Sunday 19 January 2020

Putin can get away with murder, so nothing much will happen

The Russian president has armies of internet trolls
The Russian president has armies of internet trolls

Fergal Keane

Tomorrow, after he has enjoyed a break for golf in Scotland, the President of the United States will meet in Helsinki with a man he hopes will become his friend. At the moment Vladimir Putin is a 'competitor', although in quite what manner Donald Trump has declined to spell out.

By then Mr Putin will have had time to celebrate the success of the World Cup on Russian soil, even if the national side made its exit at the quarter-final stage.

So much good news for Mr Putin. For as he prepared to host the final his spies brought him news of the fall of the city of Deraa, birthplace of the Syrian revolution, to the forces of his ally Bashar al-Assad.

It wouldn't have happened without Mr Putin's armed intervention. He has been Assad's best friend in his campaign of bombing, torture, forced displacement and chemical weapon attacks.

These last extend beyond the borders of Syria. In the same week that the people of Britain prepared to watch the national side exit the World Cup in Moscow, an event ordered in the same city had tragic consequences on the streets of an English town.

Dawn Sturgess, a 44-year-old mother of three children, died after coming into contact with a Soviet era nerve agent in Salisbury. Her partner Charlie Rowley remains in a critical condition.

They were people who existed on the margins of local society. Dawn was described as "a gentle soul, generous to a fault", and lived in supported accommodation. A friend described how, after becoming ill, she "foamed at the mouth". It took nine days for her to die.

It appears that it was the same chemical weapon - Novichok - that had earlier been used to try to kill a former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. In an act of murderous carelessness, the killers apparently tossed away the bottle they used in that attack.

The Russian agents were sent to kill a man who had betrayed his country by working with Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. They did not care who else died. No more than their boss Mr Putin has worried about the Syrian civilians who have died in the war against the rebels of Homs, Aleppo, Douma and now Deraa.

Every accusation of war crimes and abuse is met with denials and lies and the circulation of 'alternative facts'. Mr Putin has armies of internet trolls to spread disinformation, frequently abetted by useful idiots in the west who will twist themselves inside out to cast the blame anywhere but where it belongs.

It is, of course, fair to point to the multiple brutalities inflicted over decades of western interventions in foreign countries.

But it does not, cannot, cancel the horrors now being wrought by Russian agents or Russian proxies in our time.

As it happens, and you can call this an unhappy coincidence if you wish, the American president will meet his Russian counterpart in Helsinki just a day before the fourth anniversary of the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine.

I recall the morning I arrived at the crash site. On either side of the road were fields of blooming sunflowers. I noticed a small white mound on the verge between the fields and the road to our right-hand side.

Coming closer we saw that it was a sheet spread over a child's body. Somebody had covered him and placed some flowers around the scene. This was some considerable distance from the main concentration of bodies and debris. The lone child, thrown by some fluke of the explosion away from his family, would be picked up by an ambulance in the next few hours.

The images of that morning, and of the days that followed, are endlessly haunting: The still smouldering fires, the dead and the pieces of the dead, the grotesque shapes into which the human form is twisted in the fall to earth, the thuggish militia, the locals praying for the dead at the crossroads.

I remember well the conversations that followed with my fellow journalists. Surely this would mean the shaming of Putin and the end of his sponsorship of the war in the east.

After this horror - the deaths of 298 people - surely Putin would pull back. But nothing of the sort happened. Out came the lies and conspiracy theories. It wasn't a Russian missile, it was the Ukrainians.

We now know, thanks to the efforts of international investigators, that the BUK missile launcher which downed MH17 belonged to the Russian army's 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, that it was taken into Ukraine on the day of the attack and back into Russia later the same day.

There will be no public tribunal in Russia to hold Mr Putin and his generals and spies to account.

For now, the instigators of this horror are free men.

The intervening years have brought other atrocities and the piling up of lies. Truth is bleeding.

It is possible that an international tribunal may yet be established to bring justice for the victims of MH17 but without Russian cooperation, it will be rendered impotent.

Those days when the dead lay in the heat of the sunflower fields east of Donetsk represented a moment of decision for the international community. But not much happened really.

There were sanctions but nothing that limited Mr Putin's appetite or ability for military adventurism. He had the measure of Obama and the American public who had little appetite for getting involved in conflicts in Europe or Syria.

At least one consequence of this was to convince the Russian leader he could get away with pretty much anything including the hacking attack on American democracy.

In Helsinki, two powerful men will sit down together. I don't expect much will change in the way Mr Putin operates.

Nor do I believe he will become President Trump's friend. But when we see the handshakes and all the studied gravitas of the big power summit, let us remember Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, the dead of MH17, and the bombed and poisoned dead of Syria's cities.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent

Sunday Independent

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