The shooting down of MH17 on July 17 over Eastern Ukraine has prompted outrage in Western capitals. The crime is widely believed to have been committed by Russian-supplied rebels – a claim supported by photographic and satellite images, as well as the interception of an apparent conversation between militants in which they candidly discuss the downing of the plane (i).

Echoing the statements of Barack Obama, US Senator John McCain has suggested that Russia bears responsibility: “I mean, it wasn’t Vladimir Putin that pushed the button to launch the missile, but the whole scenario, including the build-up of Russian troops across the border … I think that he gave them the material and wherewithal to do it – or facilitated it”. Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois similarly suggested that the rebels could only carry out such an attack with “backup from a nation-state like Russia” (ii). European nations, too, are exasperated with Putin’s continual funding of the Ukrainian rebels, recently implementing a wider range of sanctions against Russian financial institutions (iii).

Embarrassingly for David Cameron, less than a week after the MH17 disaster and just two days after he claimed that the UK had already imposed an absolute arms embargo on Russia, the House of Commons’ Committee on Arms Export Controls exposed a different picture. The committee revealed that the British government still has in place 271 arms export licences with Russia, worth at least 132 million pounds – along with many other extant licences for “countries of concern” (iv). These revelations may have forced the British government to reassess its arms sales to Russia, but Britain’s relationship with Vladimir Putin has a deeper history of complicity in and support for repression and state terror.

Compare the condemnation of Russia’s role in Ukraine to the Western stance on Russia’s well-documented brutal assault on Chechnya beginning in 1999 (often referred to as the Second Chechen War). When George Robertson was NATO Secretary-General, he visited Volgograd in November 2001 and spoke of NATO and Russia as “trusting friends” and “brothers in arms.” He added that “the Alliance respects the territorial integrity of Russia, totally rejects separatism, and supports the right – indeed the duty – of the Russian authorities to protect their citizens” from “Chechen extremists and terrorism” (v). Tony Blair boasted that he, more than any other world leader, supported Russia’s actions against Chechnya – indeed in March 2000, Blair even had Putin (who was two weeks away from the presidential election) take him to the opera in St Petersburg while Russian atrocities against the Chechens were accelerating (vi).

Blair correctly observed that Chechen rebels were committing acts of terrorism, but curiously avoided mentioning the indiscriminate Russian attacks on Chechen towns and cities, and accounts of “mutilated corpses of some of the ‘disappeared’ – some in recently discovered mass graves” with “fears that many have been tortured and summarily executed by federal [Russian] forces (vii).” This was part of what the historian Mark Curtis describes as Britain’s broader “chronicle of complicity” in the Russian assault on Chechnya, where calls for any form of sanctions or even diplomatic efforts were repeatedly rejected by Blair’s government (viii). At the time, it is worth remembering, Labour claimed to be espousing an “ethical foreign policy.”

Britain’s relationship with Vladimir Putin has clearly been defined by double-standards and major gulfs between rhetoric and actual government policy. Putin’s assault on Chechnya was supported; his arming of Ukrainian rebels largely ignored until the shooting down of MH17 and the House of Commons investigation embarrassed Britain internationally. Human rights are not and have never been the concern of successive British governments. The concerns, it seems, are instead the intimate links between Putin’s elite circle and the City of London.

The City is dominated by Russia’s oligarchs, who are able to ‘invest’ in property through shadowy institutions and offshore tax havens. Leaving aside Russian interests in British football clubs, London commercial lawyers get 60 percent of their business from Russian and Eastern European clients; London’s Stock Exchange is populated by more than fifty Russian-based companies; and “investor visas” are ideal for Russia’s wealthiest, on sale at a million pounds each (ix).

BP is also now warning the government and the press that excessive sanctions against Russia will adversely impact its commercial interests. That is, its 20 percent interest in the Kremlin’s oil company Rosneft, from which it earned just under one billion pounds in the first six months of 2014 (x). BP and the City of London do not control British government policy, but it would be careless to ignore these business relationships, given their enormous financial value and the many corridors of corporate influence that exist in Westminster. Simply put, governments have concealed their willingness to support Putin’s regime in order to leave corporate and financial interests relatively untouched.

When David Cameron joins EU and US leaders in condemning Russian interference and aggression, it is worth remembering where the Kremlin and its chief oligarchs make their fortunes. If Britain genuinely aims to oppose Putin’s actions – including his reckless support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine – it should not wait until a civilian airliner is shot out of the sky with a surface-to-air missile.

It should hit the pockets of Russia’s rulers – closing the tax loopholes, challenging the major corporate interests, and ending the incentives for the Russian elite to dominate the City of London. This would constitute not only a positive influence in world affairs, but also a welcome break for British taxpayers, who may still be wondering why welfare and education cuts, not corrupt foreign oligarchs, are the priority of their elected representatives.

 

Sources:

(i): The Observer (2014), ‘MH17: The evidence against Russia’, The Guardian Online, July 20, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/20/mh17-evidence-against-russia

(ii): Diamond, J. (2014), ‘Obama, GOP Lawmakers, place blame on Putin’, CNN Online, July 18, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/07/18/politics/top-officials-slam-russia-and-putin/

(iii): Al-Jazeera English (2014), ‘US and EU to impose tough sanctions on Russia’, Al-Jazeera, July 30 http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2014/07/us-eu-impose-new-sanctions-russia-201472919559905412.html

(iv): Norton-Taylor, R. (2014), ‘UK Arms Export Licenses for Russia Still in Place Despite Claims of Embargo – Report’, The Guardian Online, July 23 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/23/arms-export-licences-russia-pm-embargo-report

(v): Robertson, G. (2001), ‘NATO and Russia: A Special Relationship. Speech by NATO Secretary-General, Lord Robertson, at the Volgograd Technical University’, NATO Online Library, http://www.nato.int/docu/speech/2001/s011121a.htm

(vi): Curtis, M. (2003), Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, London: Random House, p.165.

(vii): See Human Rights Watch (2001), Human Rights Watch Oral Intervention at the 57th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, March 29, http://www.hrw.org/news/2001/03/28/item-9-question-violation-human-rights-and-fundamental-freedoms-any-part-world-russ-0; and Human Rights Watch (2005), Worse Than War: Disappearances in Chechnya: A Crime Against Humanity, http://www.hrw.org/legacy/backgrounder/eca/chechnya0305/chechnya0305.pdJuf

(viii): Curtis, Web of Deceit, pp. 157-180.

(ix): Judah, B. (2014), ‘London’s Laundry Business’, The New York Times, March 7, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/08/opinion/londons-laundry-business.html

(x): Rankin, J. (2014), ‘BP Fears Sanctions over Stake in Russian Oil Firm will Hit Profits’, The Guardian Online, July 29, http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jul/29/bp-sanctions-russian-oil-profits