more our best laid plans produce consequences that are far removed from our intentions. It is from within the chaos of the unpremeditated that much richness and value can emerge. Instead of trying to control British relations with Russia in stiff, ambassadorial predictability which could lead to months if not years of stand-off, why not acquiesce to their insistence on a Russian trial for a Russian suspect? We may gain far more than we can conjecture.

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