I love Russia. I speak the language (although it’s rusty now). I am an admirer of Russian literature - from Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ to Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’. I respect the Russian people too – for their almost superhuman fortitude in the Second World War, during episodes like Stalingrad and the siege of Leningrad, and for their excellent education system today. They are a proud, resourceful and courageous people.
But there’s something deeply rotten today about the Russian State. The recent attack on Sergei Skripal, which Theresa May has said it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible for, has not emerged from a clear blue sky. It is just the latest episode in a worrying escalation of rogue activity that stretches back more than a decade.
It includes invading the sovereign territory of neighbouring Ukraine in 2014, downing an airliner carrying over 100 innocent Dutch nationals (and then denying it), and poisoning Alexander Litvinenko on British soil.
This latest attack is dreadful. It has exposed hundreds of members of the British public to serious risk. One of our police officers is seriously ill in hospital.
So what should the United Kingdom do? At the time of writing, the deadline imposed by London for Moscow to explain how military-grade nerve agents came to be on British soil has expired. Theresa May will address the House later.
Our response should be carefully calibrated of course. But it should be robust. We should not appease Russia. For all its geographical size, we must not forget that Russia’s economy is little more than half that of the UK. British economic levers are far more potent than some might realise. We should not hesitate to pull them hard if necessary.
At the very least I would expect us to expel a significant number of Russian diplomats. We expelled 90 diplomat spies in 1971 and it seriously degraded Soviet espionage capability. We should also consider sanctioning by name Russian officials and businesspeople who are close to Putin. And whilst a cyber response should be weighed with extreme caution, the message needs to go out that chemical attacks on British soil will be met with condign punishment.