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How to deal with Russia

Denis MacShane / Jun 2021

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

Joe Biden will meet Vladimir Putin and go home without any clear policy on dealing with Russia.

There is a common interest for the US, the EU and the UK to shape some policy on Russia but so far no new 21st century thinking of how to deal with the Kremlin’s constant aggressivity and interference in the affairs of European nations, both EU and non-EU member states alike.

Military pressure to push back the Kremlin over its occupation of part of Ukraine, and de-facto occupation of part of Georgia, is excluded. The Kremlin can send its agents to kill or try and kill people in Britain, or poison political opponents like Alexander Navalny, or unleash disinformation wars to support Putin candidates in the West or embrace Brexit.

Economic pressure is hard with German firms and Berlin ministers refusing to reconsider the North Stream 2 gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany and by-passing EU member states Russia dislikes.

Putin oligarchs have burrowed their way into the City establishment and luxury goods sectors in London.

Putin has top European political leaders on his payroll. The former chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schröder, is chair of Rosneft on a fabulous salary, private planes and pops up everywhere and anywhere explaining why Putin is misunderstood and should be embraced.

The former French prime minister and presidential candidate, François Fillon, caused a stir recently when he appeared in Petersburg to condemn EU sanctions against Russia as “stupid and illegal”. He was rewarded with a seat on the board of the Russian energy firm Zarubezhneft.

But are the democracies so utterly helpless? A new proposal being discussed is to launch Magnitsky-style social media campaigns. British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, was an early supporter of efforts a decade ago in the UK House of Commons to persuade David Cameron to adopt Magnitsky legislation.

He was unsuccessful then but under the Boris Johnson government the UK has legislated Magnitsky laws sanctioning officials of states who violate human rights. The EU also has such legislation in place.

A social media campaign would be directed against Russian politicians, officials and propagandists who violate human rights, or propagandists who pump out lies and disinformation to sow division in the democracies.

The idea is for the EU, UK or the US to create their own social media “truth warriors.” They would be charged with spreading news on social media outlets read by Russian citizens about the bad behaviour of their own leaders.

This approach would have more impact than denunciations in western capitals. The US government is probably up for a Magnitsky social media campaign against Putin to counter-attack the Russian lies and disinformation in the West.

But will the EU or UK have the will and the energy to act and take the struggle to their opponents? Sadly, based on past experience, the odds are they will just sit around wringing hands.

The establishment parties in Germany, the CDU/CSU and the SPD, tend to warn at all possible and many impossible moments against the danger of entering into “escalation spirals.”

To them, it seems, democratic nations must render themselves defenceless - as long as they sell any commercial goods in the authoritarian destinations in question.

The current EU leadership has had a torrid time with Putin with the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, dressed down like a naughty child by Putin’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov.

Russia will be pouring money into the German election in September to prevent the election of the Green candidate, Annalena Baerbeck, who wants to the break with the CDU-SPD consensus that Berlin must constantly coddle the Kremlin in order to secure orders for German firms.

The ruling Conservative party in the UK takes money from Russian oligarchs. The donations are registered. Bill Browder, the doughty campaigner for Magnitsky type legislation to put pressure on names Russian officials who commit egregious human rights abuses and who are currently treating Navalny in a manner that may lead to his early death, has protested that a number of peers in the House of Lords are now acting as stooges for Putin in the UK’s law-making chambers.

Different groups and private sector outfits who know how to run effective social media campaigns that would take the fight to Putin have put forward proposals but so far NATO or EU governments have remained passive. 

After 1945, the western democracies were not afraid to take non-military, non-coercive action against Soviet lies and efforts to occupy political space in the democratic world to promote Stalinist tyranny. 

Must the world’s democracies remain quiescent and nervous in defending democracy against the new campaigns by the Kremlin?

 

Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

June 2021

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