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If Labour wants to put human rights at the heart of its foreign policy, it needs to talk more about Putin’s Russia

Article by Lana Estemirova

May 29, 2020

If Labour wants to put human rights at the heart of its foreign policy, it needs to talk more about Putin’s Russia

On April 4th 2020 Keir Starmer was voted in as new leader of the Labour Party by a considerable margin against his rivals. One of his key campaign pledges was a promise to put human rights at the heart of his foreign policy, calling for a return to what he called an ‘ethical foreign policy’ in line with the commitments expressed in Labour’s 2019 manifesto. [1] This is a laudable aim, but if the Labour Party is committed to pursuing ethical foreign policy, it must be more pro-active in exposing Putin’s regime – in contrast to his predecessor’s leadership. Russia has long meddled with British politics, whether it is oligarchs laundering dirty money though the City of London or assassins operating on British soil. Since human rights based foreign policy occupies such an important space in Labour’s commitments, it must ensure it is vocal in holding to account countries that abuse them. Labour will be out of power until at least 2024 and as Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party appears unlikely to seriously scrutinize Putin’s Russia, given the circumstances surrounding its refusal to publicise the infamous Russia report, Labour MPs and shadow cabinet ministers must step in.

 

With Labour’s emphasis on the NHS and the Green New Deal during the 2019 election campaign in a vain attempt to move the national conversation away from Brexit – scrutiny of Labour’s foreign policy, other than on this central issue – was largely obscured. Within the 2019 Labour Manifesto, under the moniker of ‘New Internationalism’ Labour listed policy proposals to place human rights and international humanitarian law at the centre of decision making as part of an ‘ethical foreign policy.’ This included the deployment of human rights advisors to work alongside the Foreign Office. In a bid to place a curb on foreign adventurism, a key plank of the policy platform Corbyn had stood on, a War Powers Act was promised – alongside full implementation of every recommendation made by the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war[2].

 

In step with the political currents from which Corbyn hailed, the policy proposals contained within the document presented a serious attempt to get to grips with Britain’s colonial legacy and re-orientate its role in foreign affairs away from the interventionism[3] (overt or otherwise) for which it is condemned by a broad swathe of the Labour left – for whom a long litany of involvement in CIA-backed coups in the Middle East, alongside more recent examples in Iraq and Libya are key points of contention. For the demographic that backed him within the Labour Party, condemning and ending complicity in these sorts of affairs is a long-desired policy outcome.

 

While from Corbyn’s team and the broader left movement there was a strong critique of the Western Imperialism perpetuated by Britain and its allies – as well as the West’s willingness to support despotic regimes where it suited their interests; this level of critique was found wanting when it came to scrutinising the actions of other imperial powers – of which Russia is a crucial example.

 

Much of Corbyn’s political career has been spent immersed in struggles against foreign adventurism, which is why he faced difficult questions on his links to Hezbollah and other groups[4]. Similarly, his opposition to what the left deems to be Western Imperialism has in the past led him to call for the abolition of NATO. Opponents cited his willingness to criticise Britain and her allies as proof that he could not be trusted to act in Britain’s interests[5] – and his handling of the Skripal poisoning only served to reinforce this perception.

 

In March 2018, Corbyn drew criticism from across the British political spectrum over his response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia. Despite evidence clearly indicating Russian involvement, including the fact that the Novichok nerve agent used had been manufactured in the country, the Labour leader called for the evidence to be examined carefully in order to avoid “hasty judgements that could lead to a new cold war”[6]. In one interview, he even suggested the poison sample be sent to Russia for its own examination. Even if Corbyn was acting with best intentions in an attempt to portray himself as statesmanlike and level-headed, this was obscured by poor communication, with his response perceived as weak and sympathetic to Kremlin.

