As I noted when our Foreign Secretary announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats back in July, our bafflingly cack-handed diplomacy towards Russia is of a piece with a foreign policy which has degenerated into a complete shambles.
Before turning to Labour's shamefaced climbdown today, let us remind ourselves of the sequence of events.
- In 2000, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, flees from a Russian jail sentence and is given asylum in London. He joins the circle of billionaire Russian dissident Boris Berezovsky (link).
- In November of 2006 Litvinenko is murdered in London by exotic means in a case which transfixes the nation (link).
- In May the following year, British authorities identify Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB agent, as their prime suspect and request his extradition to face trial in the UK (link).
- A month later, the Russians refuse the extradition request. This was widely expected as the extradition of a Russian citizen is against that country's constitution.They leave the door open to a joint Anglo-Russian prosecution of Mr Lugovoi in Russia (link).
- On 16 July the new Foreign Secretary overreacts absurdly, announcing the expulsion of four Russian diplomats "to bring home to the Russian Government the consequences of their failure to co-operate", while acknowledging that Russia had no treaty obligation to grant the British extradition request (link).
- Russia responds with anger and incredulity, pointing out that Britain had refused twenty-one of her extradition requests in the recent past. (link).
- Soon afterwards, Russia responds with a tit-for-tat expulsion. Relations between the two countries have now reached a post-Cold War low (link).
- In December, Russia further retaliates by demanding that most of the British Council's offices in Russia be closed (link).
- Later the same month, Russia threatens to withhold pictures from an exhibition planned for London's Royal Academy of Art over fears that British law would permit ownership claims to prevent their return. (link).
- As 2008 begins, Britain defies the Russian demand to close British Council offices. Staff from the offices are subsequently questioned by the FSB (link).
He said cultural activities should not become "a political football" so he had decided not to take similar actions against Russian activities in the UK and said the British Council would continue its work in Moscow.What, Mr Miliband? Not expelling any more diplomats? Not imposing sanctions? Declaring war?
He added: "Russia's actions against the British Council are a stain on Russian's reputation and standing."
Needless to say, Miliband's feeble whining was echoed by both other parties. Can they really be so stupid as to have missed the story here - that the British government overreached itself absurdly (not to say dangerously), and at last has realised it had to back down?
To recap for a moment: Britain is a lovely, wealthy, reasonably powerful country with a high-tax, high-spend economy and a weak government with no will to use military power against its enemies. Russia is an anarchic, paranoid, powerful country with huge surplus energy earnings and a hard line president who enjoys a domestic following of which other elected politicians can only dream.
In other words, pick a fight with Russia and we were only ever going to lose. Add to that the fact we had little or no cause for the fight and you have one of the foreign policy conundrums of the decade.
(As I've said before, compare this simply to our disgraceful appeasement of Iran last spring, a medieval basket case and pariah guilty of an act of war whom we have the power to crush utterly but were happy to let off without so much as a single expelled diplomat ... )
The Foreign Office should have been able to tell Miliband this. Indeed, if you want a conspiracy theory, they might have encouraged their callow leader in his ludicrous sabre-rattling antics to defend themselves against Labour's swingeing cutbacks:
"Diplomatic crisis, Secretary of State? Oh dear me, but if only we hadn't had to pare back our Russian coverage, perhaps we might have been able to discover some means of forfending it ... "
Either way, it looks as though the British government is now facing facts, and I for one fervently hope this is the last we will hear of a "new Cold War" with an interesting as well as powerful neighbour from constructive engagement with whom we should rightly continue to profit.