Sunday, 14 February 2016

Newsnight presenter Evan Davis: “Richard Watson there. Well the story of course is huge here but it’s also making waves around the world and obviously has implications for the continent of Europe and the place of Russia in it. In a moment we’ll debate some of those issues with George Galloway, leader of the Respect party, and Alex Goldfarb, one of Mr Litvinenko’s closest friends who you saw in the piece. But first let’s go to Warsaw and the former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski, now a senior fellow at Harvard. Good evening to you Mr Sikorski. Obviously you’re much closer to Russia and probably more aware of President Putin than we are. I’m just interested in how surprised you are that he might be personally involved in something like this, as opposed to his underlings just getting on with it?

Radek Sikorski: “In Poland people are not that surprised. We follow events in Russia very closely, and remember this is not the first time. There was also the murder in Qatar of the former president of Chechnya, Yanderbayev, and I think the murderers there were caught as well. But it is disturbing, and I hope you now understand why we feel so uncomfortable in such a neighbourhood and why we’ve been so insistent on strengthening NATO security in our region.”

Plainly, Yanderbayev’s killing, while morally questionable, nonetheless bears favourable comparison with the conservatively estimated 3,922 people killed by means of drone strikes, ‘outside of traditional battlefields’, over the course of the last two US presidencies.[1] As for Polish-Russian relations; one cannot pretend that Russian/Soviet behaviour towards Poland has always been exemplary. However, essential confidence-building measures are always susceptible to being undermined by the default suspicion on the part of so many Poles, who live by a kind of mantra: “You can’t trust the Russians.” Furthermore, it should come as no surprise that Sikorski is especially prone to this type of prejudice, in light of the racist comments he made in 2014, in which he pejoratively characterised his fellow Poles’ mindset as 'Murzyńskość', translated as 'thinking like a negro’.[2]

Davis: “Right. And obviously it’s an awkward diplomatic problem for Britain as to how to respond to this [almost as awkward as that created by Sikorski's comments]. There isn’t much ammo left to put in sanctions against Russia. There’s stuff we can do but obviously we’re trying at the same time to serve other objectives that require us to have a relationship with Russia. Theresa May said tough words in the House of Commons today. I just wonder what you make of the action that has been proposed on the British side?”

It’s amazing the extent to which British journalists like Evan Davis imagine foreigners might pay the slightest attention to Theresa May’s utterances in the House of Commons. 

Sikorski: “I’m not sure what she said,”

Spoken like a true diplomat…

“…but yes, it is difficult. We are having to deal with murderous regimes around the world all the time. But in this case it’s different because the murder was perpetrated abroad.

[As if this in itself makes it different from drone strikes etc.]

This was an act of contempt for Britain and indeed a mistake by the murderers because I believe that in any other country, with the possible exception of the United States or France, they probably would have gotten away with it, because it was the British expertise in handling nuclear material that allowed you to identify the murderers.”

Sikorski here indulges in the same type of mythologising of which Watson was guilty, with his “Investigators came this close to assuming he died of natural causes” gibberish. From Sikorski’s point of view it makes all the more sense to do this however, since it affords him an opportunity to flatter his British audience.

“But yes – international implications are huge because the Litvinenko case goes back to the origins and the legitimacy of the current authorities in Russia.” [my emphasis]

Although he backtracks later on, Sikorski’s allusion here is to the puerile conceit referred to in Watson's report, according to which Putin authorised the string of terrorist bombings against Russian civilians in 1999, to contrive a pretext for an invasion of Chechnya.
“And this is a major nation state with nuclear weapons which is in deepening economic crisis. President Putin is a man who is determined to hold on to power. And with this kind of background you can understand why he fears losing grip on power.”

The silly anti-Putin conspiracy theory finds an enthusiastic buyer in Sikorski, but he is not so stupid as to say so explicitly, so when asked to clarify by Davis, he makes up a different story which has nothing to do with Putin’s ‘background’…

Davis: “What do you mean by that? Why does he fear losing his grip on power with this background?”

Sikorski: “Well, because if your report is correct, and the British judge’s conclusions are correct, and there is a criminal case to answer, then of course you are much more reluctant to give up power.”

Thus Sikorski keeps his nose clean, but it is nonetheless a cause for great concern that a former foreign minister of one of Russia’s neighbours would take so bigoted a view of Vladimir Putin, that he would think him capable of murdering Russian civilians as a means of acquiring power. 

Davis: “Oh – because he can’t leave the country, for fear of extradition to the UK. Is that the suggestion?”

That was not his original suggestion, but it is his suggestion now.

Sikorski: “I don’t know what the UK is going to do about it, but yes… That makes you very worried, but this of course means you are tempted to use extreme measures, to stay in power.”

Davis: “Let me just ask you this. Do you think any European Union leader, having looked at this, from a European Union member, can go now, and shake hands with President Putin in a way that is normal in diplomatic functions and meetings?”

Sikorski: “I think there’ll be fewer takers of these photo-ops, and I think Russia’s return to the G8 for example is probably off the table. And yes, European leaders will have learnt of the nature of power. It means that somewhere inside the Russian security establishment there is a cell of what the Russians themselves used to call ‘wet affairs’. It existed under Tsarist Russia, it existed under the Bolsheviks, and now, disturbingly, it appears that it exists today.”

As one among a minority of Poles able to ‘escape’ to the west before Martial Law was declared in December 1981[3], Sikorski is free of all association with Soviet-era Poland, whose SB had one of the worst records for killing political opponents of all Warsaw Pact countries. As a fanatical NATO cheerleader he is still a hypocrite however, given that the Americans and Brits target far more people for assassination (mostly using drones) than Russia does.

[1] As of January 12 2016, according to a New York Times article ‘Obama’s embrace of drone strikes will be a lasting legacy’ by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko.
[2] From Daily Mail article 22 June 2014; Polish foreign minister 'caught on tape dismissing relationship with U.S.’, AP and Matthew Blake 

[3] As a student at Oxford in that decade, incidentally, he was a member of the Bullingdon Club.

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