 

Corbyn’s caution would perhaps have been more justified had there not been a trail of assassinations left by the Kremlin on the British soil; the most notorious case being the murder of the former FSB officer turned regime critic Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by radioactive polonium-210 on 1 November 2006[7]. Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s operatives have also been linked to numerous high-profile assassinations across Europe[8]. In such a context, Corbyn’s comments made him appear naïve on foreign policy – and weak in the face of an opponent who had famously called the collapse of the USSR ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’ and made the overriding goal of his presidency the preservation of Russian territorial integrity and spheres of influence, along with the revival of its superpower status.

 

Ironically – Corbyn had been one of the first in the United Kingdom to condemn Putin for his bloody mindedness and appetite for repression. The start of Putin’s presidency was characterised by the launch of a bloody campaign of the restive breakaway republic of Chechnya, which had humiliated Russia during the first Chechen war 1994-96 when Russian President Yeltsin invaded after it declared independence from the Russian Federation. After the start of the second war in 1999, the capital, Grozny, was carpet bombed and virtually destroyed in a display of overwhelming firepower and disregard for civilian life which has since been replicated in the Russian intervention in Syria. Human rights abuses were extreme and atrocities against civilians commonplace, drawing heavy international criticism – including from a certain backbench Labour MP, Jeremy Corbyn.

 

Corbyn criticised Tony Blair in 2000 for flying to meet Putin in St. Petersburg, stating:

“When Tony Blair went to St Petersburg recently … that was certainly used [by Moscow] to indicate there was a sort of tacit approval of what the Russian government was doing in Chechnya… We have to say bluntly to Russia, you’ve signed up for all these international conventions, you have to abide by them, you have to stand by them otherwise we’re not going to do business with you.”[9]

 

At a time when many Western leaders still perceived Putin as a potential partner and liberaliser, Corbyn questioned whether Britain had raised sufficient concern over bombings in Chechnya and whether Western intergovernmental organizations were doing enough to advance peaceful solutions to the conflict[10]. It is this which made Corbyn’s silence on Putin’s Russia throughout his leadership all the more questionable – and one wonders why a similar position was not advocated during his tenure as Labour leader.

 

Today, Chechnya is a tightly controlled dictatorship run at Putin’s behest by the strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov presides over a reign of terror in Chechnya – with critics humiliated and silenced over the slightest infraction. A spate of assassinations, beatings and consistent harassment has driven all human rights organisations from the region, while abuses have continued unabated since the end of the second Chechen war. Kadyrov is permitted a free reign in Chechnya in exchange for so-called stability and support for Putin’s rule. The centuries-long anti-colonial resistance of a small nation has now been altogether crushed.  As the leader of a movement founded on international solidarity, anti-imperialism, human rights and ethical foreign policy, not including Russia’s position on Chechnya in its critique of international affairs was a glaring omission.

 

After Chechnya Putin continued to aggressively police what he perceived as Russian interests along its periphery. As his grip on power strengthened, the pillars of his new Russia were set, in his narrative, to be autocracy, orthodoxy and militant patriotism. Putin viewed the ‘colour’ revolutions which swept through the former Soviet Union removing clientilist networks and replacing them with new Governments less sympathetic to his regime (in the case of Georgia and Ukraine) with extreme hostility and alarm.[11] The efforts to remove corrupt authoritarian governments and shift towards greater democracy and transparency alongside an orientation towards the West is seen by Putin as an attempt to encircle Russia by NATO in an ongoing campaign that had persisted since the fall of the USSR. In this vein, the 2008 invasion of Georgia after the overconfident Mikhail Saakashvili, armed with American weaponry and courting NATO, made the mistake of provoking Russia[12] – was a prelude to Putin’s actions to annex the Crimea and then invade Eastern Ukraine after it had the temerity to sign a trade deal with the EU over that proffered by the Kremlin.

