There is no dodging the issue. Relations between Russia and the west are at a post-cold war low and are likely to be in the deep freeze for at least the year to come. The tensions are particularly clear in the stand off between London and Moscow over the horrifying murder last year of Alexander Litvinenko, a KGB agent turned British citizen.
Six months ago Tony Blair, British prime minister, vowed that “no diplomatic or legal barrier” would stop efforts to find Litvinenko’s killer. On Tuesday, the UK lived up to that promise when it announced it would ask Russia for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, the man British prosecutors blame for Litvinenko’s death from polonium poisoning.
Such a step was no more than Britain’s duty. Any attempt to tone down the quest for justice in the Litvinenko case to keep relations with Russia smooth would have been short-sighted and immoral.
Thankfully, the UK Attorney General decided not to interfere in the case. The rule of law in Britain, bruised by last year’s move to drop a corruption enquiry into BAE Systems, suffered no additional indignity. The rule of law in Russia is a different matter. The Russian prosecutor general immediately rejected the UK request
Nor was this an isolated incident. As Russian politics become more shrill and nationalistic ahead of parliamentary elections this December and a presidential poll next year, relations with the west are deteriorating across the board.
Some disputes stem from the Russian state’s desire to take control of assets in the strategic oil and gas sectors. Others attest to its difficult relations with its neighbours, notably Poland, Lithuania and Estonia.
But a combative speech by President Vladimir Putin in Munich in February signalled the Kremlin’s increased willingness for confrontation. At stake are issues such as US missile defence plans and the future status of Kosovo.
In these circumstances, Europe and the US need to adopt a policy of robust engagement with Moscow. This has already begun with the UK’s action on Tuesday and with German chancellor Angela Merkel’s straight talking to Mr Putin at an EU-Russia summit last week.
But Ms Merkel’s viewpoint is still not shared throughout the German government, and Poland, Lithuania and Estonia are still seen as outriders within the EU rather than at the heart of the debate. More needs to be done. Europe and the US need to come together and explain why it is in Russia’s long-term interests to obey the ordinary rules of behaviour in business, in politics – and on the streets of London.