With a friend in the White House, will Putin soon have a friend in the Elysee Palace too?

President of Russia, Vladimir Putin

When Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States earlier this month, the media was quite rightly full of stories of how this may affect the relationship between the United States and Russia, given that Trump had made several statements over the course of the campaign which suggested that he was in favour of a very different relationship with Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin than his predecessors had pursued. Trump regularly praised Putin during the campaigning describing him as more of a leader than President Obama, and praising his “very strong control” over Russia. Following the election result, many in the Kremlin were understandably very pleased as Trump had seemingly been their favoured candidate over the course of the election process. Many in the Russian Government will likely feel that the election of Trump will have given them more scope to carry out the type of expansionist policy which they have pursued in the likes of Ukraine, and which has been opposed by Nato up to now. 

President-elect Donald Trump was very pro-Russia throughout the Presidential campaign.

Whilst it seems that Russia now have a friend in the White House in Donald Trump, it seems as though they may well soon have a friend in the Elysee Palace as well following the 2017 French Presidential Election.

The current frontrunners for the French Presidency (and the two candidates expected to progress from the first round into the run-off) are Marine Le Pen of the National Front and Francois Fillon, who is expected to wrap up the Republican nomination this weekend. In the past, both have made very positive statements with regard to Russia, in much the same way which Trump did throughout the US election campaign. 

Le Pen’s longstanding pro-Russia views are well known and have been well documented, but she built on that last week by describing how the trio of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and herself as world leaders “would be good for world peace”; whilst it is also known that the National Front has accepted loans from Russian-backed banks in order to finance their election campaigns. 

Marine Le Pen’s pro-Russia views have been well documented.

However, her likely opponent in the final round of the Presidential Election Francois Fillon has also espoused very pro-Russia views in the recent past, although these have been less publicised than Le Pen’s.

Francois Fillon has also been known to be pro-Russian and has a close relationship with Putin.

Between 2007 and 2012, Fillon served as Prime Minister of France under the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy (one of the candidates vanquished by Fillon and Alain Juppe in the first round of the Republican Presidential Primary last weekend). During this time he overlapped with Vladimir Putin who served as Prime Minister of Russia between 2008 and 2012, under the Presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. Following Donald Trump’s election to the US Presidency, Fillon was asked if he was at all worried about the possibility of impending close relations between the United States and Russia, he said he was not, saying: “I don’t only not worry about it, I wish for it.” Fillon has argued that all the sanctions levied against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine should be lifted, whilst he has also backed a coalition between Western countries and Russia, along with Bashar al-Assad, to defeat ISIS in Syria. On Tuesday, following Fillon’s unexpectedly strong showing in Sunday’s primary, the Kremlin described Putin as having “rather good relations” with Fillon. 

All this is worrying to many observers. With Le Pen and Fillon the overwhelming favourites to contest the final round of next year’s Presidential Election, it seems almost certain that Francois Hollande’s successor as French President will be sympathetic to Russia, and Russian expansionism. 

This adds to a growing trend across Europe of pro-Russian leaders winning power, or at least winning significant support. 

Viktor Orban, the populist Eurosceptic Prime Minister of Hungary has long favoured close ties with Russia, at least in terms of business; this led to Hungary agreeing a loan from the Kremlin believed to amount to €10.8 billion to finance the expansion of a nuclear power plant which supplies almost half of Hungary’s electricity. Previously the European Commission had sought to challenge the deal as they felt that it increased Hungary’s dependence on Russia, and would plunge Hungary into debt. 

Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.

Another European leader who has sought to cultivate close relations with Putin is Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who came to power as leader of the Syriza party in January 2015. Tsipras has looked to Russia for help with Greece’s economic travails and has described Russia as “Greece’s most important ally”. 

Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras.

There have also been signs that this pro-Russian sentiment is being echoed by others across Europe, in particular among some of the Eurosceptic political leaders who have come to the fore over the past couple of years, and who have recently been emboldened by the political shocks of Brexit and Trump being elected President. 

But, it is the development that France may soon have a President who is sympathetic to Putin along with the signs that the United States has one in Trump which will be most worrying to many other members of the international community. Most significant is the impact these countries have upon the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC is made up of fifteen member States but of these fifteen, five are permanent members: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. Any of these permanent members have the power to block or veto a UN resolution. If the US and France were to begin offering support to Russia in the UN, then this would greatly increase Russia’s ability to act as they please in the international arena. 