 

Fearing that he might also someday be subject to his own colour revolution – a view reinforced by the 2012 protest movement that shook his regime, Putin set about clamping down on freedoms and dismantling human rights organisations and NGOs within Russia under the notorious ‘foreign agents’ laws before turning his eyes on the West[13] – whose presence he saw lurking behind the populations of the Eastern Bloc’s greater demand for more freedom, transparency and economic justice. Having learnt that control over information flows within Russia was central to maintaining his power – he initiated a disinformation campaign abroad: powered by networks of troll factories on social media platforms, and the flagship Russia Today news channel on all the major European satellite networks. [14]

 

In the aftermath of Brexit and Trump – alarm from what was considered by many on the left as the ‘centrist-neoliberal establishment’ about Russian interference was dismissed as an attempt to excuse their own failings and the intellectual exhaustion of neoliberal ideology by pointing the finger at the old enemy: a revived ‘red menace’ in the form of Putin. In avoiding this new feature of the political landscape post-2016, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party made a strategic error. The very fact that a hostile state power could so easily disseminate disinformation and sow discord within British territory and interfere with its most sacrosanct democratic ritual could have been leveraged as evidence of the failings of the free-market orthodoxy they were criticising. In this instance, anybody with sufficient funds was permitted access to Facebook’s and the other social media platforms’ advertising algorithms – which could then be manipulated to try and produce outcomes perceived as advantageous to the Russian state. Once again, Labour could have wrapped its economic critique within the broader context of national security and sovereignty: Putin believes everyone has a price – and so far, he has not been proven wrong.

 

This brings us neatly to Russian influence in UK affairs through the constellation of oligarchs with links to the Kremlin that mingle with the highest circles of power in Britain. This is a relationship which permeates to the extent that the day after his landslide 2019 election victory Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds dropped into a caviar-fuelled Christmas Party in London hosted by former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev[15]. It was revealed that Russian nationals had donated about £3.5 million since 2010[16] fuelling speculation that this is the motivation behind the government’s continued refusal to publicise the ‘Russian Report’ into Kremlin meddling in British affairs. British intelligence agencies have been known for some time to be concerned about the penetration of Russian organised crime in London and its murky and hybrid links to the Kremlin.

 

Despite the surface hostility and diplomatic exchange of censures over the Skripal affair, the UK and Russia are intimately connected. The Russian rich provide funds and investment and in return the UK offers them a luxurious existence, accompanied by elite law firms they can hire to ensure that the British justice system work in their favour[17]. This relationship was called out by shadow chancellor John McDonnell in the aftermath of the Skripal poisioning[18] – who called for Labour MPs to stop making appearances on Russia Today. But as identified above, weak messaging from the outset saw Labour lose control of the narrative and this critique did not form a consistent plank of its criticisms against the Conservative Government.

 

Corbyn was frequently accused of being soft on Russia because many in his leadership team were portrayed as former USSR sympathisers or seen as accepting of the Kremlin’s narrative. Many on the left dismissed this as another example of the smears used to discredit their leader, but in the context of Labour’s continued failure to engage substantively with the Russia question, it does warrant further examination – and raises some troubling links.

 

In the context of resistance to what they characterised as Western Imperialism, there were some on the left in Britain who bought into Putin’s story about Russian resistance to an unfair unipolar order. In his 2015 article for the Guardian, Seamus Milne – who later became Jeremy Corbyn’s director of strategy – justified Russian aggression in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by arguing that NATO’s expansion in elsewhere in Eastern Europe had left Putin little choice but to intervene[19]. He made no mention of the Crimean Tatars, many of whom were expelled from their homeland for the second time in living memory (the first being under Stalin’s deportations.) Writing about the victims of non-Western aggression did not appear to fit into Milne’s narrative. A year earlier he had shared a stage with Russian president Vladimir Putin as he made a speech at the notorious pro-Kremlin Valdai discussion club. His views and affiliations might have been acceptable for an independent journalist but his later proximity to the leader of the opposition may leave one wondering what kind of advice he was giving regarding Russia.

