Nick Cohen

The British secret state has finally done the right thing by ordering a public inquiry into the poisoning of the fugitive Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko. Admittedly, in taking on Vladimir Putin, it has done the right thing for the wrong reasons and after exhausting all other options. Still, despite the warnings of the Chicken Lickens in Whitehall and the City, the sky has not fallen. Russia can be defied, it seems, and the world still turns.

I thought my jaundiced eyes would never see the day. In 2013, the Foreign Office used every variety of official subterfuge to stop the public and, more disgracefully, Litvinenko’s widow discovering the truth about the most sensational political assassination in years. Lured into a London hotel by two Russian agents, who slipped him polonium-210, Litvinenko was the victim of an agonisingly slow death and an exemplary punishment. After seeing his tortured frame, anyone thinking of betraying Moscow’s secrets to the west would think again.

The alleged killers are beyond the reach of British law, in Russia, where their careers have prospered. The only hope for an honest account of his murder lay with the inquest. William Hague nobbled it with court orders stopping the coroner and family hearing what evidence MI6 possessed. The hidden testimony established ‘a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state’, explained the coroner. Marina Litvinenko’s QC said the government was putting profits from trade with Russia above all else. The inquest collapsed and Ms Litvinenko learned how it goes in Britain: the supposed interests of the state trump the real interests of justice. Until last week, that is. After Putin’s annexation of Crimea and stoking of civil war in Ukraine with special forces and weapons that could slaughter civilian airline passengers, ministers decided that Marina Litvinenko could have her public inquiry into the murder of her husband after all.

The British realised they were not dependent on Russian money and no one should have been surprised by this belated discovery. ‘We are a great, powerless country,’ admitted the Russian foreign minister in 1876. ‘We can always dress up finely but we need to know that we are dressing up.’ What was true in Tsar Alexander II’s autocracy is as true in Tsar Vladimir’s creaking despotism. At $2.1tn, Russian GDP is eight times smaller than the EU as a whole. It is a poorer county than Germany, France and Britain individually and only slightly richer than Italy. Russia is overwhelmingly dependent on the export of natural resources. Its bureaucrats and oligarchs are among the world’s most accomplished money launderers. Russia is Nigeria with nuclear weapons; Saudi Arabia without the sunshine.

We don’t see it because London dominates British life and Russian oligarchs spend flamboyantly on the luxuries the capital provides. They patronise its art galleries, private schools, estate agents and restaurants. They are seen in all the places where the chroniclers of wealth gather to ooh and aah. But when the Open Europe thinktank examined the substance behind the show, it dismissed as ‘overblown’ claims that the City would suffer major losses if Britain used economic sanctions to deter Russian aggression. Russian investments in the City were a mere 0.5% of total European assets in London. Their loss would hurt but would not maim. I have no doubt that a hardheaded understanding of Russia’s unimportance as well as genuine repulsion at Putin’s actions explains the Litvinenko inquiry and the willingness of George Osborne to say that Britain will ‘take the economic hit’ if it has to impose further sanctions.

We will find out when sanctions are discussed this week. But Europe’s other great powers are looking feeble. Indeed, to use such old-fashioned language takes us to the heart of the EU’s inability to know what to do with Putin. Europe no longer sees itself as a continent with ‘great powers’. It abjures the nationalism and militarism that archaic phrase implies. Sheltering under the American nuclear umbrella, liberated by the miraculous collapse of the Soviet empire, Europe is a continent that has turned its back on war in favour of non-violent persuasion. Even though the British and French governments still send their armies abroad, the British and French publics are like the governments and publics of the rest of Europe. They share the conviction that war settles nothing. I am not deriding them. Europe’s belief in a dull but safe civilisation is its main attraction. It can almost make me forgive the EU the single currency. If you want to see European civilisation made flesh, look at the expression of horrified incomprehension on the face of the leaders of the Netherlands. It is not that they can never imagine wanting to down a plane, it is that they cannot imagine anyone wanting to down a plane.

Their argument that peaceful pressure is more effective than the brutalities of war is noble, but too many Europeans forget that soft power comes at a price. Countries that abhor violence must pay an economic cost if they are serious about exerting pressure on dangerous neighbours. Europe has not seemed serious to date. Britain wants bans on armament sales. They will hurt France, which still wants to sell Putin warships despite all that has happened. France wants to hurt the City of London but not its defence industry. Germany sounds concerned but you suspect that in its heart it wants to do nothing.

In the classic version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, two suspects are kept in solitary confinement. If they both incriminate the other each serves a two-year prison sentence. If they both say nothing to their interrogators, they serve just one. But if Prisoner A betrays Prisoner B but Prisoner B remains silent, A will walk free and B will serve 3 years (and vice versa). You would think the best option would be for the prisoners to stick together, say nothing and serve the common good by sharing a mild punishment. But human beings and Europe’s governments are tempted by the selfish hope they can push the burden on to others and escape cost-free themselves.

There are hints that the EU is preparing to astound the world by adopting a common front. If the EU does not, the only person escaping will be Putin: cost-free and emboldened to push his luck again. He will be able to turn the old foreign minister’s words around. Europe looks like a great country, he will say, but it is powerless. It strikes formidable poses when it is just dressing up. –Guardian