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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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West must wake up to Putin danger

Published by The i paper (13th May, 2024)

Historians will look back in bafflement at the gullibility of Western leaders in their response to Vladimir Putin. When this obscure security official was selected by President Boris Yeltsin to be prime minister in 1999, he was seen as a nonentity. Languishing in the polls, he talked of staying in power just a couple of years. Then one month after his appointment, a massive explosion destroyed a block of flats on Moscow’s outskirts, followed by three more deadly blasts that left at least 300 people dead. Putin blamed terrorists, pledged to hunt them down even in their toilets and launched a savage war in Chechnya, leading to surging popularity and seizure of the presidency.

There should never have been any doubt over the callous nature of this character. British intelligence chiefs warned their political masters that the former KGB spook should not be trusted. The Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko confirmed that the apartment block bombs were planted by his fellow security agents – before he was murdered with radioactive polonium in London. The 2008 assault on Georgia underlined Putin’s willingness to challenge the West and usurp the international order, followed by an even more blatant outrage with his initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and illegal annexation of Crimea.

Yet a succession of naive Western politicians thought they could restrain Putin with smooth talk backed by the occasional slap on the wrist of sanctions while this thug in the Kremlin murdered his foes, looted state wealth, crushed human rights at home, spewed out disinformation abroad and sent his armed forces to slaughter people from the Sahel to Syria. It took the launch of his attempt two years ago to seize Ukraine and strangle a fledgling democracy on his doorstep to finally jolt the West out of its complacency, inspired by the fierce determination of Ukrainians to fight for the freedoms we take so foolishly for granted.

Sadly, the support is shamefully inadequate and sluggish for those people trapped on the front line of this conflict that lies now at the heart of a global struggle between autocracy and democracy. This has enabled Russia to make some minor advances, devastate more infrastructure and continue inflicting its atrocities. There are fears of a fresh assault on the city of Kharkiv. Meanwhile, the eruption of huge protests in Georgia show this nation’s determination to resist sliding back under Kremlin influence. Yet in many other countries – including our own – there is far more focus paid to petty culture wars than the real conflict that is corroding our continent.

For have no doubt: Russia is at war with the West. Last week Britain kicked out Moscow’s long-serving defence attaché and removed diplomatic protection from properties being used for spying. The Home Secretary, James Cleverly, said “malign cyber activity incidents” against Whitehall and Westminster, along with the planning of sabotage actions in Bulgaria, Germany, Italy and Poland, “bear all the hallmarks of a deliberate campaign by Russia”.

There were also reports that three intelligence services in Europe were warning about Russian agents launching bomb, arson and infrastructure attacks. “We assess the risk of state-controlled acts of sabotage to be significantly increased,” said Germany’s head of intelligence.

Two German-Russian men were arrested in April on suspicion of plotting sabotage attacks on US military facilities and industrial infrastructure to weaken the military support for Kyiv. The previous month, there was an arson attack on an east London warehouse containing aid shipments for Ukraine. There has been a string of fires at sites run by defence firms, including two blasts in two days at factories making artillery shells in Wales and the US. Both firms deny “outside influence”. Yet one top security source told me: “Lots of fires that we thought were accidents and unconnected have turned out to be connected”, adding that ministers have been warned about Moscow hiring hoodlums and far-right fanatics for sabotage attacks.

Such attacks are a trademark of Putin’s regime. In October 2014 – when Ukrainian troops looked like they were routing Russian-backed forces in the initial attack on their nation – two people died in a huge explosion at a Czech ammunition depot. This was followed by another explosion at an arms dump in the country. There were also a series of strange blasts at weapons plants in Bulgaria, thought to be Russian state terrorism. And a major arms dealer narrowly survived two poisoning attempts.

It was later discovered that the lethal Czech sabotage operation was carried out by the same two Russian military intelligence officers involved in the 2018 nerve agent attack on Salisbury, which targeted a double agent and murdered a local woman.

We know also that the Kremlin weaponised migration into Finland, Lithuania and Poland. There has been a flood of disinformation and cyber attacks, including on Britain; in the last few days alone, Germany, Poland and Czechia have accused hackers linked to Russian intelligence of targeting their state networks. A Czech minister recently accused Russia of trying to destroy rail signalling systems, the Swedes are investigating if sabotage lies behind some train derailments and the Finns have ditched flights to one Baltic airport amid extensive jamming of GPS and communication signals used for civilian flights.

Putin’s aim is to sow divisions in democracies, disrupt our lives, stretch our security agencies and show his people that he is hitting back at the West. Keir Giles, senior fellow at Chatham House think-tank, argues that Moscow is barely hiding its assault on the West any longer. “We must expect proxy attacks against the UK and across Europe. They see it just like our Special Operations Executive operating behind enemy lines in World War Two – it shows they are already at war with us.”

But the big question is still whether our leaders and our societies have finally woken up to the challenge from this evil dictator and his despotic allies – or will we continue sleepwalking into disaster until it is too late?

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