 

In the aftermath of Russia-Ukraine conflict, one of Corbyn’s closest advisors, Andrew Murray, founded a “Solidarity with Antifascist Resistance in Ukraine” group: “A new campaign in the UK against Western backing for the far-right regime in Kiev and in solidarity with those resisting fascist repression in Ukraine”. A quick browse of their Facebook reveals a screening of a documentary ‘MH17: Call for Justice’- ‘The first detailed documentary to challenge the Dutch-NATO version of events about the tragedy’. Directed by an ex Russia Today journalist Yana Erlashova, the documentary makes crude speculations about the MH-17 disaster and overinflated stories about ‘Fascist’ pro-Ukraine squads is the exact rhetoric deployed by Russian state channels, including Russia Today.[20] By choosing to view Russia’s geopolitical gambles solely through the prism of Western imperialism and suspicion for its motives, these key Labour advisors paid little regard to the victims of Putin’s political decisions. They also left themselves susceptible to the outputs of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign.

 

Missing an open goal

Labour – pursuing a supposedly radical and humanist agenda with its foreign policy – missed out on a crucial opportunity to reiterate their economic message within the context of the controversy caused by the Conservative Party’s cosy relationship with Russia’s oligarchic class and the threat to British national interests that represents. In seeking to promote a human-rights based foreign policy, they failed to pay attention to abuses committed by states outside of Western spheres of influence. Yet human rights are universal in their claims – and any party seeking to act in their name must ensure the universal application of their principles regardless of where they fall across the fault lines of geopolitical boundaries. Advocacy and condemnation of abuses, even where more substantive support is not available is meaningful to victims – holding out the promise of justice and the reassurance that their suffering is seen and acknowledged.

 

The same issues regarding Russia that Corbyn faced remain substantively the same, while the political opportunity against the Conservative party, in whatever context it is used, remains unchanged. The appointment of Lisa Nandy as shadow foreign secretary was taken as a surprise in some quarters – yet past remarks provide encouraging reading for those that would want to see the Labour Party adopt a clearer, more definitive approach towards Putin’s regime:

“We stood with the Russian government, and not with the people it oppresses, who suffer poverty and discrimination. We failed the test of solidarity.”[21]

 

Condemning an oppressive regime while demonstrating compassion and solidarity with its citizens does not equate to demonization of its people – nor does it simply provide a scapegoat for our own failings. Labour has a chance to occupy the moral high ground on this issue, let us hope that it can take it.

 

At a time when anxiety is high in the West over Putin’s expansionist ambitions and evidently malign intent, Labour could weave a critique of Putin’s repressive mafia state and support for the dictatorship of Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya into a powerful narrative. Labour could make an argument that the Conservative’s pursuit of and comfort with excessive wealth left Britain compromised to outside interference: a narrative that would be consistent with Labour’s ambition under Starmer to be seen as more visibly patriotic and strong on defence. The Conservatives have continued to refuse to publish the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament Russia report that was so controversial during the 2019 campaign, leaving fertile ground for this kind of claim.[22]

 

The Covid-19 pandemic will undoubtedly shape Russian domestic affairs and geopolitical dynamics, with the IMF predicting a global recession worse than the Great Depression. Putin’s plans to vote for amendment on constitution that would allow him to stay in power until 2036 have been stalled by the crisis, as was the Victory Day parade on 9th of May – an event intended to symbolically cement the constitutional changes[23]. Much remains uncertain about the future of Russia but with mercenary regiments deployed in Africa and Syria and intermittent talks over integrating Belarus into Russian territory, it is highly unlikely that Putin will abandon his geopolitical ambitions.

 

If Starmer wants to lead on the global stage he needs to have a cognizant appraisal and strategy for dealing with a regime actively waging hybrid warfare against Britain and her allies and taking increasingly bold and dangerous steps on the world stage. A situation that will undoubtedly be exacerbated by Putin’s sense of anxiety at home over his disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic – the annexation of Crimea was also perpetuated against a background of declining domestic support. This is not to advocate a return to the ‘great game’ of European competition but to stress the point that any leader looking to champion human rights and democracy on the world stage will need to have a strategy and appreciation for those illiberal forces that will oppose him.

