By Tom Walsh
23 Russian diplomats boarding a plane in London earlier this week appear to signal the dawn of a new era of tit-for-tat diplomacy. This measure was in response to the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a defected Russian military officer, and his daughter Yulia, which occurred just over two weeks ago. The expulsion of these officials was followed by the Russian response, with Moscow closing the British Council, as well as the consulate in St Petersburg. Putin will also expel the exact same number of British diplomats from Russia.
This chemical attack seems to bear the hallmark of Russian state activity. Casting an eye back to the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a KGB defector, in 2006, evidence of foul play appears to be rife in the recent history of Russian-British relations. In 2016, a British public enquiry concluded that there was Russian state involvement in the poisoning of Litvinenko. Some news sources suggest there has been as many as 14 deaths in the UK that can be connected to Russia since 2006. However, we must be cautious not to jump to conclusions. The emotion connected to these examples is so intense that it has prevented our government from reacting in a measured and professional manner.
This chemical attack seems to bear the hallmark of Russian state activity.
Instead, we have seen an angry and immediately accusatory response, with investigative cooperation with the Russians being effectively ruled out. Now, I would not be credible for a second to argue that it is more likely that Putin had nothing to do with this. The nerve agent used has had its signature traced and our security services place its origin in Moscow. The Kremlin rely on devout loyalty from its agents as there are many things they would not want common knowledge. Furthermore, ever since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, there have been severe tensions between the West and Russia. Sanctions have been imposed and relations have become far more hostile. These are exactly the sort of circumstances under which spying and defection are rife; but also under which extreme measures would be taken to protect state interests.
On the other hand one must look at the political climate of both Russia and the UK. For Putin, it doesn’t seem to be in his rational interests to order such an assassination, which could have potentially led to mass destruction, in the run up to an election. Furthermore, the Russian government tends to be very discreet when they want someone dead, and this was far from it. From the British perspective, one can’t help but look at the reaction of the Conservatives in terms of political capital. Historically we have seen many examples of the party jumping at opportunities to portray itself as the strong-willed protector of the United Kingdom. They know Corbyn will call for patience, providing ample opportunities to present him as weak and not fit for leadership.
For Putin, it doesn’t seem to be in his rational interests to order such an assassination.
The fact remains that the origin of the nerve agent is not sufficient to prove Putin’s involvement. In the last few weeks we have heard fiery and furious rhetoric of which Trump would be proud coming from our own government ministers. Our Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, stooped to such an infantile level as to tell Russia to “go away and shut up”. Until we know the full facts of what happened on that day, we should stop adding fuel to the fire. We are living in a tense and dangerous time. Caution is what we need in such a global environment. We do not want to turn our relations with Russia into a war of words. As America’s U-turn on North Korea has demonstrated, this policy achieves extremely little. Cooperation, negotiation and patience are what we must exercise. Corbyn has been called everything from traitorous to pathetic for arguing along these lines, but responding in a way that seems to be pushing for a new Cold War is certainly not the answer.
We do not want to descend into a situation like Iran and Saudi Arabia, where our entire diplomatic relationship is centred on individuals chastising each other without any direct communication. Boris Johnson agreeing with the comparison of the upcoming Russian World Cup to the Nazi Olympics of 1936 is worryingly reminiscent of such a relationship. With the EU and America now rallying around Britain’s response, future developments will almost certainly lead to a more polarised international arena. Dialogue must remain between the West and Russia, or else the possibility of something taking the form of a Cold War will become increasingly likely.
Photograph: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization via Flickr