Russia, Salisbury and Why All Sides Are Missing the Point

Salisbury hasn’t made Putin a threat – he always was.


Britain has always thought that it is the centre of the universe. It’s partly why we cling to the idea of a ‘special’ relationship with the US. It’s why so many old white men cry over the fall of our supposedly great (but actually horrific) Empire. This is why the incident at Salisbury has rocked much of the UK – because it means that we aren’t controlling our own destinies, but potentially, someone else is the one dictating what happens on our shores.

The story itself should come as no surprise. Last year, Buzzfeed released an investigative series claiming that US spy agencies had linked 14 deaths on British soil to Russia. It is claimed that these deaths occurred in a backdrop of police cuts, and political complacency and weakness so that they were never fully investigated. These deaths were all subtle – and not of the same style of attack that claimed the life of Alexander Litvinenko. They were easy to brush under the carpet, allegedly. Except for, perhaps, the one MI6 spy who supposedly locked himself in a bag. Although the death of Gareth Williams is also now set to be investigated.

The political sphere is largely fixed on what this means for the UK. Whether to go ahead with sanctions or cuber attacks, whether to pull out of the World Cup all together. But all of these conversations sound the same and miss the point. There is more than just the UK at stake, and it should never have taken this long to pay attention to Russia.

“There is more than just the UK at stake, and it should never have taken this long to pay attention to Russia”

Prior to this, neither Corbyn nor May had ever actually said a whole amount about Putin – despite the fact he regularly gives us reason to pay attention. Putin has been responsible for war with Georgia (although short-lived), annexing Crimes and then engaging in further conflict with the Ukraine, overseeing the establishment of concentration camps for queer men in Chechnya and has propped up one of the worst human rights abusers in modern times in the shape of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. There have been repeated allegations that Assad has used chemical weapons in Syria. Putin has also interfered in the 2016 US Presidential election – and there may well be other elections and democracies with which he has interfered.

After the Holocaust we said “never again” however, that is precisely what is happening. Concentration camps were established and we did absolutely nothing. It barely even made headlines in mainstream media. Our politicians have failed a generation.

The UK is worried as we are now isolated, wondering whether our former allies will still stand by us in the wake of Brexit and whether we can at all trust in the utterly untrustworthy Trump. But we know some things to be true: Putin is a human rights violator who poses a threat far beyond our own borders. He seeks to interfere in democracies across the world from him, while terrorising people (particularly marginalised people) who are either within his own borders or live alongside them. The focus on Salisbury is selfish. It should never have taken so long to have woken up. We should have cared long before we were involved.

There is apologism for Putin. From those whose party benefits from Oligarch money, and from those who despise Western imperialism. Make no mistake: Western imperialism should be challenged at every turn but that should never mean we allow Putin’s version of imperialism. Queer lives, Syrian lives, Ukrainian lives are not ours to sacrifice.

Living in a global democracy means that sometimes we have to stand up, even if that means that we may suffer trade consequences ourselves. It is the only way to protect everyone in the global community. We can’t let rights be trampled upon when it does not concern the rights of our own citizens. Nobody wants a military war, but Putin is vulnerable to that of a trade war and there has always been discontent in Russia about his oppressive policies. Even those who do not want any form of conflict should argue for a greater humanitarian focus, to work with charities, NGOs and local people to try to empower them and bring about change. If those who want diplomacy to be followed are true to their word then deliver a plan for pursuing that diplomacy – but go beyond asking Putin to be nice because he has proven, time and again, that he won’t ever be that man and that appeasement will never work. He uses his hate for the West to provide his shield for his acts of atrocity but while the West’s actions should be held accountable, that shouldn’t mean giving Putin a pass to attack any democracy any way he can.

What happened in Salisbury, and everything that happened before then, is about more than just us. One of the biggest problems the UK has faced is that we have turned insular. We only care for our own interests. Don’t let that extend to foreign policy. For once, let us pursue the humanitarian agenda.

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