Mon, Mar 19, 2018 - Page 7 News List

The world needs to see past Putin’s fog of lies

Moscow will not cooperate with an investigation into the Salisbury attack; the Russian president simply relies on spreading doubt to get away with everything he does

By Jonathan Freedland  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

In the Vladimir Putin showreel, doubtless given repeat airings in the run-up to yesterday’s presidential faux election, there is usually a place among the shirtless poses and horseback shots for images of the Russian president on the judo mat. Putin is such a committed judoka, he has even released his own instructional DVD, wittily titled: Let’s Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin.

It is not hard to explain Putin’s enthusiasm for the martial art, beyond its conspicuous machismo. Judo allows the skilled practitioner to turn his opponent’s strengths into weaknesses and his own weaknesses into strengths. For the past fortnight, since the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei and Yulia Skripal on the streets of Salisbury, Putin has been giving a masterclass in just how to do that.

He has shown us how he sees, for example, the basic tenets of democracy — whether that is free speech or belief in the rule of law, evidence and due process. To us, those might look like the firm pillars that hold up a decent society, but to a black belt such as Putin they are rotten timbers, ripe for a good kicking and liable to bring down the whole edifice.

Take the political response to the Salisbury attack. On the face of it, British Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn’s position seems eminently reasonable.

Anxious to learn the lessons of the Iraq catastrophe of 2003, he suggested exercising patience: waiting to see where the investigation leads, not “rush[ing] way ahead of the evidence.”

After all, the intelligence agencies had been wrong before, his spokesman said.

Such a stance seems not just authentic for Corbyn, given his long record, but also right. Who could possibly be against such a call for calm and deliberation?

Put aside the fact that Corbyn’s position is oddly contradictory. If Moscow’s guilt is not certain, why does he support British Prime Minister Theresa May’s expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats? By his own logic, surely that move should also wait until the case is proven.

Put aside too the mismatch between this incident and the Iraq case. No one is calling for military action now.

Back then, the argument was over whether to deal pre-emptively with a threat of weapons of mass destruction that might or might not exist, in a country several thousand miles away. This time, the question is how to respond to an event that has actually happened and which no one denies: the use of a chemical weapon against civilians on a British street.

What is more, there is Russia’s past form. The roll call of murdered enemies of the Russian state is long. We know Moscow is not above eliminating its critics in Britain: Witness the 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko and the murder inquiry Scotland Yard announced late on Friday into the death of the Russian businessman Nikolai Glushkov.

As for the suggestion that a criminal gang, rather than agents of the Kremlin, might be responsible, the experts are skeptical: It is almost impossible to use the nerve agent “Novichok” without getting killed unless you know what you are doing.

It is for these reasons, among others, that Britain, Germany, France and the US issued a joint statement concluding that there was “no plausible alternative explanation” for the attack in Salisbury.

Those pleas to delay judgement point to a wider error: a misreading of the nature of the contemporary Russian state. In fairness to Corbyn, he is not the only one to make this mistake. US President Donald Trump’s initial reaction was also to plead for patience and to suggest that guilt might lie elsewhere.

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