It was murder, but calling it such will change nothing
The tension mounts. The crisis deepens. The Russian ambassador has been summoned to the Foreign Office for the truly nail-biting experience of a dressing-down from Margaret Beckett. After four months of indolence, the moth-eaten British lion has finally woken up and emitted a roar in the direction of Moscow. Scotland Yard long ago decided that one man was responsible for the horrific murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen living in London. The Crown Prosecution Service has now agreed.
One name is in the frame, and across Middle England, the cry is the same. “Oi! Putin!” says the voice of Britain. “Give us Lugovoi!” And that, more or less, was the message conveyed to the Kremlin by the Foreign Office yesterday – and seldom can there have been a suspect more deserving of extradition.
Everything about the murder of Litvinenko seemed designed to stoke our indignation. It was all so callous, so blatant, so deliberately chilling.
We were introduced to this terrifying radioactive element, Polonium 210, the most toxic substance in the world. We heard that one drop of the stuff, no larger than a full stop, could be used to poison a legion. We heard that this nightmare gunk could ignite a dirty bomb, or an even huger nuclear chain reaction, and that once you swallowed some teensy amount you would go into an irreversible and hideous decline, with your organs failing and your hair falling out, and no hope of an antidote.
We learnt with disgust and disbelief that the murderer had been sprinkling it around the sushi bars of the West End of London as if it were soy sauce, and leaving trails of it in the washrooms of posh hotels.
The whole thing smacked of a kind of insolence. It was if the Russian murderer, and whoever was backing him, wanted to teach the British a lesson – that there was no limits to the sadism and vengefulness of the perpetrators. It was like a warning to the Russian expatriate community, and to the British Government that has given some of them asylum, that there was nowhere beyond their reach.
Be good to yourself, tovarish, was the message from Moscow. Don’t irritate Mr Putin, and don’t get on the wrong side of the Russian Secret Services, or your children could find Polonium 210 on their cornflakes.
It was a vile challenge to the rule of law in this country, and many of us will be pleased that Sir Ken Macdonald, the DPP, has decided to go after the man who – and this is the final insult – allegedly took so few precautions that he left a radioactive trail on his flights to Moscow and back, either forgetting, or just not caring, that the rate of decay of the isotope has allowed forensic scientists to establish to the apparent satisfaction of the DPP where the trail allegedly began.
A murder took place, of a British citizen, on British soil, and we won’t stand for it. This isn’t Moscow, we say. You can’t bump people off in coffee lounges, just because they have been mildly disobliging about the regime.
Once again it falls to us to stand up against tyranny in the former Soviet Union, and as the excitement intensifies we have that sensation from our childhoods: of once again facing a threat from Moscow, an authoritarian in the Kremlin, a man who crushes dissent; and we speak of relations “hitting an all-time low”, and the danger of reprisals from Putin; and above all we speak of a “new Cold War”; and in so far as we use that phrase we are, of course, talking utter rubbish.
I remember the Cold War. It was pretty scary, for a child; but with 200,000 Russians in London, and with oil oligarchs owning our football clubs, and with Russian voices regularly audible on the Tube, this is not going to be a new Cold War.
The sad truth is that this is just a spat, a little trident-waving from Britannia, a little growling from the Bear – and a spat from which both sides have something to gain. For the Putin-backing Russians, the refusal to extradite Lugovoi shows that they can still be taken seriously, that they are a force to be reckoned with, even if they are disliked.
Russians were shocked by the humiliation of 1991, when the number two world superpower found itself the recipient of food aid. It has been dizzying to see the international decline of Russian prestige and clout, and in so far as Putin gives them a sense that he won’t be pushed around, he is popular.
Of course there are many Russians who deplore the murder; but there are at least as many who think it hypocritical of us to demand the extradition of Lugovoi while refusing to allow them to have Boris Berezovsky, who has actually called for Putin to be overthrown by violence.
As for us, the British, there is one notable domestic controversy that is hugely assisted by the presence of Putin in the Kremlin, and the suggestion of a “New Cold War”. Does anyone agree with me that it is downright spooky that the whole story should be in the news again, reminding us of sinister Mr Putin – just as Tony Blair was announcing a vast new programme of nuclear reactors? There are many people in this country who are scared of nuclear power; and they are wrong, in my view.
But there is one prospect that they might be persuaded to find even more scary, and that is Putin having his hands around our economic windpipe, and our energy supplies, by turning off the gas. The Russians will come out of this affair feeling that they can’t be pushed around by Britain; the British will be confirmed in their view that you can’t trust Putin, a point that will be helpful for pro-nuclear campaigners.
Trade will continue to grow between Britain and Russia, and the losers will be Alexander Litvinenko and his family, because there is not a cat’s chance in hell of bringing his alleged killers to face British justice.