War of nerves

Print edition : April 13, 2018

Members of the emergency services in protective gear on March 13 working near the bench in Salisbury where the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were found unconscious after they were poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. Photo: Henry Nicholls/REUTERS

This CCTV grab shows Sergei Skripal at a shop in Salisbury on February 27. Photo: ITN/AP

Purportedly a photograph of Yulia Skripal taken from her Facebook account on March 6. Photo: Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP

Prime Minister Theresa May in the House of Commons on March 14, the day she announced the largest single expulsion in over 30 years of Russian diplomats identified as being “undeclared intelligence officers”. Photo: AP

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, responding to the Prime Minister’s address to Parliament on March 14. Photo: REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a news conference at his campaign headquarters in Moscow on March 18. Russia came increasingly into the spotlight in the U.K. following the Brexit referendum when questions were raised about potential Russian interference in it. Photo: Sergei Chirikov/AP

The U.K. government’s investigation into the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter has so far raised more questions than answers, but that has not stopped the U.K. and its main Western allies from ramping up the rhetoric against Russia.

In his 1890 essay “Foreign Policy of Russian Tsardom”, written from London, Friedrich Engels spoke of the deep-seated distrust between Europe and Tsarist Russia: “[I]ts mere passive existence is a standing threat and danger to us…. by its ceaseless meddling in the affairs of the West, it cripples and disturbs our normal development….” The essay is, ironically, often used by his critics to point out the long-standing nature of Europe’s tricky relationship with Russia and how little has changed in that perception despite the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

“The Kremlin wants to dismantle the international rules-based system,” declared a United Kingdom Foreign Office informational video that the government released in mid March as it upped the ante after the nerve agent poisoning of the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, on March 4. Both were found unconscious on a bench in a shopping centre in the English city of Salisbury. Initial official statements said there was no harm to public health, but later as many as 500 people who ate at the restaurant the couple dined in were told to wash their belongings. A police officer who attended to the Skripals remains in a serious but stable condition in hospital. Police have been in contact with over 130 people they believe could have been exposed to the nerve agent. The U.K. says its investigations have revealed that the nerve agent, called Novichok, or “New Guy”, was developed under a Soviet programme dating back to the 1980s. While Russia denies the existence of such a programme, Vil Mirzayanov, a Russian scientist who defected to the United States in the 1990s, claimed that Russia had developed the new class of nerve agents that are many times more powerful than VX or sarin.

“Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the government have concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal,” British Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament on March 12. She set a deadline for Russia to offer an explanation as to whether the Russian government had lost control of a “potentially catastrophically damaging” nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others. Russia declined a response, saying that the U.K. had not provided Russia with a sample of the chemical substance deployed in the poisoning, and called on it to use the established internationally recognised legal framework for dealing with the use of chemical weapons as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has outlined in the Chemical Weapons Convention. Two days later Theresa May decried Russia’s “unlawful use of force” against the U.K. and announced the largest single expulsion in over 30 years of Russian diplomats identified as being “undeclared intelligence officers”. Russia immediately condemned the move as “unacceptable, unjustified and short-sighted”. Expulsions of Soviet spies were once a far more common happening in the U.K. In 1985, it expelled 25 diplomats on the basis of intelligence from the defector Oleg Gordievsky. (Fans of the comedy series Yes Prime Minister may recall a 1987 episode in which Sir Humphrey Appleby, the often-obfuscating civil servant, advises the Prime Minister: “Why don’t you expel 76 Soviet diplomats? That has been our practice in the past when we wish to ensure the press lose interest in something.”)

Blair’s different approach

Theresa May’s response differs in tone and speed from that of the government following the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London with the radioactive substance polonium 210. While suspicion of Russia built up in the immediate aftermath of Litvinenko’s death, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, adopted a far more cautious approach. “There is no diplomatic or political barrier in the way” of the investigation, he said in November 2006, shortly after Litvinenko’s death. “It is obviously a very serious matter indeed. We are determined to find out what happened and who is responsible.” In 2007, the U.K. expelled four Russian diplomats after Russia refused to extradite some of those suspected of involvement in the poisoning. When a 2016 public inquiry concluded that Litvinenko had been poisoned by two agents “acting under the direction of the FSB [the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation]”, probably at the behest of President Vladimir Putin, Theresa May, who was Home Secretary at the time, described the findings as “deeply disturbing” and condemned the “blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law” but spoke of limited action.

Her position at the time attracted criticism from different quarters, including from Litvinenko’s widow, who said Theresa May used strong words but followed them up with little action. This has added to the pressure on the Prime Minister to take a tough stance now.

In the years between the two poisonings, the U.K.’s approach to Russia has been a cautious one. In the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the government allowed its European partners to lead the European response. It was then forced to defend its stance against accusations of diplomatic irrelevance, insisting that the lead taken by Germany and France, which had more open communication channels with Russia, was the right approach.

Russia, of course, came increasingly into the spotlight in the U.K. following the Brexit referendum when questions were raised about potential Russian interference in it. In April last year, a parliamentary committee inquiry concluded that there was possible foreign interference during the referendum when the government website for registering votes collapsed shortly before the deadline. Without levelling specific allegations against anyone or any nation, the report concluded that Russia and China had used a “cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals”.