Of course, although Trump espoused pro-Russian views during the election campaign, we do not know whether he will row back on this in the same way that he has on other issues, for example his pledge to appoint a Special Prosecutor for Hillary Clinton, which he has now confirmed that he won’t be taking any further. Indeed, it has been rumoured that both John Bolton and Mitt Romney are being considered for the role of Secretary of State. Both are known to be anti-Russia, and as such the Kremlin would likely be extremely unhappy if they were to be appointed. However, it does seem that Trump himself is keen for closer relations with Moscow. Similarly from what we can see that is the aim of both Le Pen and Fillon as well.

Trump could row back on his pro-Russia views by appointing Mitt Romney as Secretary of State.

Of course, it will be a while until we know anything for sure about how these recent political developments have changed international affairs in terms of Russia. But, on the face of it, it seems that the real political winner of 2016 politics so far, is Vladimir Putin and Russia. 

Andrea Leadsom’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference should make everyone thankful that she didn’t become Prime Minister.

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Andrea Leadsom.

Yesterday the surprise runner up in the Conservative Party leadership race, Andrea Leadsom, made her first major speech as the Secretary of State of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. Speaking to the Conservative Party conference, she set out her vision for post-Brexit Britain — whilst everyone breathed a sigh of relief that she didn’t become Prime Minister.

Leadsom began by bringing up the example of the person selling bottles of English countryside air, seemingly as her pick as our best rural export. Although there is indeed a company selling bottled countryside air for £80 a jar, they have estimated they only sell around three hundred jars per annum. So slightly baffling that Leadsom thought it sensible to mention in her speech. One would hope that her post-Brexit strategy for our rural exports is based on something better than this.

She then went on to talk to complain about how the lack of mobile phone signal in the countryside meant that she couldn’t play Pokemon Go. This was meant as evidence for her commitment to the rolling out of superfast broadband throughout rural areas of Britain, but surely she could have thought of a better example?!

Finally, she used the old Conservative Party Conference favourite of talking about how we export food to countries who have invented the food in question.

Leadsom said: “We’re selling coffee to Brazil, sparkling wine to France, and naan bread to India.’ Of course she tactfully failed to mention the amount which is coming the other way. But, nonetheless continuing the commitment to British produce held by her predecessor at DEFRA, Liz Truss. It was of course Truss who came up with the memorable line at the 2014 Conservative Party Conference: “We import two-thirds of our cheese. That. Is. A. Disgrace.” Needless to say, Truss’s speech was replayed many times other, and the same will undoubtedly occur with Leadsom’s this time around.

All this from Leadsom, without properly addressing the integral role that migrant labour plays in the functioning of the rural economy. According to her, the shortfall can be completely made up by employing British youths. Not likely. This simply went further towards proving her evangelical attitude towards Brexit. Clearly Leadsom, just like fellow Brexiteer Liam Fox, won’t accept any free movement of people, even if it is integral to the survival of UK businesses.

This speech just proved that Leadsom wasn’t in any way qualified to become Prime Minister. How she nearly managed to, is beyond me.

It’s right to wag the finger at Russia, but ‘clean’ countries must also accept their own failings in the war against doping.

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American swimmer Lilly King reacts to Yulia Efimova’s semi-final victory. 

Given what has been uncovered about the state-sponsored doping programme run by Russia, it is no surprise that the faith of spectators in sportsmen and women is waning. However, although Russia have clearly broken the rules and deserve more punishment than they have received, other countries also need to stand up and accept their share of the responsibility for the doping issues which are permeating elite sport.

In terms of Russia, it is a travesty that any of their Olympic team is allowed to compete given the evidence against them. Although there will be a number of clean Russian athletes, the sheer fact that Russia was undertaking state-sponsored doping on such a large scale means that the whole team should have been banned. To have done otherwise is a huge cop-out on the part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC have been put to shame by the Paralympics who, on Sunday, banned the entire Russian team from competing in this year’s Paralympic games.

But whilst it is right to throw the book at Russia, other countries (the so-called ‘clean’ countries) should not make the mistake of thinking that this is all that needs to be done. If countries such as the US and UK want to be seen as leaders in the fight against doping, then they should also be throwing the book at any of their athletes who are found to have violated doping regulations.

