Russian President Vladimir Putin has characterized the current deterioration of Russian-U.K. relations as a “mini-crisis” that would be overcome in the “interests of common sense.” In fact, however, this diplomatic row is shaping up like no other, and Putin’s definition of “common sense” might prove to be rather different from the views of his European counterparts. Both Moscow and London declare their desire to develop positive, constructive relations, but the bitterness of the exchanges and the strong resonance in public opinion in both states indicate that this “episode” may, in fact, be just a symptom of a broader “systemic” crisis in Russia’s relations with the West (Vedomosti, July 23).
The immediate content of the quarrel – the expulsion of four Russian diplomats from the U.K. and Russia’s “symmetric” response – looks misleadingly familiar, but the trigger for these demarches was not the traditional spy scandal but rather an unprecedented criminal investigation (EDM, July 20). Russian mainstream media are full of accusations that the British authorities have deliberately raised impossible demands, since the constitution explicitly forbids any extradition of Russian citizens (Rossiiskaya gazeta, July 20; Expert, July 23). Few commentators dare to remind that several opposition politicians were delivered to Uzbekistan despite having Russian passports and that the case in question is, in fact, quite extraordinary, since the crime committed in London could qualify as state terrorism (Gazeta.ru, July 18). The State Prosecution Service that dismisses the evidence presented by the British authorities is not just protecting a suspected murderer but covering up a criminal plot that quite possibly has direct links to the Kremlin (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 23).
The crisis would have been quite profound on these grounds, but the Russian authorities opted for adding a “strategic” dimension by sending long-range Tu-95 bombers toward the British shores last Wednesday and again on Friday, July 20 (Lenta.ru, July 19). The command of the Russian Air Force denied any connection between these “normal activities” and the diplomatic row, but they would never dare to extend the regular Arctic patrol of strategic bombers even by a mile without an explicit order from the Kremlin (Newsru.com, July 20). The old Cold War workhorses, easily intercepted by British and Norwegian fighters, were not able to put on a convincing show of force, but it is puzzling for any “common-sense” expert – what is the rationale behind such flexing of Russia’s nuclear muscles? Moscow emphasizes its strong desire to check the escalation of the crisis, but by employing such forceful means it practically guarantees the awakening of all NATO allies to the wider ramifications of this “polonium affair.”
What Moscow is particularly worried about is the prospect of expanding the bilateral quarrel through solidarity actions by Britain’s European and Atlantic allies. During the first week of the “mini-crisis,” the United States, France, and other states confirmed their support for the U.K. position, while the EU Council adopted a short declaration that expressed “disappointment at Russia’s failure to cooperate constructively with the U.K. authorities.” Yesterday, July 23, EU foreign ministers gathered in Brussels for a previously scheduled inter-governmental conference that had an item on relations with Russia added to the agenda (Kommersant, July 21). A common position always takes time to materialize, but verbal statements will inevitably lead to practical steps targeting the particular interests of Putin’s people (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 24).
Russian officials dealing with economic matters feel obliged to put a brave face on their worries and assert that European companies are more interested in the fast-growing consumer and financial markets in Russia than Russian companies are in trading their shares on the London stock exchange (Gazeta, July 23). The fact of the matter is, however, that the top-level bureaucrats are quite upset by the ban on travel to the United Kingdom, and the prospect of not being able to spend a holiday break in the French Alps or to visit their villas in Spain is simply shocking. They sincerely cannot grasp why the murder of a “nobody” like former spy Alexander Litvinenko would involve such dire and entirely disproportionate consequences for members of the elite who have been Europeanized through blossoming corruption but remain pompously “patriotic” in protecting their privileges (Novaya gazeta, July 24).
One institution that has reasons to feel threatened by the deepening crisis is the FSB – and not only because the expelled diplomats belong to its cadre and more spies might be sent packing from cozy postings in Western capitals. The FSB is not only an all-penetrating “special service”; it is also a vast business empire with significant assets abroad. It was not lost upon the CEOs in the Lubianka headquarters that the North Korean nuclear crisis was resolved when Washington put pressure on a little-known bank in Macao, so they are now watching closely for every “affiliated” off-shore company under British jurisdiction. Seeking to pre-empt any unofficial but painful sanctions, the FSB rushed to announce the curtailing of counterterrorist cooperation with London, going well beyond the parameters of “symmetric” response. This demonstrative step in an area that is highly sensitive for Britain has only revealed, however, that the often praised cooperation in tracking and disabling terrorist networks has degenerated to merely pro-forma exchanges.
Moscow cannot expect this “mini-crisis” to dissipate on its own and cannot see an easy way out even if the FSB could easily arrange for Andrei Lugovoi, Litvinenko’s suspected killer, to “disappear” by some inconspicuous means. As Putin’s system of power has matured into an over-centralized petro-bureaucracy, plans for “strategic partnership” with the European Union and the United States have turned irrelevant, and now, as the political spasms in the Kremlin caused by the succession crisis become more frequent and painful, Russia’s behavior is becoming erratic and plain inadequate. Disengagement is a tempting but wrong choice for the West, as it would only serve the interests of most hawkish factions of Putin’s courtiers. It is, nevertheless, essential to establish that gas cannot buy respect and to insist that criminal bespredel (lawlessness) in state policy will not be tolerated.