oDR: Opinion

Boris Johnson is lying – the UK could have done far more to stop Russia

As Putin created tyranny in Russia, UK prime ministers cosied up to him on official visits and laundered his friends’ money

Oliver Bullough
26 February 2022, 12.00am
Protesters outside Downing Street demanding action from Boris Johnson
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Joao Daniel Pereira/Alamy Live News

At the end of 2004, Zhamalayl Yanayev checked in for a flight at an airport outside Vladikavkaz, a city near Chechnya in southern Russia.

Waiting in the departure lounge to board a plane to Moscow for medical treatment, Yanayev was suddenly summoned by security. After that encounter, his family never saw him again. And, as far as we know, neither did anyone else.

It is not clear why Russia’s security services detained him, or why they murdered him, or why they never informed his wife or relatives that he was dead, but the general nature of his offence is pretty obvious: he was of fighting age, male and Chechen. He was inconvenient.

Like Yanayev, Ukraine is now discovering how it feels to become inconvenient to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. As tanks headed across the border with soldiers pushed onto the edge of Kyiv, it was Yanayev’s story that came into my mind. It often does.

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There are many reasons to hate what Putin has done to Russia. He has given its riches to his friends, who are now billionaires many times over; he has destroyed its political parties, used its courts as weapons, imprisoned activists, forced honourable patriots to flee their own country; he has used its money to support vile political causes in other countries, and used its media to spread lies and misinformation worldwide. But few things have ever touched me as much as the fate of Yanayev. It is the sign of a true tyranny when murder is so commonplace and happens so openly, as it did on 28 December 2004, when police officers just took him away from a crowded airport and killed him.

I have no idea what he had done to upset them. He wasn’t famous or outspoken, perhaps it was a case of mistaken identity. It felt like this could have happened to anyone.

We know about his murder thanks to a strange anomaly, which is that Russia has – despite Putin having destroyed every other vestige of its shaky 1990s democracy – remained subject to the European Court of Human Rights. According to the court’s judgements, Russia has violated Article Two of the European Convention – i.e. it has committed murder – 349 times since signing up in 1996. That is more than 13 murders a year.

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It is incredibly hard to bring a case to the ECHR, and triply so when the case is against a government that murders witnesses. These 349 cases are just a tiny fraction of the murders that have happened. We know about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London with polonium-210 in 2006; of Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow detention centre in 2009; of Dawn Sturgess in Salisbury in 2018 after she accidentally handled the nerve agent intended to kill Sergei Skripal; and of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a former Chechen rebel commander who had sought asylum in Germany only to be shot and killed at a Berlin park in 2019. But inside Russia, there have been thousands of other people eliminated because they were inconvenient.

I used to spend a lot of time travelling to Chechnya, writing about people like Yanayev, trying to interest people elsewhere in their fate and that of all the Chechens, whose city was destroyed, whose leaders were killed, and whose future was handed over to the brutal thug that now rules over them. But it was an uphill battle, perhaps most memorably summed up by the line “what do you think of the situation in Chechnya?” being a punchline to a joke in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Britain was far too busy making money from the oligarchs for anyone to care about the concerns of over-earnest bores like me.

I am desperately worried that our failure to heed the lessons from Chechnya will mean Putin can unleash the same misery on Ukraine

I look at what’s happening in Kyiv now, and I am desperately worried that our failure to heed the lessons from Chechnya will mean Putin can unleash the same misery on Ukraine. My friends in Ukraine are the people that Putin hates most: bright, tolerant, sceptical, outspoken, passionate believers in democracy – fierce campaigners against corruption. It was people like that who got killed in Chechnya first of all, and it is people like that who have been jailed, marginalised, exiled and harassed in the rest of Russia.

We are not powerless to stop this. While Russian artillery pulverised Grozny in 1999 Tony Blair came out to St Petersburg to meet Putin. After Litvinenko was murdered, David Cameron flew out to Moscow to meet Putin and to remind him that London was still open for business. Boris Johnson has insisted that no country “could conceivably be doing more” to undermine Russia’s kleptocracy, but that is totally untrue.

While Putin has created tyranny in Russia, we in London have happily laundered his friends’ money, sold them houses, heard their court cases and listed their companies. There is nothing we can do for Zhamalayl Yanayev now, but we can stop pretending not to know about him and all the other people like him, and start recognising that the money we’ve been moving has blood on it.

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