And the answer is…?
“Why has Britain responded more assertively to the Salisbury incident when it has turned a blind eye to similar ones in the past? Part of the answer is that it fits into a menacing pattern of an out-of-control state acting abroad without sufficient pushback.”
The Economist, 17 March 2018
Just about four weeks ago I published an article in The Global Lead in which I reproduced part of a paper I wrote in August 2015 which asked if the West was ‘at war’ with Russia. In her 14 March Parliamentary statement on the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, in which a Soviet-era military strength nerve agent Novichok was used, British Prime Minister Theresa May came very close to an explicit answer to this question when she said:
“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom”.
But was it really Russia?
“Until very recently, western leaders were reluctant to believe the evidence of their own eyes — and of their intelligence agencies.”
Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, 17 March 2018
In a note published by top think tank Chatham House on 12 March, Russia experts John Lough and James Sherr were very clear in their answer to the question of whether it really was the Russian government behind the Skripal attack, as follows.
“There can be little doubt that the Russian government is behind the attempted assassination of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. While there were the typical official denials, the Russian state has ways of communicating its innocence to foreign governments. In this case, it has not done so.
The use of a nerve agent fits a pattern established by the murder of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium in 2006. This was not a McMafia-style operation commissioned by ‘rogue elements’. If they were to blame, Moscow would be even more alarmed than London. Since the chaos of the 1990s, Putin has restored the state’s traditional prerogatives in foreign covert operations, as well as the president’s prerogatives within it.”
As to Russia’s motives, Messrs Lough and Sherr also offer a telling assessment of the raison d’être behind this latest incident. So, let me concentrate on the ‘big picture’ and go back to a section (rooted in the Ukraine crisis) of my September 2015 paper which was not reproduced in my earlier article for The Global Lead, as follows.
“…I am in no doubt that Mr Putin sees the efforts of the EU to draw Ukraine closer and, in particular, the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 as the latest manifestations of a long-running US-led conspiracy of regime change dating back at least to Ronald Reagan’s arrival in the White House in January 1981. Although I am generally dismissive of conspiracy theories, I do have some sympathy with this view.
Mr Reagan came into office with a plan to end the Cold War by undermining the already weak Soviet economy through a new arms race known as the Strategic Defence Initiative (or, colloquially, ‘Star Wars’). I think it reasonable to link this directly to President Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to modernise the Soviet economy and his related glasnost and perestroika initiatives. These, in turn, are tied to the uprising in central Europe in 1989 which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall; and that, in turn, can be seen as contributory to the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. So far, so ‘Putin-esque’.
However, where Mr Putin and I go our separate ways lies in the probability that he then extrapolates through Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Iraq in 2003, the colour revolutions in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and (yes) Ukraine in 2003-05 and even the Arab Spring (on which he reportedly said to leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church a couple of years ago that the West had to be stopped at Damascus or this would not end before it reached Moscow). Compounding this view today is one other important factor (which I firmly believe to be coincidence), ie in 1985 to help the struggling global economy Saudi Arabia agreed to boost oil output, the direct consequence of which was that Brent crude fell from over US$30pb to around US$10pb in a matter of weeks — with serious consequences for the Soviet economy which many in Moscow saw as part of Mr Reagan’s plan. You will struggle to find anyone in Moscow today who sees the trend in the oil price [in 2014-15] as anything other than a Saudi/US conspiracy aimed at Russia.
This being said, I again find sympathy with Mr Putin in that, back in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, President George H W Bush did commit (no doubt, I believe, in good faith) to Mr Gorbachev that no country bordering Russia would ever be allowed do join Nato. In the light of events since then why would any Russian ever believe that Ukraine (or, for that matter, Georgia) would never be allowed Nato membership?
Put all this together and the way in which the Kremlin sees itself, far from expansionist, is essentially defensive in the face of Nato ‘aggression’. And such a view of the world is far from confined to the Kremlin. Indeed, its ubiquitousness in Russia accounts in significant part for the resilience of Mr Putin’s popularity despite the economic stresses which the country and its people are suffering thanks to the Russian government's own economic policies, sanctions and tumbling commodity prices.”
