It is an instructive exercise to list the number of governments in my life time who tried to, or succeeded in murdering those they saw as their outstanding adversaries. Or to use the more polite term, engaged in extra-judicial killings. Some murders were perpetrated by democratic or semi-democratic governments. Of these almost all have given up the practice.
A sliding scale might be applied. Killing troublesome leaders such as Patrice Lumumba, Fidel Castro, Dag Hammarskjőld, Steve Biko at one end. At the other, killing nationals at home and abroad. Mr. Putin, presiding recently over administering radioactive polonium and spectacularly poisonous organophosphates to disloyal spies, by this reckoning, falls off the scale altogether.
Motivation for the killings, of course, varies from one end of the scale to the other: simply getting rid of a major threat to projection of power as an end in itself. A bullet or a parcel bomb suffices for routine elimination. Ice-picks went out with Trotsky. What has been horrifying about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei and Yulia Skripal is the flagrant violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention: the total disregard for contamination of bystanders in another State, police and first responders particularly at risk. While deaths from US drone strikes in pursuit of a targeted killing in another State, result in what is euphemistically called “collateral damage”, this is taking place in an entirely different context of violent conflict with a terrorist adversary, and, I believe, serious targeting limitations to avoid the death of civilians. This is not an excuse for extra-judicial killing just a reflection on a potentially facile attribution of moral equivalence. Both bring shame and dire consequences on their governments but, rightly, in unequal measure.
The current revulsion against Russia is intensified by the insultingly ridiculous responses, conspiracy theories, lies and palpable nonsense from authorised interlocutors for the Russian Federation. It is not enough to distinguish between the Russian people and their ruling kleptocracy. It is evident from the support for Putin that a large number of Russians share in an emotional nationalism expressed in fear of encirclement, encroachment by NATO on their near neighbours, and a visceral paranoia born of a history of invasions and an addiction to autocratic and powerful leaders. Both the USA and Russia have been humiliatingly defeated in wars in the last half century. Make Russia great again, make the USA great again, brings out the electorate and wins elections. Cocking a snook at adversaries plays well with Mother Russia and overrides considerations of the rule of law and international opprobrium. The end result is worrying if for different reasons in each case.
So is the problem a clash of different political cultures: our values versus theirs? Up to a point. If David Cameron had stripped off his shirt and had photographs of himself riding a horse in Oxfordshire distributed by Conservative Central Office – apologies to sensitive readers - the British response would have been derision. I don’t think his constituency would have taken to him throwing people around on the judo mat either. Though judo seems to have taught Putin a lot about tactics globally: use their strength against them. Or perhaps the Taliban in Afghanistan provided the lesson.
Putin is now responding to his perception of a much weakened USA and UK, the former saddled with an incompetent, erratic, narcissist President, the latter with a weak Prime Minister determined to hold her political Party together at any cost as her meagre legacy. Because of the dominant Tory ideological Brexiteers, and the naïve, bungling leadership of the riven Opposition, this spells “make Britain little England again”. With Russia and the USA facing each other behind proxy militias and armies in Syria, we face a perilous passage through the next few years. Reinstating an active hotline between Moscow and key western capitals is urgent as is making understanding the psychology of Russian nationalism key to our foreign policy. We were spared a nuclear holocaust in October 1962 by the personalities of John F. Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev. Today it is Trump and Putin who potentially have to deal with the accidental miscalculation and confrontation that leads towards nuclear war.
Avoiding this eventuality should take precedence over other foreign policy considerations and geopolitical advantage. Mrs. May has shown good judgement on these provocations without burning the boats we need to retain in future in the perilous seas ahead. That there are more important forces to contend with than her back-benches may be the beginning of wisdom, if not electoral gain.