Patrick Mercer: Seeking '˜revenge' against Russia over Salisbury may be unwise

'˜May vows revenge on Putin,' was the headline in The Times on Thursday morning. Really? It's a splendid soundbite and just the sort of thing the media likes, but what can Britain do in the wake of the Skripal affair and, more importantly, what have we got the courage to do?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

That question needs an answer, but first I need to say that I got things badly wrong in the article that I wrote for this paper in March just after the Salisbury attack had occurred and the precise facts were yet to be established.

I simply couldn’t see what Russia had to gain by her alleged actions just on the verge of elections and the World Cup. I even went so far as to suggest that Ukraine did it to discredit her adversary, creating Trumpian ‘fake news’.

But as soon as the European Union and the United States of America backed our Government with sanctions and unequivocal condemnation, it was clear that there was credible evidence to which the public was not yet privy.

And I have to say that our police and security agencies have handled the whole affair very capably.

Only now and when, I assume, there is no more evidence to be squeezed from the case, has Mrs May been given the all-clear to reveal what Britain and the West really know. But this delay may prove to be an unavoidable problem.

Six months have passed since the incident during which time Mr Putin has won another election and, more importantly, Russia has been seen to mount a first class World Cup.

The competition was well organised, the Russian people proved to be friendly with neither horns nor tails and I didn’t hear a single England fan saying that they wouldn’t go to Russia due to what happened in the Crimea or Salisbury.

No, watching the faces of MPs on Wednesday afternoon as the Prime Minister spoke in the House of Commons to lay out the evidence provided by the police, it was clear that almost everyone had moved on; there was even a tired ennui about Mrs May’s words.

Also, in March the EU was still keen to show Britain the benefits of belonging while the US Establishment was operating semi-independently of the President.

Well, neither now pertains: the EU want rid of us and Mr Trump has his own agenda with Russia, in which Britain doesn’t figure.

But we must be careful about bandying about words like ‘revenge’.

First, I detect a barely-contained enthusiasm from parts of the media for another Cold War.

It occupies every security and defence correspondent without risk, it’s excitingly nostalgic and it allows the demonisation of a people and President who are mainly white and Christian while still worshipping at the shrine of political correctness.

National policy must never be directed by journalists.

Next, ‘revenge’ against a nation that suffered 30 million dead within living memory doesn’t work.

I’ve met Mr Putin and I’m in daily contact with Russians, most of whom regard him as the saviour of their country and honour. Remember, this was a nation that was prepared to let the crewmen of the stricken submarine Kursk die rather than allow Western rescue parties access to one of their most secret boats.

The Russian mentality may even welcome revenge – and we’re naive to suggest it.

Also, let’s be realistic about what the Kremlin was trying to achieve with the Skripal case.

It’s highly probable that Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated by the GRU, but do we really view either incident as an assault on Britain?

Whilst I’m not condoning such behaviour and I’m horrified by the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons in one of our cities, this is Russian revenge against people that their state views as traitors rather than a direct attack on us.

Britain must also be consistent. While they wouldn’t use chemical weapons, how much criticism is there of Israel when one of their Mossad teams executes one of their enemies abroad?

So what next? Litvinenko’s killers have never been brought to justice and, indeed, are treated as heroes in Russia; I’m afraid the reality is that it will be the same with the Salisbury duo.

So, we can put more pressure on oligarchs, we can certainly step up our cyber defences and perhaps even counter-attack with our superior technological reach.

We can seek the support of the UN Security Council and contribute forces to the Allied presence in the Baltic states, but we must also remember that we’re dealing with a people and President who admire strength and whose mindset is proudly uncompromising.

We also need Russia’s trade and markets and, above all, her help in the fight against Islamist terrorism.

Sadly, the time for international action against and condemnation of Russia has passed.

If Mrs May feels as strongly as she ought to about the Skripal business, she should have the courage to confront Mr Putin face to face.

If she doesn’t, she’ll continue to be the mouse that roared.

Colonel Patrick Mercer OBE is a former MP and Conservative shadow homeland security spokesman.