[Note: I am indebted to one of my expert friends who was personally engaged in Russia/Nato relations in the 1990s for writing to me yesterday to correct one point I made in the 2015 report. He tells me that Mr Bush's commitment to Mr Gorbachev was only in respect of how Nato would defend the eastern länder in a reunified Germany — which Mr Gorbachev himself has subsequently confirmed. Whether Russia has subsequently 'misinterpreted' Mr Bush's commitment by design or default is, of course, open to question; but Russians at large today certainly believe that a promise was broken and interpret this as 'Nato aggression'.]
(With the exception of the point in the preceding note) I firmly believe that this assessment is as valid today as it was in 2015. However, I also have to acknowledge that more recent events — perhaps particularly the election of Donald Trump and the outcome of the Brexit referendum — have added a new layer to President Vladimir Putin’s thinking, ie that the West is increasingly weak and divided. As Messrs Lough and Sherr put it:
“…the Skripal affair is not only a reflection of perceived weakness. It is also a test. If the UK chooses to act toughly, will its allies support it or simply send their best wishes? This latest example of Russian ‘reconnaissance by combat’ puts Britain into a bind.”
“The Russian President thinks that the West has lost faith in its own values. A failure to stand firm against aggression would show him to be right.”
Philip Stephens, Financial Times, 15 March 2018
However, as The Economist article cited earlier notes (subscriber access only):
“Keeping up momentum after this week will be hard. The West, including Britain, has a sorry recent history of behaving like a paper tiger when confronted with Russian aggression, as Crimea and Ukraine show.”
Mr Putin is certainly well aware of this dismal track record, in the case of Britain dating back at least to 2006 and London’s pathetic response to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, when it was nearly nine(!) years to launch a public inquiry — which concluded that Mr Putin personally had probably authorised the operation. Add to this the West’s response to, in particular, the following, leaving Russia with its principal objective(s) seemingly achieved, and there is a clear pattern:
- Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008;
- The 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia’s continuing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine;
- Russia’s role in the daily slaughter of Syrian civilians;
- Regular cyber attacks on the Baltic Republics and Nordic countries, and the 2015 attack on the German parliament (to name but a few);
- Financial support for populist extremists across Europe; and,
- Interference in the 2016 US elections.
All intended, as Mr Stephens puts it in the article cited above (subscriber access only):
“…to destabilise and divide [Western] democracies and chip away at the values that underpin the liberal order”.
So far, such response as there has been has certainly caused some hurt in Russia but insufficient to deter Mr Putin from what the Prime Minister described to Parliament on 12 March as “a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression”.
Mrs May (who has, it should be noted, been playing to her strengths, as a former Home Secretary, on this issue and who is largely seen as having acquitted herself well so far) has since (ie on 14 March) announced the following new measures:
- The expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats (which may not sound particularly impressive compared to the 91 who were kicked out in 1971; but, at that time, the Soviet diplomatic presence in the UK numbered 550, as against just 58 Russian diplomats today);
- No British minister of member of the Royal Family will attend the World Cup in Russia later this year;
- All planned high-level contacts between the UK and Russia are suspended for the present;
- Russia’s formidable Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has had his invitation to make an official visit to the UK withdrawn;
- Russian state assets will be frozen where there is evidence that they will be used as a weapon against UK nationals or residents; and,
- Checks on private flights, customs and freight will be intensified.
Russia is, of course, retaliating; on 17 March the Foreign Ministry summoned the British Ambassador to tell him that it was expelling 23 British diplomats and ordering the closure of the British Council offices and the British Consulate in St Petersburg. In the view of the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford (with which I concur), this response:
“…is robust and does go further than the UK measures. But it doesn’t appear calculated to escalate tensions”.
The UK’s National Security Council is due to meet early next week to consider the Russian response. But how much farther things go is far from clear, at least immediately. Consider.
As far as the United Kingdom itself is concerned, there is much more that the government could do, as some of Mrs May’s critics (and her hawkish Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson) are urging. Another 12 March Chatham House note, this one by Nigel Gould-Davies and James Nixey, sets out a pretty comprehensive range of possible measures, both substantive and symbolic. And The Economist offers a more succinct list of what could be done in the financial and business world, in particular to hurt Mr Putin’s cronies, as follows.
