Few will have been surprised by the findings of the Litvinenko Inquiry chaired by Sir Robert Owen. And no one should be surprised by Russia’s reaction. The Russian Foreign Ministry regretted that the inquiry had been ‘politicised’ and the country’s ambassador in London dismissed the findings, criticising the case as a ‘whitewash for British special services’ institutional incompetence’.
What should Britain do next? The pressure is on to give a ‘strong’ response or else risk appearing weak to the Russian state. Given the inquiry’s findings that this was an attack on British soil by Russian citizens, with the probable approval of Russia, Britain stands to lose credibility if it does not respond in a seemingly proportionate manner.
However, there are a number of definitions of ‘strength’, and those of the UK and Russia often do not, and cannot, match. The UK has so far chosen a rather restrained range of tools in response. After the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, Britain expelled Russian diplomats, restricted visas for Russian officials and put a hold on intelligence-sharing. Asset freezes have been placed on the murder suspects, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, despite neither holding assets in the UK.
Unsurprisingly, these have proven fruitless in persuading the Russian government to do anything but flatly deny any of the UK’s findings. Moreover, as it has with EU sanctions against Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, in 2009 Moscow reciprocated: four British Embassy employees in Moscow were expelled in response and Russia suspended bilateral co-operation on counter-terrorism.
Further tools under consideration include sanctions on President Vladimir Putin and his allies, and the expulsion of Federal Security Service (FSB) staff from the Russian Embassy in London. Ben Macintyre puts forward a strong argument for the potential long-term effectiveness of expelling FSB agents from London based on previous experience. This is especially relevant given the likely higher number of them in London. But, again, such measures will no doubt result in the expulsion of, and sanctions on, British counterparts.
The UK can begin by learning from its mistakes in its Russia policy and then better identifying its own leverage in its relationship with Moscow in order to craft an effective response.
One of the key errors relates to the conduct of the inquiry. By suspending the ongoing inquest and calling for a public inquiry in 2014 – having rejected the request to do so in 2013 for political reasons – Home Secretary Theresa May has highlighted Britain’s willingness to use the investigation itself as a form of protest against Russian behaviour in Ukraine and thus undermine its impact. The fact that an inquiry was rejected to avoid ‘rocking the boat’ at a time of good Russia–UK relations indicated to Moscow a weak UK commitment to investigating the murder – which adds weight to Russia’s accusations that the inquiry has been politicised. Even now, there are concerns that the inquiry’s fallout will impact the UK’s ability to co-operate with Russia on other arenas, such as Syria. Such concerns will embolden Russia to exercise leverage on this issue.
More specifically, the Litvinenko Inquiry highlighted problems with the UK’s ability to conduct proper due diligence on Russians applying for visas. Lugovoi was recorded as ‘no trace’ on the Warnings Index, despite his previous employment with the KGB and the Federal Protective Service. An entry-clearance officer at the British Embassy in Moscow stated in his evidence that had he known of Lugovoi’s past career, it ‘might have influenced’ the questions that Lugovoi was asked at his visa interview. Lugovoi’s past visits to the UK had already raised suspicion amongst embassy staff. Better due diligence on Lugovoi would have raised more suspicions about his activities.
The need for thorough due diligence is indeed the most important lesson. For sanctions to work, the UK government and financial regulator need to be much more sophisticated in their broader understanding of how Russian business, assets and money work. Russian businesses often use complex mechanisms. Frequently, these aim to hide political connections; and to obfuscate ownership identity through shell companies, offshore registration, nominee or proxy shareholders, and overly complex corporate structures. This makes identifying the assets of individuals, and subsequently sanctioning them, challenging. Sanctions can be a show of strength – but are pointless without a deeper understanding of Russian business.
This speaks to an additional option that the British government has in its response to this incident. Prime Minister David Cameron has recognised that the UK needs to prevent the use of its markets to hide people’s assets and facilitate illicit finance. The discussion on sanctions that will result from the Litvinenko Inquiry should provide impetus for following through with this. Part of a robust response would mean fulfilling a government promise to prevent the UK system from facilitating corrupt practices, something particularly relevant when looking at Russia.
Russian co-operation on the Litvinenko case is unlikely. The calls of the Foreign Office for extradition of the suspects are pointless, particularly as extradition would violate the Russian constitution. Instead, the UK government needs to turn its attention to the key facet of the UK–Russia relationship in which the UK has leverage (and indeed what the UK government should be examining anyway): the use of UK markets and its business environment to hide the assets of Russian politicians and facilitate corrupt practices.