Take the case of British cyclist Lizzie Armitstead for example. Between 20 August 2015 and 9 June 2016 Armitstead missed three drugs tests. The regulations state that an athlete who misses three drugs tests within a twelve month period is liable to be banned from competing for up to four years. The response to the possibility of Armitstead potentially facing a lengthy ban was that British authorities threw huge amounts of money at the problem, hiring expensive lawyers in order to fight any potential ban. Lo and behold, Armitstead got off scot-free. Many fans also reacted as if the whole thing was nothing but a witch hunt. However, former Olympic rowing champion Zac Purchase had it right when he tweeted: “Imagine what we would be saying if she was Russian.” The answer to this is simple. If Armitstead was a Russian who had missed three drugs tests then there would have been absolute horror that she was allowed to compete in Sunday’s road race, irrespective of the fact that she has never tested positive. I am sure that Armitstead is a clean athlete, however she clearly broke the rules and so should face the consequences. Given the reaction of the British Olympic Association to Russia not being totally excluded from the games, it was rank hypocrisy that they then acted in this way when it was one of their own athletes who had violated doping regulations. If other countries want to be seen as credible on the issue of doping, then they have to throw the book at their own athletes just the same as with Russia. Unfortunate as it is, the only way to ensure clean sport is to make examples of those who transgress.

There is also the problem of what to do with individuals who have previously been caught for a doping offence but now profess to being clean. In the spirit of rehabilitation it seems fair that those who have tested positive once but are now clean are allowed to compete. For instance, Spanish cyclist Alejandro Valverde who served a two year ban after being caught up in the Operacion Puerto doping case. Valverde has now been back in competition for four years and hasn’t been linked to doping in any way.

However, the same cannot be said for those who are admitted back into competition following a failed test and are then subsequently caught for a doping offence once again. This brings us to the cases of Yulia Efimova and Justin Gatlin. Efimova failed a test in 2014 for the banned steroid DHEA, serving a nine month ban. A year after her return to competition she then tested positive once again, this time for meldonium (the same substance which recently earned Maria Sharapova a two-year ban from competitive tennis). I’m all for giving someone another chance, but for them to then test positive again, that should be the end of it. There is no way that Efimova should have been allowed to swim at the Olympic games.

The same can be said of Justin Gatlin. The American sprinter has also tested positive twice: first he was banned for two years in 2001 after testing positive for amphetamines; and then in 2006 he was banned for eight years (later reduced to just four) after testing positive for a form of testosterone. Gatlin is now back competing and is running the fastest times of his career, meaning that he has a very real chance of winning a medal in the 100m in Rio. The American team were strongly in favour of a mooted ban for any Russian athletes who had tested positive in the past, so why on earth are they allowing Gatlin to compete? If the United States want to be seen as credible on anti-doping then they should have given Gatlin a lifetime ban after his second positive test, and he should not have been selected for this Olympic Games as a result. To be fair to most of the other athletes it seems that they would be in favour of this sort of action, American swimming gold medalist Lilly King said on Wednesday that she felt athletes previously banned for drug offences, such as Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay, should be kicked off the American team. The fact that they haven’t been is rank hypocrisy, and suggests that the United States aren’t truly serious about confronting the scourge of doping in sport.

One of the biggest issues when it comes to preventing doping is the length of bans handed out to those who violate the rules. Efimova, who has tested positive twice, has served cumulative bans of only around one year. The same is true of Chinese swimmer Sun Yang who tested positive for banned stimulant trimetazidine in 2014, he was banned for just three months. If sporting bodies want to win the battle against doping then the only option is to make an example of those who break the rules. For those found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs then a four year ban (a full Olympic cycle) should be the bare minimum. For an athlete that has previously served a ban, then it is fair to allow them back to compete once again. But if they then have the temerity to break the rules again, a lifetime ban is the only option.

Ultimately, if countries that pride themselves upon being seen as ‘clean’ competitors want to eradicate the scourge of doping then they must throw the book at anyone who transgresses, whatever country they happen to represent. In the case of missed drugs tests it is all very well saying that it was simply an error, but to make that error three times is poor and it should be met with a ban, the same as it would be if the violator was Russian. Likewise, it is wrong for the United States to welcome back the likes of Justin Gatlin into the Olympic team. He has been caught for doping offences twice, and to allow him back into the team sets a terrible example for young athletes as well as being a huge step back for the fight against doping in sport.