Russian assassinations, a diplomatic crisis and fake news: a new Cold War?

By Patrick Williamson

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it seemed clear that the bipolar world tolerated since 1945 was finally over. Looking back at such distant-seeming changes, it feels almost unbelievable that, over the past month, a new east-west rivalry has arisen. Even more surreal is that this rivalry involves not the US but the innocent-seeming United Kingdom. But we must be careful not to be hyperbolic. A new Cold War is not among us.

It isn’t difficult to be swept into the emerging anti-Russian hysteria. The threat, particularly to Russian exiles, certainly feels real. Two assassination attempts have been made on Russian exiles on British soil in the past month, both victims sharing sore histories with President Putin. One exile was strangled to death, another was poisoned by the nerve agent novichok, which disconnects the central nervous system from one’s vital organs.

The British government has pinned blame directly on the Russian state, Boris Johnson pointing fingers at Putin himself. A rather audacious remark, it could be said, but not one too far-fetched if one remembers the former-KGB spy’s lamentation of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the only state to have ever mastered the production of novichok (according to former Soviet scientists), as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”.

Granted, both crime scenes do stink of Russian participation. Similar attacks in the past decade, from stabbings to the spiking of cups of tea with radioactive materials, have been suggested to have been plotted by the Kremlin.

No one seems safe from this new red peril. Traces of novichok have been found in locations as public as a Zizzi franchise. Fears of cyber-attacks have prompted round-the-clock threat assessments in financial firms. The threat is not just to Russians, but to the general public too. Not merely military, but also economic.

Frightening as this may be, though, impulsive finger-pointing is not only dangerous but insensible.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has correctly highlighted the British government’s less-than-perfect record of intelligence regarding chemical weapons. Though the Russian state seems like the obvious culprit, Corbyn’s noting of other “possibilities”, like Russian oligarchs or Mafia associations, is important in maintaining an open mind.

Diplomatic implications of blame-assignment must be seriously contemplated, too. The expulsion of 46 Russian and British diplomats and the closure of the British Council in Moscow have already weakened cultural and political bridges between Britain and Russia. The EU is right in its statement of taking any accusations against Russia “extremely seriously”. Britain must be careful to avoid false accusations and resultant embarrassment.

Such considerations have not stopped British and Russian statesmen from turning the attacks into bizarre moral debates, though.

Boris Johnson’s tactic has been to compare Russia’s upcoming World Cup to Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, citing both being used to “gloss over” despotic regimes. Though this comparison may evoke a cheap laugh, Britain should not pretend that their problem with Russia lies in is its corruption and authoritarianism. Britain’s participation in the 1936 Olympics, and their maintenance of cordial relations with other non-democracies like China and Saudi Arabia, gives ground to claims of hypocrisy.

Likewise, the behaviour of the Kremlin has publicised the Russian state not as imposing but immature. Warnings to Britain not to “threaten a nuclear power” seem more suited to a line from a Cold War thriller movie than an official statement from a supposed democracy. Not only this, but Russia forgets that Britain too, of course, possesses nuclear capacities.

Stories of foreign threats don’t just come from official government channels but mainstream media outlets, too. Claims such as one from the Sunday Express for example, that Russia is “behind bomb threats to UK schools”, should be taken with a generous pinch of salt.

Thankfully, a trip to practically any public place other than the location of the nerve agent attack demonstrates the public care little for exaggerated, symbolic debates. As they see rightly, the threat is real, but a new Cold War is far from materialising.

Photograph: Dmitry Dzhus via Flickr

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