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The West has woken up to the Russian Threat: so why go to Putin’s Party?

Integrity Initiative Op-Ed

Western countries have shown unprecedented solidarity with Britain over the accusation that it was Russia which was responsible for the poisoning with a nerve agent of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yuliya. Almost 30 countries have taken action against Russia, nearly all of them expelling Russian diplomats. NATO, too, is reducing the size of its Russian delegation by a third. So if the West has finally woken up to the threat which the Putin regime in Russia poses to Western democracies, why honour Putin by taking part in the football World Cup in Russia this year?

Never before have so many countries joined forces in a united diplomatic front against another country. Over 150 Russian diplomats have been sent back to Moscow. Given that most of these people are being expelled for “activities incompatible with their status” as diplomats, it is the Russian intelligence services, the FSB and the GRU (military intelligence) which will suffer the most.

In its apoplexy over being found out in its attempt to kill one of its former citizens and his daughter, the Russian state has tried increasingly hard to thumb its nose at the rest of the world by taking counter-measures. As well as coming up with at least 25 different versions as to who was responsible for the attack on Sergei and Yuliya Skripal, the Kremlin has responded to the expulsion of its diplomats by announcing tit-for-tat expulsions, including 60 US diplomats for the 60 Russians being sent home from the United States.

Britain has been hit hardest by the Russian response. After Britain announced it was expelling 23 Russian diplomats, Russia not only expelled the same number of British diplomats but also closed the British Consulate in St Petersburg; shut down the British Council; and then announced that it was reducing Britain’s diplomatic representation to the same number as Russia has in the UK, meaning that effectively more than 50 British diplomats will be expelled.

So as things stand Britain has not only seen an attempted murder of a British subject on its streets, allegedly carried out by the Russian state, but it has also seen a Consulate closed, the British Council closed – which will be a huge loss to Russians who want to learn English or who are interested in British culture – and a significant reduction in the number of its diplomats. The British Government has little choice but to respond.

One possible response which has been widely discussed is to take action against dirty Russian money in the City of London. Another is to target individuals who have done deals such as buying multi-million pound properties when their job titles suggest that such money should be way beyond their reach.

Britain has this year introduced a legal mechanism for dealing with such cases. The Government or the tax authorities, HMRC, have the right to issue an Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO). If, for example, a foreign government official purchases a property in the UK for a few million pounds when their declared income is nowhere near that amount, they can be questioned as to how they obtained the money. An unsatisfactory answer could lead to the property being seized by the British authorities. The law has been active for just over two months, but no UWOs have yet been issued. In any case, even if one were issued, this could be expected to lead to a lengthy legal process.

A more immediate response to the actions of the Russian authorities would be to withdraw the English national football team from the World Cup. The possibility of this was raised by the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, in an interview on Russian TV. She said that the main aim of Britain and the USA was “to take the World Cup out of Russia”.

What Ms Zakharova has revealed is Russia’s Achilles’ heel. Hosting the World Cup in Russia for the first time is hugely prestigious for Vladimir Putin, just as hosting the 1980 Olympic Games was in Moscow for the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics was for Putin.

Yet in each case Russia has shown that it does not deserve the honour of hosting these massive global events. A few months before the 1980 Olympics, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, which then saw the USA lead a boycott of the Games by more than 60 countries.

In the wake of the Sochi Winter Olympics it emerged that not only did the Russian state sponsor a massive doping campaign to help its athletes win medals, but before the Games were even over Putin had given the order for Russian troops to seize the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine by force.

Now, ahead of the World Cup, Russia has added to the doping scandal: there are reports of racism at Russian football matches; there is homophobic propaganda; there is the continuing war in Ukraine which Russia began in 2014. On top of all this, Russia has attempted to murder one of its former citizens in a quiet provincial town in England, using a deadly nerve agent.

If ever a country did not deserve to host the world’s greatest football tournament, it is Russia in 2018. Ms Zakharova’s TV interview shows that a boycott by the West would really hit home. Do Western countries have the strength of character to do this? Or will Russia be allowed to trample on Western values again and glory in its World Cup party?

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