Russia-Baiting and the International Fallout of the Murky Skripal Poisoning Case

The West would do well to remember that it cannot escape engaging Russia – a formidable nuclear power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and Europe’s crucial energy partner.

The facts about the Skripal poisoning incident are murky indeed. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, initially began by claiming that either the Russian authorities engineered this chemical assault on the former Russian spy or that they had lost control over the nerve agent Novichok produced at the time of the Soviet Union and that elements that got hold of it used it in the murder attempt at Salisbury.

But the British have so far produced no proof that the Russians are officially or unofficially responsible for this manifestly outrageous act. They are proceeding on the assumption that Russia has to be the villain, which is a political position, not one based on verifiable facts.

There is a striking disparity between the international tumult that the British government has created over the affair and the unprecedented collective punitive actions they have mobilised against Russia and the less than definitive conclusion the British government has reached about Russian culpability when Theresa May does not go beyond stating that it is “highly likely” that Russia is behind the incident.

“Highly likely” means that the some dots have not been connected, yet the reprisals against Russia assume that they have. British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who spurns the virtues of self-restraint and moderation, has accused President Vladimir Putin personally for this poisoning operation and has invoked Hitler in this context.

Such lack of sobriety only raises suspicions about Britain’s version and intentions.

Russia’s stand

Russia has vehemently denied any role in the Skripal poisoning. Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has pointed out that Britain, as a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, has not followed the procedure laid down by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to deal with cases of use of chemical agents.

According to him, no samples were sent as required to the OPCW and to Russia for investigation at their end about the exact nature of the chemical agent used and its provenance. (The British have subsequently sent a sample to the OPCW).

Putin has asked convincingly as to why Russia would commit such an act just before the Russian presidential elections and months before the Football World Cup event that Russia would host. Russia has faced sports boycotts in the past, be it the Olympics of 1980, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and, most recently, Russian athletes were banned from participating in the Winter Olympics in South Korea on account of doping allegations. A Skripal type incident would thus  seem perfectly tailored to provoke a western boycott of the Football World Cup in a bid to “spoil Putin’s party”. 

The forensic tent covering the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found. Credit: Reuters

Other commonsensical arguments are being made by the Russian side. Skripal, a Russian spy who worked for Britain, was in Russian custody for six years before he was exchanged in a spy swap and sent to Britain in 2010. This exchange meant that he was no longer of any further use to Russia, having been extracted dry of anything worthwhile. Why seek to eliminate him after eight years, the Russians say, when he could have been eliminated on Russian soil while in their custody?

Putin has also made the point that if it really was a Russian operation it would not have been bungled the way it has been. What makes the incident even more difficult to unravel is that the very existence of Novichok is in doubt as it did not figure in the list of chemical weapons prepared by the OPCW for destruction by Russia. As it happens, Russia destroyed all its chemical weapon stocks by November 2017 under OPCW’s verification.

A deterioration of ties

Whatever the truth behind the Skripal affair, Russia-baiting has become a prime feature of US and European foreign policy for various reasons. Even before it intervened in Georgia and Ukraine tensions between Russia and the West were mounting, be it because of NATO’s eastwards expansion, the narrative that if erstwhile constituent parts of the Soviet Union wanted to join NATO or the EU they should be free to do so and that Russia had no right to object, Russia’s supposed threat to the Baltic states, the positioning of elements of the US anti-ballistic missile system on European soil under the pretext that it was intended to counter the Iranian missile threat, Russian fears that the US was trying to acquire a first strike capability and so on. 

Russia’s internal politics had become a source of contention with the West, with Putin accused of curtailing democracy at home, violating human rights, extending state control over the economy and throttling free enterprise. Russia was not considered eligible for a partnership with the West unless it measured up to western standards of domestic political and economic governance. America’s active promotion of democracy in Russia’s neighbourhood, especially in the Ukraine, in the hope that success there would encourage internal democratic change in Russia was not a recipe for earning Russia’s trust. Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008 caused by provocations by its then president Mikheil Sakaashvili with encouragement from elements in the US establishment caused a further deterioration of Russia’s ties with the West.

In 2013, the Ukraine crisis erupted with the coup engineered against president Yanukovych with western connivance, leading eventually to Crimea’s annexation by Russia in 2014. This has sharpened political confrontation between the two sides to the point that a Cold War like atmosphere is growing. Russia’s military intervention in Syria to prevent one more regime change engineered by the West in West Asia has exacerbated matters further.

Under Obama the US  conducted itself in a patronising manner against Russia, denigrating it as a regional power and characterising it in Obama’s 2014 United Nations general assembly as a global threat along with the ebola virus and the Islamic State. Following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, in 2014, three rounds of wide-ranging sanctions were imposed on individuals, companies and officials by the US, EU, Australia and Japan, including Russia’s energy sector and banks.

In December 2016, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed two Russian compounds in the US. He also sanctioned GRU and the FSB, the two Russian intelligence agencies for cyber operations. In June 2017 the US Senate passed legislation- signed by Trump in August – that would prevent the easing, suspending or ending of sanctions by the President without the approval of the Congress. This targeted the planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, provoking both Germany and Austria to strongly protest.

Continuing the politics of sanctions the UK has, over the Skripal incident, expelled 23 Russian diplomats, the US 60 and others, both EU and non-EU countries, have joined the expulsions that now number almost 150. 

Russia has previously retaliated by expulsions of its own, sanctioning individuals in US and Europe, closing some western consulates and its market to western products. It has threatened to respond to the latest round of sanctions.

That the West should continue to demonise and vilify Putin who has been elected again, and cause a virtual collapse of relations with Russia is difficult to understand. The West cannot escape engaging Russia, the world’s largest country with immense natural resources at its command, a formidable nuclear power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Europe’s direct neighbour and its crucial energy partner.

The policy of sanctions has not brow-beaten Russia into submission and is unlikely to do so. These sanctions  have become an instrument in the hands of the West which controls global finance to conduct a kind of asymmetric warfare against  vulnerable countries, even one as militarily strong as Russia. It is telling that a permanent member of the UNSC is being sanctioned by three other permanent members, reducing the UNSC to a bystander notwithstanding the increasing risk of conflict.The Russian economy is, however, nowhere near collapsing.

Putin has unveiled a new array of advanced weaponry to signal its capacity to defend itself. It has to be a party in any eventual solution to the current crisis in West Asia. Public opinion in the West has been conditioned to look at Russia as a virtually rogue state, which is preventing any sensible engagement with it. Trump had the intention to normalise ties with Russia but the US Congress, anti-Russian lobbies and the mainstream media has made this virtually impossible, particularly as Russia’s purported interference in the US presidential elections has become an issue of intense domestic debate, involving the legitimacy of Trump’s electoral win.

A Britain weakened by Brexit and a British prime minister with a shaky political base find the Skirpal affair handy to gain political popularity and project that Britain remains a “great power”. Britain has artfully and successfully mustered support from its allies, especially the US, to demonstrate that it would retain international clout even outside the EU.

The biggest beneficiary of the intense western hostility towards Russia is China. The more Russia is strategically weakened, the more strategic strength China gains. For India, the free-fall in US/Europe relations with Russia is doubly negative, in that not only China’s ambitions are being served with Russia becoming more dependent on China, but also because of the pressure it puts on us to maintain a dynamic balance between our very valuable ties with Russia and our closer understandings with the West.

Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary of India.