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With Clear Eyes and a Very Cold Heart – The Assassination of Alexander Litvinenko

It was always going to be the case that Sir Robert Owen’s inquiry into the death of the Russian exile and former spy Alexander Litvinenko, in London in 2006, was going to be controversial. But few could have imagined a dramatic outcome of the kind seen this week.

It is one thing for the masses to have believed that Vladimir Putin ordered Litvinenko’s poisoning with polonium-210, a radioactive material made only at Russian nuclear facilities. Quite another for a senior British judge to have formally concluded that Russia’s President “probably” approved the murder through his FSB secret service agency – “probably” in this case being the legal equivalent of “as close to definitely as can be, absent a formal written or verbally recorded order.”

For all Russia’s immediate bluster that this verdict reflects “the theatre of the absurd”, the Kremlin will be aware that the lifting of the veil on the Litvinenko killing will cause real damage to Russia’s reputation. And just at a time when Mr Putin was counting on his insertion into the Syrian
conflict as being his path to escape the international opprobrium justly earned through his invasion of Ukraine.

For Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, the crisis occasioned by the Report could help define a new Western response to Putin’s repeated acts of aggression, both near and far. Mr Cameron has conceded that the UK will have to go on having “some sort of relationship with them [Russia]” because of the Syria crisis, but it would be done with “clear eyes and a very cold heart”. But if the UK response is simply a ritualistic addition of a few travel bans to stop those implicated in the murder from travelling to London, then he will have flunked the test before him. Much sterner action – whether increased sanctions, asset seizures or some form of targeting of Russian state entities – will be required to show Russia that state-sponsored nuclear terrorism on foreign soil will not be tolerated. And that Russia’s repeated crossing of internationally acknowledged red lines has real consequences.

Long before it was fashionable to do so, The Henry Jackson Society recognised that Mr Putin was not a man who the West could do business with, but rather a kleptocrat and autocrat whose strangulation of Russian domestic opposition would eventually lead him into conflict with democracies near and far, and encourage him to take increasingly desperate measures to prop up his own rule. And thus it has proven.

Those within the international community who think that Putin is somehow our salvation in the Syrian quagmire should look at the Litvinenko Report and take stock. Placing trust in Mr Putin is the road to perdition. Perhaps Mr Cameron can yet show us a path to salvation.


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From the Director’s Desk 

Unnoticed by many, an energy revolution is under way in the Eastern Mediterranean. Natural gas finds by countries like Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus and Egypt look likely to transform not only their own energy dependency status, but also the source of imports for European countries customarily forced to deal with Russia and Qatar, with all the attendant baggage those countries bring to the negotiating table.

But as energy expert Mona Sukkarieh explained to a Henry Jackson Society audience this week in the House of Commons, while the relatively small size of the new discoveries will not mean that Europe’s energy dependency problems are solved overnight, the Mediterranean gas fields have the potential to effect a more fundamental change within the region itself through their impact on geopolitical considerations.

This is already happening. In Cyprus, part of the incentive for Greek and Turkish Cypriots to unite is the knowledge of the shared economic bonanza that awaits through their gas discoveries. Consequently, the two sides are closer than ever before to an agreement, as the Cypriot High commissioner noted in person.

In the case of Israel, although its burgeoning ties with Egypt have security as its core, these have been solidified by a gas trading relationship that means the two countries have more in common. While the economic balance between them will change when Egypt’s own field comes on stream, meaning it will no longer need to import gas, their shared interest in trading stability will incentivise each to work with the other. Equally, it is no secret that despite openly embracing Hamas and attacking Israel at every opportunity, Turkey’s President Erdogan sees Israel as an important trading partner, with the gas relationship having contributed to a recent thaw in relations. It may even be possible to see a time when Lebanon’s absurd official policy of not recognising Israel but also criminalising direct contact with any Israeli is swept aside by the need to engage in direct discussions over not just gas territorial demarcations – currently being mediated by the USA – but how regional neighbours can manage their energy assets in the regional interest.

While we may be a long way off form the formation of an “East Mediterranean Gas Community” to mirror the original “European Coal and Steel Community” that formed the basis of the European Union, stranger things have been known to happen. And in the Middle East, they frequently do.

Dr Alan Mendoza is Executive Director of The Henry Jackson Society
Follow Alan on Twitter: @AlanMendoza