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Recent events in Ukraine, and the announcement today of an official inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, reminded me of the below article. I wrote it for Freedom Today, the magazine of The Freedom Association, in the early summer of 2007, a few months after Litvinenko’s death.

The fact that seven years on we – Britain, our allies, the democracies and free nations of the West – are still shocked and immobile in response to the actions of Vladimir Putin is a depressing testament to the human ability to ignore a problem in the hope that it will go away.

Even with the passage of time, the article applies as much today as it did then – or more so, perhaps. Here it is:

Recently, an old threat unexpectedly reared its head. Few watching the Berlin wall come down would have predicted it. Even fewer would have thought it, surveying the economic chaos, social breakdown and failed coups of the early to mid-1990s. Those few would have been right, though: Russia is back on the radar.

For years it has been natural to dismiss Russia out of hand. At best, it was a basket-case, struggling to drag its economy up to First World standards, establish a functioning democracy, combat widespread corruption and crime and renew an infrastructure wrecked by decades of Communist misrule. At worst, it was a laughing stock – a nation summed up by Boris Yeltsin’s drunken dancing.

Whilst we tut-tutted or chortled, though, things changed.

Silently, and without much attention, Russia’s muscles grew. At least at first, this wasn’t intentional but a natural process springing from the energy markets. As Britain burned her North Sea oil and gas reserves, more and more Russian natural resources were being explored. As we edged closer and closer to becoming a net importer of oil and gas, they were building more pipelines, opening up more stocks and pumping more abroad.

Then Vladimir Putin became President. Say what you will about him, and plenty do, he is no clown. With him, the governmental attitude changed, becoming more aggressive and hard-headed.

By 1999, when Putin came to power, the potential of energy influence was clear. Europe relies for its heat and light on exports of Russian gas – the former basketcase had influence. It is certainly no coincidence that Gazprom, the world’s biggest gas extractor and controller of over 90% of Russia’s gas reserves, was swiftly renationalised.

Yet whilst this was happening, the outside world was relatively content. It was better, many thought, to have Russia under firm leadership than in anarchy. In his first few years, Putin enacted some controversial measures, but he was generally welcomed. After all, if he was a bit rough sometimes, hadn’t Russia always liked to be ruled by a hard man?

Then the muscles were flexed for the first time. In late 2004, the people of Ukraine took to the streets in the Orange Revolution to reject the result of their Presidential election, which was widely agreed to have been rigged in favour of the pro-Kremlin Viktor Yanukovych. Eventually, the election was re-run, and his West-leaning, democrat rival, Viktor Yushchenko elected. The world watched to see how Moscow would react – and to widespread relief, it accepted the result.

Or so it seemed. Within two months of Yuschenko’s inauguration, Gazprom initiated a dispute over Ukraine’s gas supply. The negotiations dragged on through the summer, into the autumn until, at the deep point of a notably cold winter, Gazprom turned off the tap on exports to Ukraine.

Here was the new Russian power. Western countries need Russian gas – some to cook, some to fuel power stations and many, not least Ukraine, just to live through the winter. In the old days, a missile fired by one side would incur a retaliatory missile: a city for a city, enough to deter both sides. There is, though, nothing “mutually assured” about cutting off the gas supply. Those controlling the tap would stay warm, whilst those shivering at the pipe’s end would have to give in.

Not that Russia pushed Ukraine fully to its knees. It didn’t need to – the point had been made.

This was only the first indicator that things were no longer as they had been. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko saw a British citizen, a thorn in the side of the Russian administration for years, poisoned in London with a highly radioactive material. He was murdered horribly, allegedly by a former KGB man who runs a private security firm in Moscow. Who knows if the Russian Government was involved in the murder in any way? We cannot be certain – but there were certainly no tears shed in the Kremlin at his passing, and comparisons are unavoidable with the KGB-linked murder of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident stabbed with a poisoned umbrella on Waterloo Bridge in 1978, are unavoidable.

Most recently came Putin’s amazing outburst about missile defence. Should America and her European allies be so bold as to seek to protect themselves from attack by ballistic missiles, he warned, Russian nuclear weapons would be targeted at European cities. Even the subsequent, surprising, backtrack – offering to allow missile defence bases in Azerbaijan – should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. Going from threatening nuclear devastation upon one’s neighbours to happily approving the original “provocation” is too big a step to plausibly take in such a short time.

It would be excessive to suggest Vladimir Putin seeks to literally rule Europe, or that his autocracy is anywhere near the scale of Stalin’s terrors and purges. It is undeniable, though, that we are more vulnerable to Russian threats than we have been for many years. Whilst the awful threat of those missiles is less likely, as thanks to Trident we still have the power to shoot back, the gas could quite easily stop one winter. So many years on, we must once again strive to defend freedom from a threatening Russia.

The solution must be, as ever, to defend ourselves. The missile defence shield must be built, and the case for nuclear power is undoubtedly bolstered by the need to wean ourselves off gas – and soon.

– Mark Wallace, Freedom Today, June 2007

46 comments for: A warning about Putin, Ukraine and Litvinenko

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