Putin: The New Tsar is a superb BBC documentary, produced to coincide with Russia’s presidential election. Unsurprisingly Vladimir Putin won a further six years in office over the weekend.
The programme tells the story of a man who did not set out to lead his country but unwittingly found himself in such a position, having risen through the ranks under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Any discernible ideological grounding seems absent. A desire for extreme self-enrichment is ever present. A pursuit of so-called stability and the imposition of authority at the expense of democracy and human rights are a common feature.
The presidential poll over the weekend was called an election, but Putin’s principal adversary, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was barred from standing. The media was rigged in Putin’s favour, state employees were pressurised to vote for the incumbent, and video footage from polling stations has shown election officials stuffing boxes with ballot papers. So, less a democracy, and increasingly an autocracy.
What can be discerned is a determination on the part of this former KGB man to restore Russia to its former status as a world superpower after its perceived humiliation at the hands of the West during the Cold War – that at least appears to be Putin’s primary motive. Consequently, he has a complete disregard for the rules-based, liberal international order established after the Second World War.
The Labour members of Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition cabinet – Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Arthur Greenwood – helped shape the 1941 Atlantic Charter. The charter, drafted by the UK and the US, which our allies all signed up to, set the framework for that order and a vision for a postwar world. Countries would have the right to self-determination and all people the right to freedom of speech, of expression, of religion and freedom from want and fear.
The charter led to the establishment of the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and Nato, among other organisations. It has helped maintain relative peace and stability across Europe since the war. At its heart was a desire to stop such wars from occurring again, in part by the stimulation of trade to raise the living standards of those in all countries.
The system is not perfect and needs reform. It has lost some of its moral energy since its birth and has become tarnished by its seeming bias towards delivering huge rewards economically for Davos Man, with his sense of privilege and entitlement, and not nearly enough for middle and lower income families. But, overall, though imperfect, there is no denying this order has worked and the values that underpin it are good, decent British values – which is why we must defend it to the hilt.
This liberal rules-based framework now faces challenge and opposition from the extremes of the left and right globally. They oppose this order for various reasons but have failed to put forward any alternative that would deliver anything like the same benefits.
The most obvious challenge comes from Donald Trump, who has just merrily launched a trade war. And then there’s the poisoning of the ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury using a military grade nerve agent, which not only put the life of the former agent and his daughter at risk but that of the policeman who first attended the incident and the lives of hundreds of other people on British soil. It is the latest brazen example of Russia’s flouting of this same order. That is why it was right for the Prime Minister to respond as she did to Russia’s use of a chemical weapon on our streets.
It is also why comparisons with the UK’s military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are wide of the mark. There has been no invasion in this instance as was the case in Iraq, no action to dismantle a terrorist network which lay behind the action in Afghanistan, nor are we talking about an intervention to stop a dictator butchering his own people, as with Libya. This is a quite different situation.
“Where is the evidence?” some ask, drawing parallels between the dossier that was presented to Parliament suggesting Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in 2002 and the intelligence services assessment of Russian culpability this week. There of course were lessons to be learnt from the mistakes of Iraq (I was opposed to it at the time). However, importing comparisons with Iraq onto every subsequent conflict is plainly ridiculous.
Sir John Chilcot and his Iraq Inquiry found that judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s WMDs were presented with a certainty in 2002-3 that was not justified by the intelligence. Again, today’s confrontation with Russia is a very different situation.
Here it has been established beyond doubt that a nerve agent was used on British soil endangering life and that it had been produced by Russia. The Russian government has provided no explanation that could suggest that it lost control of its nerve agent and no explanation as to how this agent came to be used on our streets, nor has it explained why it has an undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law. In these circumstances and given its past actions in the UK and abroad, you have to ask: what further evidence could you need to convince you of its culpability?
There has been talk about testing samples. Quite rightly, the Government was and is already following the protocols of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons: its inspectors arrive here today to test samples of the chemical used in the Salisbury attack.
In the end, we have to make a judgement: do you give Russia the benefit of the doubt in these circumstances or do you trust our British intelligence services, people who put their lives on the line every day to keep our country safe? I prefer to follow and act on the advice of those with Britain’s interests and values at the forefront of their minds.
For all these reasons, I and other MPs across several parties have signed an early day motion (EDM), tabled by my Labour colleague John Woodcock, in the House of Commons backing the Government on this matter. Some in the Labour Party are incapable of judging any stance on any issue – including this EDM – except through the prism of their loyalty to whoever holds the post of leader. Any dissent from the party line – in tone or words – can never be out of principle, only out of enmity towards Jeremy Corbyn. Never mind that this is an issue of national security and that support for (or opposition to) action in these circumstances cuts across party lines.
Believe it or not, the security of this country and one’s constituency is the number one consideration for any Member of Parliament. Strange as it may be for some, that comes above all else. I see Brexit in a similar light: it is a matter that transcends party politics. And make no mistake – Brexit will compromise our ability to address the kind of aggression we see from Russia.
The Government has announced a tranche of political, diplomatic and financial measures in response to the Skripal poisoning. Yet, as Theresa May’s nominal deputy, cabinet office minister David Lidington, has said, “The EU has its own unique selling points when it comes to international security. Its advantage lies in the broad and complementary tools it can use – diplomatic, civilian, military, developmental, and financial – which it can apply collectively to promote international peace, often in places where Nato and others cannot act.”
As we consider how to respond to the continuing challenge to a rules-based order and the democratic values that underpin it, we cannot ignore the challenge that leaving the EU club – if it happens – will pose to our ability to act in the future.