NICOLE FRITZ: Feting of Russia perfected in West’s citadels
While Boris Johnson blamed Remainers over a report on interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, Donald Trump stayed in power despite meddling in the 2016 US elections
There was furore late last month when Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited SA. There will probably be more of the same when SA conducts a joint naval exercise with the Russians and Chinese off KwaZulu-Natal this month.
That criticism isn’t misplaced. It’s just often packaged in a narrative that makes it so. For instance, as typically propounded that narrative would have you think SA obstinately and self-defeatingly sets its face against the West in the feting of Russia.
But let’s be clear: the feting of Russia — particularly its Vladimir Putin-led regime — was perfected in the citadels of the West. A 2020 report by the British parliament’s intelligence and security committee said that despite clear signs of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, British government and intelligence agencies failed to assess the threat properly.
Then prime minister Boris Johnson’s response to the damning report: “This is about pressure from Islington Remainers [seizing] on the report to give the impression that Russian interference was somehow responsible for Brexit.”
The UK intelligence report came after the murder in London of former Russian dissident and UK citizen Alexandr Litvinenko and the later poisoning in Salisbury of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, all by Kremlin assassins. In the first instance, use of polonium, a radioactive substance originating in Russia, put large swathes of London at risk of contamination. In the second, use of the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok caused the collateral poisoning of a third victim, a UK citizen, and the death of another.
After the second attack there was a wave of expulsions of Russian diplomats, but relations were restored quickly and few other measures have been imposed. In the case of Litvinenko, while a public inquest into his death was ultimately approved the then home secretary Theresa May admitted that “international relations” informed her initial refusal.
It makes all the more plausible the chilling sentiment expressed by UK security top brass to the police chief in Litvinenko, the series now playing on DStv: “Look, you have to see it from Russia’s perspective. It doesn’t matter what borders he’s crossed. He’s their enemy of state.”
Author Oliver Bullough theorises that the UK’s present position in global affairs is one of butler. His latest book is Butler to the World: How Britain Helps the World’s Worst People Launder Money, Commit Crimes and Get Away With Anything.
While US intelligence authorities were quick to flag Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, the primary recipient of that interference — Donald Trump — remained firmly entrenched, going on to try conditioning congressionally approved aid to Ukraine to coerce incriminating information on political rivals from President Volodymyr Zelensky.
But if we aren’t shamed by the West’s ostensibly principled opposition to a Putin-led Russia, it would be nice to think we have our own reasons for doing so. Right now the most prominent opposition figure in Russia is Alexei Navalny, founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which has exposed the corruption of high-ranking Russian officials, including Putin.
Navalny is imprisoned in a far-flung penal colony after a trial described by Amnesty International as a sham and surviving a poisoning attempt in 2020. This was placed in his underwear using the same Novichok nerve agent as was used on the Skripals. In recent weeks, an ill, emaciated Navalny has been denied hospital care.
Some of this will be familiar to older South Africans who recall the workings of a deeply authoritarian regime. But it is the mirror of a possible future SA that Russia holds up that should have us keeping our distance for fear of a state deeply entwined with criminal syndicates, whose assets are abused to provide obscene wealth for a few, in which corruption and business are synonymous, and in which dissent is suppressed ruthlessly.
• Fritz, a public interest lawyer, is director of the Helen Suzman Foundation.
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