In just over 3 months the World Cup is due to kick off in Moscow with a match between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Like all big sporting competitions the World Cup will be designed to show the host country in as good a light as possible.
Meanwhile in a Salisbury hospital Sergei Skripal and his daughter are fighting for their lives, having been poisoned by a nerve agent; and a Wiltshire police officer who went to help them is also in intensive care.
If Russia is shown to have been responsible it would be grotesque for the England football team to play any part in what the Russian government no doubt hopes will be a propaganda coup. Boris Johnson at first seemed to suggest that the team should not go to Russia at all, but he then “clarified” his remarks to the absurd idea that an appropriate response might be merely for “UK officials and dignitaries” not to attend the competition. “Try to kill our people and we won’t let you have our referees” seemed to be the message.
Participating in a World Cup in Russia was always going to be a deeply uncomfortable affair.
It would mean, for example overlooking:
- The corruption that very probably won the Russia the right to stage the competition in the first place;
- Russia’s aggression towards its neighbours in Georgia and Ukraine and its threats towards the Baltic States;
- Russia’s backing for President Assad in the Syrian civil war, including, as Amnesty put it in 2016, (and it is a tactic that has continued) the “deliberate and systematic targeting of hospitals,” and the use of chemical weapons on civilians in cynical breach of a fraudulent Russian devised agreement to get rid of them. More chemical weapons are being being rained down on Ghouta tonight, along with napalm and cluster bombs. War crime upon war crime, none of which will be punished.
- The well-documented interference by Russia in the US Presidential elections and probably the Brexit Referendum and many European elections too;
- The shameless lying and disinformation over the shooting down of the Malaysian flight MH17 by Russian, or at the very least Russian backed. forces in the Eastern Ukraine.
- The almost routine murder inside Russia of President Putin’s opponents; people such as the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, her colleague Natalia Estemirova or her lawyer Stanislav Markelov, or the bravest and most credible of the opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov.
- The meticulous conclusion of Mr Justice Robert Owen that Alexander Litvinenko had been murdered in London by the FSB, probably with the knowledge and approval of President Putin.
With that history, it is depressing that we should be playing football with Russia at all. Mr Putin’s crimes are not trivial peccadilloes. They illustrate the behaviour of an amoral government capable of pure evil. But (with the obvious exception of Litvinenko’s murder) most of these atrocities were not perpetrated on British soil. The attempted murders of Skripal and his daughter were.
This was the first use of chemical weapons on British soil (unless, of course, you count Litvinenko’s murder with radioactive polonium). It was – if carried out by Russia – an act of state terrorism. The closest precedent would be the 1984 shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher from the windows of the Libyan Embassy, which led to the severing of diplomatic relations with Libya for more than a decade, but even that incident, a reckless attack on anti-Gadaffi demonstrators, did not involve chemical weapons or the careful planning that the use of such weapons must require.
Of course there is no cast iron proof that Russia was responsible. Official Russian sources have denied it. Putin apologists have become adept over the last ten years or so at casting doubt and confusion whenever Putin is implicated in some new horror, and they will be at it again. Others, generously attributing to the President a sense of honour that he has done little to deserve, will find it hard to believe that he would have the desire to kill a traitor who had been pardoned and exchanged. Maybe. But we are not conducting an attempted murder trial, at any rate not yet, so we do not need to be sure beyond any doubt before deciding whether our participation in the World Cup is appropriate; we simply need to decide who is likely to have been responsible.
There are two possibilities. Either Russia is probably responsible, or it is probably not.
If, by the time the World Cup is due to start, we can honestly say that Russia probably had no responsibility then, distasteful though it may be to play in the competition, the Salisbury attack changes nothing.
But if we think Russia probably used deadly chemical weapons on the streets of Salisbury, are we really so spineless and feeble that even then we will carry on as though nothing has changed? How many Russian exiles to whom we have offered sanctuary need to be irradiated or poisoned before we say enough is enough? Is there any particular number of innocent policemen and bystanders who have to be injured or killed before we stop dancing to the tune of the organ-grinder in the Kremlin?
And although we should remain open to the possibility that Skripal was not targeted by the Russian government, at present all the evidence suggests that that is by far the most likely explanation.
First, you would have to be monumentally trusting of a proven liar, ignorant or just plain stupid to believe that the murders of so many of Putin’s opponents had nothing to do with him. He is plainly capable of ordering murder and using it without scruple as an instrument of policy.
Secondly, nerve agents, we are told by those who know about these things, cannot simply be manufactured in a gangster’s kitchen. Although the ingredients may be relatively easy to obtain, in practice they require sophisticated laboratories, suggesting the involvement of a government. Russia, obviously, has the capability to make, transport and use them. Moreover, Mr Putin’s formative years were with the KGB who notoriously used unusual poisons such as curare as murder weapons. At one time they even experimented with new poisons on prisoners in the Lubyanka. Poisoning, you might say, is in Mr Putin’s professional DNA.
Thirdly, there is an obvious motive for the murder of Skripal: he was regarded as a traitor. His death, the more lingering, painful and horrifying the better, would send out a stark message to any other agent tempted by idealism or money to reveal Putin’s secrets. The simultaneous attempt to murder his daughter serves only to emphasise such a message. Putin’s widely reported remarks yesterday, while visiting a cake factory of all places, that “those who serve us with poison will eventually swallow it and poison themselves,” may have been just a general warning, but they also make literal sense. Perhaps we should take them at face value. Occasionally even Putin may mean what he says.
Fourthly, state sanctioned murders overseas are explicitly permitted by Russian law (not that illegality would ever be much of an impediment). Under a 2006 law, the Russian President is permitted to order the killing of “terrorists and extremists,” a term which includes, for example, “those slandering the individual occupying the post of president of the Russian Federation.”
There will be many, and not just football fans, who will say that the English football team should play. They will say that we have played sport with nastier regimes. It is true that if we are over-choosy about whom we play with we would soon run out of opponents. But we have never yet played games with a hostile foreign power that has repeatedly sought to carry out murder with chemical weapons in our own streets. It is a precedent best avoided.
The Government itself can do no more than cajole and discourage. It cannot legally stop individuals from travelling to Russia if they want to do so. So it must be the footballers themselves, or the FA on their behalf, who stop the national team from participating.
Some will say it is unfair to expect footballers to make a gesture that will, in itself, achieve very little. It is certainly true that in itself a boycott by the England will not achieve very much, and of course there are other measures that ought be taken: sanctions could be extended, and consideration could, for example, be given to tightening aspects of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill currently going through Parliament, as suggested by Richard Benyon MP.
Yet the fact that a World Cup boycott would achieve little is beside the point: going to the World Cup is also a gesture, and, if we accept Russia’s probable guilt, it is a gesture that will achieve a great deal. It will demonstrate our pitiful weakness and cowardice. It will demonstrate to Mr Putin that there is virtually no behaviour of his, no crime, not even serial killing with chemicals on British soil, that we are not prepared to forgive and forget in the interests of one of our national football teams. It would be hard to come up with a more embarrassing act of national humiliation.