Our tolerance of Russian corruption in Britain fatally clouded our judgment
Unless a miracle occurs, we are witnessing the destruction of Ukraine as a free and democratic state of 44 million citizens at the hands of a dictator. Vladimir Putin refers to Ukraine as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Russia” not because of any military threat it has ever posed to his country, but because of the values its form of governance represents.
For the west, this is the biggest failure of statecraft and deterrence since 1939. No one in the UK government should be surprised at what has happened. I remember sitting round the table of the National Security Council in 2014 after Putin’s violent annexation of the Crimea, where we concluded that, in the light of this gross violation of international law, he would repeat such an action if given a chance.
Yet in the eight years that have followed, we have failed entirely to craft an adequate response to Putin. Neither the recent British programme to train and engage with the Ukrainian military, nor the empty last-minute ministerial rhetoric challenging the Russian leader’s threats, can conceal the truth: that we have allowed Putin to conclude that the destruction of Ukraine comes at an affordable price.
This failure is starkly illustrated by our attitude to Russian influence and corruption in the UK. The intelligence and security committee inquiry on Russia, whose open report the prime minister suppressed for nine months on an entirely bogus pretext, was presented with the clearest evidence that Russia saw no distinction between economic and state interests, and that it used elements of its diaspora in the UK to further its interests.
Meanwhile, we tolerated their financial corruption, and encouraged the use of London as a centre to launder the proceeds.
This in turn renders the ethical standards of our own society and politics liable to being undermined by the attractions of Russian money, and creates dependencies which cloud judgments. And we witnessed campaigns of disinformation, cybercrime and the targeting and assassination of opponents, as well as numerous criminal acts against other European partners.
Yet our efforts to root out the corruption and sanction those with links to Putin have been woefully inadequate. In the light of what is now unfolding in Ukraine, they remain so, despite the recent announcements.
To this we have to add the consequences of Brexit. The key actors in the response to this European crisis are our former EU partners every bit as much as the US. Yet our behaviour over Brexit damaged our standing, and fomented doubts that we will observe our binding engagements with them.
We are no longer alongside them at the table, and have lost a leadership role in our near abroad. We were spectators to the Minsk process of engagement with Russia, led by France and Germany. We have made it harder for ourselves to persuade the EU states to exclude Russia from the Swift payment system. We have chosen to send warships and aircraft on a token visit to the Indo-Pacific when we scarcely have a credible deterrent in our own waters and airspace.
It may now be too late to save Ukraine. But these events should be a wake-up call for us. Russia has to be treated as the enemy state it is. We may have decided that we cannot resist its current aggression by force, but we must – as a start – remove its influence domestically as we rebuild our damaged relations with the neighbours who share our values.
That means freezing Russian assets in the UK and requiring any Russian citizen whose presence is not conducive to our public interest to leave.
It means isolating ourselves so far as possible from commercial contact or dependency on Russians, accepting the economic downside this will inevitably entail, and setting an example to others to do likewise.
This means working intensively with our allies before Putin’s next act of aggression follows our failure to check him today.
Dominic Grieve QC is former attorney general for England and Wales and former chair of the intelligence and security committee of parliament