“Mrs May can and should do more to go after the money of Mr Putin’s cronies. She should expand the list of Russian figures and entities with which British businesses are banned from having dealings. Those on the current European sanctions lists have so far been mostly linked to the war in Ukraine. The list should more closely resemble America’s register of ‘specially designated nationals’ who are close to Mr Putin and derive their wealth from his favour. Those who loot the country and abuse human rights should be targeted.”
The article continues:
“The problem is partly one of will. Tougher sanctions may affect Britain’s flagship oil producer, BP, which owns a 20% stake in Rosneft, Russia’s state oil firm whose boss, Igor Sechin, is one of Mr Putin’s closest allies (he is under American but not European sanctions). Britain also worries that more intrusive sanctions will affect the status of the City of London as a global financial centre.”
Furthermore, Britain may find that, supportive statements aside, it has to go it largely alone if it does chose to fight tough. Writing in the 17 March edition of The Guardian, Simon Tisdall comments as follows:
“Rallying these friends and partners into a cohesive alliance capable of facing down [Mr] Putin, and forcing a step change in his behaviour, is a tall order for [Mrs] May. And now, uniquely, it is all the more problematic because of Brexit. To suggest that bad feeling over Britain’s unamicable departure will have no impact on future EU cooperation in such cases is delusional. Naturally, everybody agrees what happened in Salisbury is an outrage. But actually doing something practical to help out the Brexiting Brits, especially if it harms national interests, is another matter entirely. When push comes to shove, it seems unlikely [Mr] Trump and Europe will give [Mrs] May the full backing she desperately needs as she goes up against one of the world’s most unscrupulous and dangerous leaders.”
I broadly agree with Mr Tisdall. In particular, even with Angela Merkel still at the helm in Berlin, I think it will be very hard to secure agreement on tough EU measures against Russia (although it may help the German Chancellor to hold the line against those, eg Italy, who want to ease sanctions against Moscow in connection with Ukraine eased).
However, I am wondering if we may be seeing something of a sea change in the United States. Congress has long been hawkish on Russia, even Republicans who are otherwise overtly totally loyal to Mr Trump, as the passage of fresh sanctions last July underlines. These were only signed off reluctantly by the President at the time; but they now seem to be being implemented more forcefully by the US Treasury, which also imposed new sanctions of its own itself last week.
Furthermore, Mr Trump’s nominee to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, while studious loyal to his boss as far as Moscow’s interference in the US elections is concerned, is a veritable foreign policy ‘hawk’ who has consistently taken a hard line on Russia in general and Mr Putin in particular over many years. Time will tell but he could hardly have less influence over the President than his predecessor did, including on Russia.
And Russia itself? We can be sure that Moscow will retaliate at least ‘proportionately’ to any further measures. But it is hard to conclude that the timing of the Skripal attack was not somehow related to Russia’s 18 March Presidential election. For sure, Mr Putin will win hands down. But both the turn-out and the winning margin seem to matter enormously to him, to judge from the huge efforts which officials are going to — both legal and illegal — to try to ensure high numbers on both counts. A major diplomatic row with the UK in the immediate run-up to polling day can only help achieve both those goals. It therefore seems possible that, all things being equal, Russia may look to lower the temperature a little at least in the coming days (and perhaps especially with the World Cup in mind).
Nevertheless, even if Mr Putin decides to show some (temporary) restraint there are at least two factors which could drive a further sharp escalation in tensions.
First, the UK has launched investigations into the deaths 14 or so other Russian exiles in the UK dating back over several years, most recently the 12 March murder of businessman (and close friend of Boris Berezovsky who died mysteriously almost five years ago) Nikolai Glushkov. If reasonable grounds re unearthed for believing the Russian authorities were involved in one or more of these deaths it would be all but impossible for the British government not to take further measures.
Second, across the Atlantic there is Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 US elections (with, let’s be clear, the possibility of further meddling in the mid-terms). It is simply not possible to know where the investigation will end up; but last week’s subpoena-ing of papers relating to the Trump business empire's dealings with Russia is definitely a further escalation.
But there is one thing of which we can be sure. One way or the other, as The Guardian’s Mr Tisdall concludes:
“It’s going to be a long war…”.