John Humphrys: Where next with Russia?

February 23, 2024, 3:53 PM GMT+0

It is a week since Alexei Navalny was killed. It is two years since Ukraine was invaded. The West reacted to both with broadly the same message: Putin must not be allowed to get away with it. And yet, it seems, Putin is being allowed to get away with it. It’s true that, in the case of Ukraine, Russia is paying a heavy price. Or, rather, vast numbers of Russian soldiers – most of them conscripts – are doing so. The ultimate price. Latest estimates suggest the number of dead and seriously wounded has passed 400,000.

But, viewed from his magnificent mansion just outside Moscow, that is clearly a price Putin is prepared to pay. Just so long as the west fails to follow through on its threats of what David Cameron calls “consequences”. Some of the most seasoned observers of this deadly game reckon recent history is on Putin’s side. Where do you stand?

Edward Lucas, Senior Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis and a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate, writes in the Mail that Putin suspects the threats from the west are merely bluster and the west will do next to nothing: “He has watched us stand by while he razed Chechnya, bullied Estonia, invaded Georgia, annexed Crimea and propped up a fascist dictatorship in Syria. And even when President Assad gassed his own people with the connivance of the Russians, we did nothing but wring our hands.”

You might argue, the West has done far more than that. Had western countries – above all the United States – not supplied Ukraine with vast quantities of arms and ammunition, Putin would long since have been driven through the streets of Kyiv in triumph. Instead Russian forces have had to fight hard for every hectare they have gained against Ukrainian forces armed with billions of dollars’ worth of Western weapons. But the sources of those weapons are drying up. As Lucas puts it, the Ukrainians are being increasingly abandoned by the West and they are in danger of losing the war. To a large extent, he writes, that is our fault because they have asked us, again and again, for more weapons – especially artillery shells and long-range missiles - but “we have dithered and flinched.”

The former foreign secretary William Hague holds much the same view – not just on the need to supply Ukraine with far more weapons but to take action against Moscow on a very different front that is a long way from the horrors of the battlefield. That front lies in the banks and boardrooms of the West’s great financial centres. Both Lucas and Hague want to hit Putin directly where they reckon it will hurt him the most: in his pocket.

So do some leaders of the big western democracies who are holding a virtual summit this weekend to mark the second anniversary of the invasion.

They will be discussing what, if anything, to do about the Russian financial assets that were frozen on the outbreak of war. They add up to more than €260 billion. As Lord Hague points out, the US, UK, Canada and Japan have all warmed to the idea of confiscating those assets and using the money to help Ukraine. But most of it is held inside the EU in a financial institution in Belgium and the three biggest EU countries, France, Germany and Italy have so far been very reluctant to agree to seizing it.

On one level that reluctance is understandable. International law says it’s not allowed. But some might say: doesn’t international law prohibit one powerful country from sending its tanks across the borders of a less powerful neighbour without a shred of justification or provocation? From shelling and bombing the citizens of that country? From reducing towns and villages to rubble? From murdering literally countless thousands of entirely innocent civilians – men women and children – in pursuit of its ambitions to spread its empire?

The simple morality of that argument is hard to challenge. As Lord Hague writes in The Times: “Putin has abandoned all notions of law and humanity, launching a war of aggression, occupying territory, executing civilians, abducting children, bombarding cities and murdering opponents. It is arguably ridiculous to let anyone hang on to their assets on legal grounds when they have become an international criminal in so many respects.”

So if that money were to be seized, what might happen to it? One simple solution would be to give it to Ukraine so that they could repair the massive damage the Russians have done to their towns and cities. The World Bank estimates that it would cost some $486 billion.

But the practical reality of seizing a vast fortune of another country’s financial assets might well entail some pretty unwelcome consequences. Enormously rich countries like Saudi Arabia or even China, neither of whom can themselves claim unblemished human rights records, might take fright and switch their assets out of sterling or euros or dollars and that might in turn destabilise global finance.

But, as he points out, “legal niceties and economic ructions should not be the top priorities when dealing with rogue states. While the obstacles to taking this course of action may be daunting, they can be overcome… Severing the tentacles of the Kremlin’s economic octopus will hurt Putin personally, and stoke tensions within his inner circle. It would also provide a war chest for Ukraine’s fight and eventual reconstruction.”

He also suggests we should be “far tougher with Putin’s international ‘enablers’: the bankers, lawyers, accountants, spivs, creeps and grifters who undermine Western sanctions… Among them are oil-traders in the United Arab Emirates, money-men in offshore financial jurisdictions in the Caribbean, those who create shell companies and trusts that conceal ownership and the go-betweens who enable Russian deals with other rogue states such as Venezuela, Myanmar and African dictatorships. To their shame, many of these people are British — and should face criminal penalties for helping Putin. Those from all countries should face visa bans when they try to travel to other Western countries. U.S. passport-holders would find they can’t visit Britain, and vice versa. Europe could add sanctions too.”

As a result, G7 leaders are likely to clutch at a compromise that is readily available. They will probably focus on using the proceeds of the assets — the interest on them and the profit from assets that are maturing — to help Ukraine. Russia has no legal claim to those proceeds, so this is easy to agree. The trouble is that this would only amount to €5-6 billion a year, way too little to be of serious help to Kyiv or to impose a clear penalty on Moscow.

Lord Hague has no doubts that the leaders of the G7 countries should decide, however reluctantly, that in principle Russia’s assets can be seized. As he writes, two years of relentless aggression and murder have now elapsed and western leaders should ask themselves in what circumstances they would ever agree to “unfreeze” the money and release it back to Putin. His conclusion: “ We have passed the point at which those assets will ever be returned. They would be better used to support Ukraine and to impose an escalating penalty on Putin.”

So let’s assume that the west does indeed seize the Russian billions but it doesn’t have the desired effect. Then what?

Edward Lucas has one proposition: we kill Putin. Or at least help Ukraine to kill him. Easier said than done, you might think, and he agrees that it is the most outlandish of all the options but he argues that Putin’s assassination of Navalny, his killings of other opponents and his warmongering have all made him a legitimate target himself. But how? Here’s what he says:

“Kyiv’s drone attacks on Moscow buildings last year showed President Zelensky is prepared to pinpoint targets within the Russian government complex. It’s reasonable to assume that, if it’s possible for a crack team of his assassins to take out their country’s tormentor, they will attempt it. Many would hope that our intelligence agencies give them the support they need, arguing that the Russians have launched a lethally rough game. They must now play by their own rules.”

But it’s worth recalling the words last week of Dmitry Medvedev, who was president of Russia for four years and is now the deputy chairman of Russia’s security council. He warned that if Russian forces are driven out of Ukraine with the help of the west there would be nuclear retaliation. Here’s how he put it: “Attempts to restore Russia’s 1991 borders will lead only to one thing — a global war with Western countries with the use of our entire strategic arsenal against Kyiv, Berlin, London and Washington.”

This apocalyptic threat, says Lucas, is due to Western weakness and the fact that, for thirty years, the West systematically underestimated Moscow’s military and other threats and failed to steel itself for a changing world. Now that world has changed and we must do what we can to tackle Putin directly — and not flinch from doing so.

Do you agree? And if not… what is the alternative?

Do let us know.

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