“We take very seriously issues of Russian intervention, or Russian attempts to intervene in electoral processes or the democratic processes of any country as we would with any other states involved in trying to intervene in elections,” Theresa May said late last year. “We know what you are doing,” she said of Putin in a speech last year, adding that Russia was “seeking to weaponise information, deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photoshopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions”.

Political context

It would also be wrong to see the current situation outside the political context in the U.K. It comes at one of the most challenging times the Conservative government has had since entering government in 2010. Following last year’s general election, it remains propped up by the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, whose bonhomie has to be constantly fed with policy concessions and funding pledges. At the same time, the Labour Party’s decision to push for a European Union customs union has won it plaudits from the business community, which to date has largely been behind the government in fear of Labour’s nationalisation and taxation agenda.

The willingness (arguably a predictable one along historic East-West lines) of Britain’s main Western allies—Germany, France and the U.S.—to come together in a joint statement attacking Russia and accusing it of the first chemical attack on European soil since the Second World War is being hailed as a diplomatic victory for Theresa May. All the more so as an apparently muted response from France initially, which had at first expressed its intention to reserve judgment until the full facts were known, was swiftly replaced with the joint condemnation. “It is an assault on U.K. sovereignty and any such use by a state party is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law. It threatens the security of all of us,” the four nations said in a joint statement, which endorsed the U.K.’s analysis that it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the attack. Australia and Italy are among those to have voiced similar thoughts, while India and China have adopted a more cautious tone, urging evidence-based dialogue.

Corbyn’s comments

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has withstood pressure from within and outside his party—as well as a frenzied media—to back the government’s stance. Instead, he has called for holding Russian authorities to account on the “basis of the evidence” and asked when and whether samples of the agent would be passed to Russia as it had requested. “In my years in Parliament, I have seen clear thinking in an international crisis overwhelmed by emotion and hasty judgments too many times. Flawed intelligence and dodgy dossiers led to the calamity of the Iraq invasion,” he wrote in a piece for T he Guardian on March 15. Those were of course the conclusions of the 2016 report of Sir John Chilcot, which was damning of the role intelligence services played in the build-up to the Iraq war.

Nevertheless, Corbyn’s comments elicited the predictable outrage. Accusations that he is “pro Russian” are particularly ironic as it is the Labour Party that has been leading the push for the toughening up of the U.K.’s ability to crack down on human rights abusers through amendments to an anti-money laundering Bill.

Corbyn has long sought to challenge the established perspective in the U.K. when it comes to bilateral relations. For example, in June 2014, amid heightening tensions between Ukraine and Russia, he questioned the role that overtures from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Europe to nations such as Ukraine played in stoking tensions with Russia. “The Prime Minister [David Cameron] must be concerned about the continuing remilitarisation of central Europe both by Russia and by NATO. Does he not think that we should pause for a moment and question the role of NATO and its continuous expansion eastwards and start to put limits on what NATO does and what its ambitions are, as a way of de-escalating this crisis and demilitarising that region to avoid future conflict?”

“What I was asking was questions…. that’s what oppositions are there for,” Corbyn told the BBC on March 14.

Attacks on critics of the Kremlin

The Skripal attack appears to follow a number of attacks on critics or opponents of the Kremlin, not least the Litvinenko murder. Recently, the Home Affairs Select Committee wrote to the government seeking an inquiry into 14 deaths in the U.K. The British police had not identified these deaths as suspicious; these were reportedly identified by “U.S. intelligence sources as potentially connected to the Russian state”. The list derives from a 2014 Buzzfeed News investigation that called attention to the deaths, including those of the Russian whistle-blower Alexander Perepilichny, who died in 2012, and the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who died in 2013.

Last November marked the official completion of the destruction of the 39,967 tonnes of chemical weapons that the Soviet Union had owned. “This truly is a historic milestone for the Russian Federation, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the international community,” said OPCW Deputy Director General Hamid Ali Rao. But did some programmes remain undeclared and therefore out of the organisation’s ambit? “This chemical agent does not officially exist; it is not mentioned in any of the lists of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” Mirzayanov told Voice of America in a recent interview, following the Skripal poisoning.

There are undoubtedly questions that need to be asked of Russia. But the U.K.’s decision to circumvent the established routes should raise eyebrows. Speaking at the United Nations Security Council meeting on March 14, the Russian representative Vassily Nebenzia questioned the U.K.’s decision to go first to the Security Council rather than the OPCW and suggested it was afraid of a “professional discussion” on the topic.

Meanwhile, the aggressiveness of the rhetoric continues to ramp up fast. U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson practically accused Putin of being behind the attack, which has elicited predictable outrage from Russia and leaves little space for mature discussion. But there are many questions that remain unanswered from the British side too. When the drumbeat began to sound in Parliament ahead of the Iraq war, Corbyn was a relatively isolated backbencher, in Parliament at least, asking the questions that needed to be raised and echoing the wider public disquiet with the direction things were taking, a sense of disquiet that proved depressingly accurate about the intelligence relied on as the basis for attack. Now as leader of the party, he has a far stronger platform, despite opposition from within and outside its ranks, to attempt to rein in the bluster (though, of course, in this case all-out war is not on the cards). Where this new configuration will take things remains to be seen.