Russia's Pyrrhic Victory

With the closing of two British Council offices in Russia, the ghost of Alexander Litvinenko has come back to haunt Britain and Russia.

In the continuing tit-for-tat between Russia and Britain since the Litvinenko poisoning, the newest row has targeted British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. But the fuss is not really over these cultural and educational organizations similar to France's La Maison Francaise; it is about perceptions of sovereignty. The British Council offices are just further collateral damage in the larger Anglo-Russian dispute over the Litvinenko murder in 2006. London wants real Russian cooperation in the murder investigation; Moscow is saying "don't tread on me."

At this point, it is quite clear the British government believes the Russian government was, at some unspecified level, directly complicit in the gruesome poisoning of Litvinenko, at the time of his death a British subject. It is also clear the Russian government-whatever the truth of its involvement-has no intention of assisting the British in an investigation likely to point at themselves. Hence, the use of unrelated bilateral activities like the councils as pawns. Diplomatic veterans of the cold war like myself recall this kind of thing as the tedious and generally counterproductive norm of those days.

London asserts it has the right to continue the operations of these two outlets under a 1994 bilateral agreement and the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Activities (one of several Vienna Conventions on interstate relations). Moscow claims the activities of the outlets are illegal and demands they close. Britain almost certainly has a strong legal case, or it would not have pursued a position it cannot ultimately enforce. Unlike most cultural and press activities (such as the BBC), these councils operate under the auspices of consulates (much as did some old USIA libraries during the cold war), thereby enjoying the protections of the Vienna Convention. Russia clearly does not care too much about the letter of the agreements, and doubtless has foreign ministry lawyers able to parse the texts to support Moscow's position (that is what foreign ministry lawyers do in most countries, of course). The most recent news is that Russia has won a tactical victory and the two councils will close.

If one takes as a working hypothesis the British belief that Moscow was behind the Litvinenko killing, then the rationale becomes clear. Forces in the Russian government conducted the operation as an act of national sovereignty. Litvinenko was bound by a lifetime commitment not to reveal the secrets of the state security services. Killing him was a demonstration of enforceable contract. In this scenario, Moscow would define Russian sovereignty to include such action against an errant former agent, even if on foreign soil and of foreign citizenship. Russian sovereignty trumps British. Her Majesty's government, obviously, rejects such a rationale as an intolerable intrusion on its sovereignty.

Without at all acceding to the Russian logic described above, one should not be overly shocked that governments of powerful countries view sovereignty as a less-than-absolute standard. For example, in 1985 the French government sent agents to bomb the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbor to prevent it protesting French nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific. The ship was sunk, with one unintended fatality. New Zealand brought judicial action against the agents. The government of Francois Mitterrand employed political and even economic sanctions against New Zealand to get its people back. More to the point, the French body politic broadly supported the action and even expressed outrage that little New Zealand would seek to place its own sovereignty on a par with that of France. If a French administration could justify arson and unpremeditated manslaughter in another country, is it so difficult to imagine a Russian one authorizing premeditated murder? In both cases, the sanction to violate sovereignty is the exercise of one's own.

But What has Russia Lost?

In interstate relations, the world is not flat-far from it. The notion that all member states of the United Nations share an equal sanctity of sovereignty is nonsense, and everyone knows it. Great Britain and the United States have demonstrated many times the Orwellian principle that some animals are more equal than others. What is noteworthy about the current dispute between Russia and Britain is that it involves two European governments. London had persuaded itself that the new Russia would not behave toward Britain as it might within its "near abroad." Expectations were different, then. It is precisely for this reason that closing the British Councils is a self-defeating action by Moscow, no matter how much short-term gratification it may provide.

The Russian ruling elite, led by President Putin, proclaims Russia is a European country. I believe they do so quite genuinely, and are frustrated at their lack of acceptance which they attribute to unworthy motives in European capitals. Putin periodically demands such will-of-the-wisp goals as visa-free travel between the European Union and Russia, without evident appreciation that the two sides of the continent operate on very different concepts of sovereignty. Russia's concept is that of a nineteenth century great power, one of a small number of rule-making states exercising true sovereignty. After five decades of slow but real integration, the European Union countries (including even Eurosceptic Britain) practice shared sovereignty. The Europe of the twenty-first century has not overcome national issues, but it has greatly ameliorated the sovereignty concerns of its smaller members. When Russia demonstrates-with Britain, the Baltic republics, Ukraine, Georgia or elsewhere-that it operates from a very different perspective, the gap between Europe and Russia widens.