Increasingly, the world order is crumbling, yielding to autocrats most wilfully, doing their arbitrary bidding. They defy with impunity multilateral institutions and canons of civilised behavior to advance their own partisan agendas. China, in the recent past, has contemptuously refused to respect the order of an international tribunal in The Hague holding its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea illegal. The Philippines was the complainant. But President Rodrigo Duterte candidly confessed that China was militarily stronger than his country and therefore he was unable to enforce the ruling. Might is right is the only principle that seems to inform the actions of dictators like President Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia.
In Putin’s Russia, it is now routine for those brave enough to expose wrongdoings of the regime to disappear suddenly, or to suffer from a mysterious illness or to be killed in most suspicious circumstances. Assassination of critics is par for the course in Putin’s Russia. Journalists, opposition figures, even out-of-favour oligarchs have been targets of the deep state tightly controlled by the former KGB agent who is now President-in-perpetuity through a sham show of democratic will. But in the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny, a thorn in his side and the most prominent Opposition politician, the Russian autocrat may have invited further sanctions by the West. Though his `friend’ Donald Trump, has refrained from uttering a word edgeways, the leaders of the free world have unhesitatingly rebuked Putin for poisoning Navalny with a chemical nerve agent, Novichok, which the Russian secret service alone knows how to develop and administer to those Putin targets.
Two years ago, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, was poisoned in Salisbury, UK, with the same prohibited nerve agent. Meticulous investigations by the British revealed an open-and-shut case of the Russian hand in the killing of Skripal. Last month, Navalny was poisoned aboard a domestic flight in Russia. In a state of coma, he was admitted to a regional hospital. Following appeals by his wife and others, Russia allowed him to be flown to Germany. He continues to be in a critical state in a German hospital. After a thorough examination, German doctors have concluded that Navalny was administered the same chemical agent, most likely in the tea he took aboard the domestic flight, by secret service agents.
Not unlike the case two years ago of the Salisbury poisonings, in this case too Russia has blandly denied any hand in the relatively young Opposition leader’s plight, but has shamefacedly demanded to see the evidence so that it can cooperate in the investigations.
Putin’s Russia is too brazen to care a fig for public opinion. It is remarkable that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has condemned Russia in the strongest possible terms for the heinous crime. Other European leaders have been equally forthright in criticising the attempt to eliminate a known critic of Putin. The only leader who has refused to do so is Donald Trump who, like the Russians, has sought to see the evidence first. But that should not surprise anyone, since Putin has a secret hold on the realtor-turned-US President. But widespread condemnation matters little to the Russian strongman. Nor have the sanctions imposed after Russia grabbed Crimea helped contain the Kremlin’s bad behavior. More sanctions too will not stop Putin’s critics disappearing overnight.
As several observers in the West have demanded, the one effective way is for Germany to scrap the gas pipeline it is building for the supply of Russian gas. Given the further downturn in the Russian economy, the Covid-19 toll on the people and the fall in global prices of crude oil, scrapping of the Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline might be effective where economic sanctions have had little or no effect. Unless a bully is hit in his pocket, he will not bother to stop his bad behaviour.