THE smirking countenance of Vladimir Putin yesterday as he basked in the glory of his rigged re-election as Russian president was nauseating.
It was the same smirk he wore when asked if Russia was responsible for the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, 68, and his daughter, Yulia, 33, in the first attack using a nerve agent in a Nato country since the alliance was formed in 1949. He smiled too when he denied complicity in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London using radioactive polonium in 2006.
Putin smiles a lot, especially in the face of the suffering of others at his hands. He beamed after ordering the invasion of Georgia in 2008, and then the seizure of Crimea in 2014.
And when Russia was complicit in the shooting down of a civilian airliner over Ukraine that same year, and blighted the Sochi Winter Olympics with widespread doping, Putin smirked and shrugged his shoulders as he denied any responsibility.
Now the world has to work out how to contain Putin over the coming six years, after the blatant rigging of Sunday’s election returned him to office with a landslide victory and more than 76 per cent of the vote.
The win was always a foregone conclusion, given the main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was barred from the race, leaving only a field of stooges there for the sake of appearances.
But just to make sure, officials stuffed ballot boxes and intimidated voters, exactly as they did at the last election in 2012, when one of the most extreme examples of corruption saw one district return 46 per cent more votes for Putin than there were voters to cast them.
Infinitely worse than that, though, was the claim by Putin’s spokesman that Britain’s outrage at the poisoning of the Skripals had boosted turnout.
There is only one conclusion to be drawn from this, and it is deeply disturbing – the poisonings were timed to coincide with the election campaign, in order to whip up an international incident that bolstered Putin’s familiar propaganda that the West is anti-Russian.
Attempted murder with one of the most appalling weapons ever devised as an electoral ploy. Not just cynical, but horrifying. It will not be lost on either Putin or the western democracies that he is the first Russian leader since Stalin to rule for two decades.
The comparison to that blood-sodden monster is apt. The cloak of a democratically-elected leader he wears is a sham. He is a dictator in all but name, whose stock-in-trade is intimidation and murder. Like Stalin he has fostered paranoia in the country he rules, stifling an independent media and feeding the population the myth that Russia is under siege from the West.
This mindset is fraught with danger for the rest of Europe. Putin’s ruthlessness and disregard for consequences has never been more explicitly demonstrated than in the attempt on the lives of the Skripals – and the poisoning of Det Sgt Nick Bailey who went to their aid.
It is time the smirk was wiped off Putin’s face for the sake of European stability, and it falls to Britain to lead the way. Sunday’s election will only have emboldened Putin, and that makes it more than ever necessary to send him an uncompromising message that his course of action will only end in Russia becoming an international pariah. That Putin’s regime is stockpiling the nerve agent deployed in Salisbury, as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson asserted on Sunday, only makes it more imperative that Britain rallies a determined international effort.
A good start has been made. A Prime Minister and Government beset by instability and division have shown admirable resolve and unity. The support of the United States, Germany and France demonstrate how gravely the international community takes the threat of Putin, and yesterday’s backing of the EU underlined the world’s revulsion.
But there is more yet to do beyond the expulsion of Russian “diplomats” – in this case a euphemism for spies. Today’s meeting of the National Security Committee, chaired by Theresa May, will have to decide the next step. Doing nothing is not an option. A crackdown on Putin’s mega-rich cronies who squirrel their money away in Britain is one measure that would hurt. A cyber attack on Russian institutions to send a message that the West will hit back at provocations is another.
Whether the international community decides to boycott football’s World Cup in Russia in June remains to be seen.
There can be no shirking from challenging Putin. This is a conflict that the West has neither sought nor deserved. It is solely down to a tyrant hell-bent on provocation, who has a total disregard for the norms of civilised behaviour.
Britain has the moral authority and international backing to tackle him. The West won one Cold War. Now it has to fight and win another.