 

Photo by Rwendland Keir Starmer speaking at the 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings in Bristol on the morning of Saturday 1 February 2020, in the Ashton Gate Stadium Lansdown Stand. Licensed under Creative Commons

[1] Keir Starmer, Leadership Campaign Website, https://keirstarmer.com/plans/10-pledges/

[2] Labour Party 2019 Manifesto, It’s time for a real change- Labour’s manifesto 2019

[3] ibid

[4] Rajeev Syal, Jeremy Corbyn says he regrets calling Hamas and Hezbollah ‘friends’, The Guardian, July 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/04/jeremy-corbyn-says-he-regrets-calling-hamas-and-hezbollah-friends

[5] DW, UK election: What would Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy look like?, December 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/uk-election-what-would-jeremy-corbyns-foreign-policy-look-like/a-51211613

[6] BBC News, Jeremy Corbyn: Salisbury attack ‘evidence points towards Russia’, March 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-43414185

[7] Luke Harding, Alexander Litvinenko: the man who solved his own murder, The Guardian, January 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/19/alexander-litvinenko-the-man-who-solved-his-own-murder

[8]Shaun Walker, The Guardian, September 2019, ‘We can find you anywhere’: the Chechen death squads stalking Europe, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/21/chechnya-death-squads-europe-ramzan-kadyrov

[9] Putin visit hit by war atrocities law suit, April 2020, Kim Sengupta, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/putin-visit-hit-by-war-atrocities-law-suit-279869.html

[10] Jeremy Corbyn, Written Question: Chechnya, January 2000, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmhansrd/vo000117/text/00117w20.htm#00117w20.html_sbhd3

[11] In a post-Soviet context it particularly refers to the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan

[12] Through the killing of Russian military personnel stationed in South Ossetia as part Georgia’s attempt to retake the region, a military operation that followed months of escalating tensions between Russia and Georgia and increased border violence between Georgian and South Ossetian forces (Russian provides support to the defecto authorities in South Ossetia)

[13] BBC News, Russia to label individuals as ‘foreign agents’ under new law, December 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-50643705

[14] BBC News, Powerful ‘Putin’s chef’ Prigozhin cooks up murky deals, November 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-50264747

[15] Luke Harding and Dan Sabbagh, Johnson visit to Lebedev party after victory odd move for ‘people’s PM’, The Guardian, December 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/22/johnson-visit-to-lebedev-party-after-victory-odd-move-for-peoples-pm

[16] Seth Thévoz and Peter Geoghegan, Revealed: Russian donors have stepped up Tory funding, Open Democracy, November 2019, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/dark-money-investigations/revealed-russian-donors-have-stepped-tory-funding/

[17] Belton, C 2020, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West, HarperCollins publishers

[18] BBC News, Spy poisoning: Putin responsible for attack, says John McDonnell, March 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-43448563

[19]Seumas Milne, The demonisation of Russia risks paving the way for war, The Guardian, March 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/04/demonisation-russia-risks-paving-way-for-war

[20] The rise of far-right groups in Ukraine is a real problem but one that has both been exaggerated in Kremlin propaganda and has been exacerbated by the ongoing war with Russia.

[21]Andrew Sparrow, Labour leadership contest: We failed on Russia under Corbyn’s leadership, says Nandy, The Guardian, January 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2020/jan/15/pmqs-boris-johnson-corbyn-labour-trump-praises-boris-johnson-for-suggesting-us-should-draft-new-iran-deal-live-news

[22] Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament Russia Report, http://isc.independent.gov.uk/news-archive/17october2019

[23]Matthew Luxmoore, ‘It All Depends On The Body Count’: Pandemic Threatens Putin’s Spring Of Political Pageantry, April 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-victory-day-coronavirus-putin-pandemic-political-pageantry/30546645.html

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