SPIES, MURDER, AND RUSSIA

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by Gunnar Eigener

The attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve agent bares all the hallmarks of a Cold War spy novel and the complexity of the smaller and more tightly connected modern-day world. Political balance is needed when addressing and reprimanding those responsible. If Russia is found to be to blame, what happens next? Is it likely that remarkably little will be done or will this be the beginning of a new coalition to stand up to Putin’s Russia?

That Russia would brazenly attempt to kill a former spy living abroad, and someone they would consider a ‘traitor’, is hardly shocking. No matter how much everyone acts outraged, this sort of activity is unlikely to be restricted to Russia. Security services globally are no angels, but what is disturbing about this instance is that there is a good chance that there will be no serious repercussions. After all, when the UK was running short on gas, where did it turn to? Russia. Russian investment, the legal kind that most people know about, runs into the billions, with some estimates that Russian money accounts for 7% of London properties. Recent comments have been made about going after money of dubious origins, connected to Putin’s friends living in the UK but, if the money really is dubious, why has no effort been made previously to deal with this problem before too much was invested and pulling it out risks property markets?

Security services globally are no angels, but what is disturbing about this instance is that there is a good chance that there will be no serious repercussions.

But beyond angry and indignant press releases and public statements, what else can be done? There is no physical action that can be taken. Russian submarines and jet fighters have been playing dangerously close to UK borders. Additional troops moved to states like Estonia and Latvia only serve to enrage the Russians further, who then respond with their own further troop build-ups. Russia may be eager to flex its muscles but even Putin must surely see that it would be a losing battle to begin a heated war.

Putin is about to be elected for yet another term in power, the result of the upcoming elections already a foregone conclusion – is this the kind of attention that he really needs? Genuine opposition parties and their leaders have been neutralised, a few token individuals put up to compete in the charade. Russia’s economy is stuttering at best, the ruble weak and continuous sanctions from the US are taking their toll. So there is nothing quite like an opportunity for Russia to bare its teeth to bring the country together in a wave of patriotism; this event certainly seems to be doing just that. Russian media is rallying round its leader, ministers are espousing the correct amount of indignation and diplomacy at the idea of being involved such actions while offering veiled threats. All of it making Putin look very presidential.

( Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov )

There could be a yet more sinister side. The UK has become the weaker, more unwell member of the EU pack, slowly falling behind while the rest get wise to the problem. Predators will pick off the weaker pack members and this is perhaps what Russia is doing, not with the idea of necessarily invading but certainly to weaken any remaining influence the UK might have. Once a bastion of resistance to totalitarian Communism, the UK has gone on to play  less relevant part in the EU dynamic and so to be more or less neutralised would leave Russia to target the EU as it wants. Certainly Russian money has gone to help nationalist causes around the continent and, with Trump in power, there is less of a chance of getting any support from the US.

On the whole, NATO is weakening. Many EU countries still do not commit enough money to defence while Russia spends nearly $70 billion a year on its military. But part of the problem is that military might is not as important as it used to be. Cyber warfare, industrial strength, and political leanings all lend a new dimension to weakening a country. Recent attacks on the NHS have shown UK vulnerabilities. Public statements by leaders in the UK armed forces, while no doubt intended to push the government to spend more money on the military, nonetheless show the UK in a bad light, signalling to countries like Russia that the UK is probably weak. Indeed, recent efforts have been made to ensure that Porton Down receives more funding.

become a PR battle, a tool used to pit humans against one another at the behest and requirements of our political establishments

So what does this all really mean? Is it the upper class and elite old school boys’ network still fighting ideological battles? Is the UK really likely to be attacked? Is this about capitalism against a new form of communism? As usual, most of us don’t know and are unlikely to. And, as usual, attacks like that on Sergei and Yulia Skripal become a PR battle, a tool used to pit humans against one another at the behest and requirements of our political establishments in order to boost the ailing economies of countries who have wasted money, failed in their duties to protect their citizens lives, and stubbornly refuse to make the changes that need to be made.

Allies of the UK have offered their support but what form that support will take is uncertain. So too is the path that the UK chooses next. Brexit has resulted in the UK effectively sticking two fingers up at the rest of the EU, so it is possible that EU allies may wait as long as possible before committing to any anti-Russian actions that could leave them the next target. The UK can’t have it every which way. If it wants support, it can’t go around fobbing off economic allies in favour of patriotism and border-control then expect everyone else to jump to its defence when something unfavourable happens. Those in power claim the UK is able to look after itself, this is the best opportunity to show that this is the case.

Featured image MI6 building, via Wikimedia Commons

 


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