If the Kremlin can’t provide the ‘full and complete disclosure’ required of it following the Salisbury poisonings then England must boycott the FIFA World Cup in Russia, writes Alec Marsh
The British government’s verdict that Russia is ‘highly likely’ to be responsible for the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury paves the way for a series of important diplomatic steps to bring the Kremlin to heel.
In days gone by such a provocation may even have occasioned a cannonade or two from the Royal Navy in the direction of the domed roofs of St Petersburg. Or something like that.
Tomorrow it is likely — if Russia’s ambassador or the Kremlin fails to answer the questions put of them by the British government by midnight tonight — that Britain’s response may include the expulsion of Russian diplomats, as followed the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Astonishingly an official probe into that incident concluded that the former Russian spy was ‘probably’ killed on the orders of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. For certain Polonium-210 isn’t easy to come by — nor is the chemical, part of a family of nerve agents called ‘Novichok’ — used in the attack on 4 March at Salisbury. We will find out tomorrow which diplomatic levers the government will seek to pull this time — though Theresa May has indicated that she will go further than the response in 2006.
But as has been written in the press, perhaps the most important way to hurt Vladimir Putin’s regime is by puncturing its ego, since it’s clear what that means to him. In which case the England football team has little choice but to boycott the football world cup, due to be held in Russia in June and July. As the tabloid newspapers have said this morning, we must stick the boot in.
That the tournament follows hot on the heels of the so-called presidential election in Russia, no more than a rubber stamp of President Putin and one in which he is preoccupied by ensuring a sufficiently convincing turnout rather than the outcome, would make any such boycott all the more poignant. It may, in footballing parlance, offer a jolly good nutmegging — about the most ignominious way of conceding a goal.
And if England were to act, we would ask our allies to join us. Which would be interesting. Would the Australians, Japanese, Poles, Americans or French join us? Empty stadiums — with thousands of fans keeping away in the first place, or brought on by a boycott of players — would certainly lose him face and deprive him of the moment in the spotlight that he clearly so covets. And rightly so, because if his regime is responsible for the attack in Salisbury then it must face consequences.
Whether any other nation would follow an England boycott remains to be seen. But a unilateral move by the England squad would be wholly appropriate. Merely withholding a visit from a UK VIP or politicians, while allowing the England squad to attend, would not cut the mustard. We have some of the finest footballers in the world and their absence would cast a shadow over the event and, frankly, bring a little rain on Putin’s parade. And who knows, perhaps others would follow suit? Who after all wants to encourage or appear to sanction such a regime? Could it be that in several months hence England is in fact hosting a parallel version of the world cup for refuseniks? We do, after all, have plenty of the world’s finest stadiums all ready to go.
There are times, of course, when sport should be used as a unifying force for good. See for example the healing presence of Russian athletes at the recent Winter Olympics in South Korea, following the discovery of state sponsored doping by Russia.
But this football world cup is a different case: that this tournament is being used as a showcase for Russia cannot be doubted. To be there is on some level to endorse the regime and grant it tacit legitimacy. And nor can it be doubted that Mr Putin will be presenting the trophy at the end to the winners and that his persona will be imprinted on the tournament. Presumably the only question is whether he’ll be wearing a shirt or not.
Consider the disconnect of England players receiving the winners’ trophy from man who has potentially ordered or authorised the use of a nerve agent in one of our cathedra cities. It’s unthinkable.
So, while it would be a blow to the individual England players and their millions of fans for a boycott to take place, the bigger picture must for once prevail. If Russia refuses to come clean on what has taken place in Salisbury or in some other way offer a satisfactory explanation, then England must do its duty.
Alec Marsh is editor of Spear’s