There was a time, now in the long-distant and by some in these islands much-mourned past, when a roar from the British lion caused the Russian bear to tremble.
Sadly, the roaring lion is now a rather scruffy old moggy, and the roar has become a squeak. The Russian bear, however, is still in rude health – and up to its old tricks again, even to the point of annexing the Crimea. It also has some new ones – such as poisoning dissidents who have settled in other countries (or, as in the case of last week’s incident, those who have been deported in an exchange of spies).
History tends to repeat itself, whether in the form of farce or tragedy, and Russia under Putin is intent on pushing its rivals on the world stage in the name of both – rivals that it probably perceives as enemies, such is Russia’s ancient penchant for paranoia. He will push to the limit of their tolerance because those limits, short of war, are virtually endless.
Russia does so because Russia can. What, or who, is to stop it?
Not Britain. Challenging Putin to observe a midnight deadline was bound to be considered a joke in Moscow. Putin was duly filmed with a smirk on his face when he received the news. At least he paid Britain the honour of not laughing out loud (can Putin laugh out loud? If so has anyone ever witnessed it? His lugubrious expression brings to my mind the silent film star Buster Keaton, who looked thoroughly miserable throughout his career – although at least, unlike Putin, he made us laugh in the process).
Economic sanctions have already been imposed Britain, and by most western states, so further punishment of that type would be largely irrelevant. Expelling Russian diplomats from London will be met with reciprocal action from the Kremlin. Such games were played throughout the Cold War, and nobody thought they amounted to much then, other than providing newspapers with the chance to print some colourful stories and write indignant editorials. Nor will Britain threatening diplomatically to ostracise Russia cause sleepless nights in the Kremlin, least of all in the office of the president, shortly to be re-elected, in the absence of opposition, by a record margin.
All this is painfully obvious, perhaps even in Whitehall. Still, gestures have to be made, and will be made. But gestures are by definition empty. “Take that, you unscrupulous bastard,” Britain will in effect be saying, while hurling custard pies. Better custard pies, I suppose than missiles – not that Britain has the wherewithal to launch missiles, anyway, and certainly not without American and NATO approval.
Putin, in short, cannot be shamed, let alone tamed. Anyway, his counterpart in the White House evidently thinks he is one fine fellow, if a bit rash sometimes, and a man with whom one can deal. Putin did, after all, help him get elected. Politicians usually remember such favours, especially when it suits them to do so.
So, galling as it is, empty gestures it will be from Westminster, and yah-boo responses back from Moscow. The two victims of the chemical attack in Salisbury will never be the same again, physically or mentally, assuming that they survive. Their fate is that they will be forgotten. Their names have scarcely registered anyway.
Outrage is a justifiable and appropriate national response. Sadly, it is the only one available.