The Skripal Affair: Tit for Tat
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-43412702
This morning I had the pleasure of talking with Trish Adudu on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Radio about the Russian state and skulduggery in Salisbury. In five minutes we only touched on a small proportion of what was covered in my notes. Here’s my full commentary on recent events.
Who is to blame for the Skripal affair?
We don’t yet know the persons directly responsible for the attempt to murder Sergei and Yuliya Skripal. Without that knowledge, why does the Russia government not get the benefit of the doubt? First and foremost, Russia’s rulers have form. Putin presides over a conspiratorial regime. Too many opponents, critics, and whistle blowers have come to a bad end under his rule.
The Russian government and connected Russians have offered a long list of alternative candidates for the crime: MI5, Ukraine, Georgia, the United States, and, bizarrely, the family of Yuliya Skripal's boyfriend, seeking to break his connection to a traitor. The fostering of doubt by scattering such allegations is also part of this form.
Second, Novochok, the nerve agent used in Salisbury, is a Russian product of the Cold War. It was intended to be undetectable, but decades have gone by and it is no longer. Russia claims to have destroyed all its stocks, but this is self-evidently not the case.
Third, yes, some third-party involvement is entirely possible. But that should not let the Russian government off the hook. There is a well-understood advantage for a party like the Russian state in using “third parties” to achieve goals by stealth that cannot be sought openly. Sometimes those “third parties” will go “too far,” whether by accident or design, but this is not necessarily an unwanted thing, because it increases complexity and improves the plausibility of denial.
If you think of the various ways in which Russia has challenged the international order in recent years, “third parties” were involved in many of them: seizing Crimea, invading Eastern Ukraine, and shooting down the MH17 jet liner, as well as in many domestic assassinations. Often the trail is not that long and the “third parties” are barely even that. The two men who British police believe assassinated Alexander Litvinenko were former KGB operatives.
Don’t we murder people abroad too?
Sometimes, yes. There are examples of people have done great wrongs or present great dangers, who have put themselves beyond the reach of justice. A case in point would be the execution of Usama Bin Laden. (But the US government made no secret of its role.)
I don’t consider myself to be an expert in such cases. If Western governments set out to kill people in circumstances other than the ones I just described, my guess would be that it’s usually the wrong thing to do. And any such cases should absolutely not be used to justify the attempted murders in Salisbury. (Besides, to defend oneself against a murder charge by saying "he deserved it" or "I'm not the only one" essentially concedes the allegation.)
Most importantly, Skripal was not a fugitive from justice. He was previously tried in a Russian court for being a British spy, convicted, and imprisoned. The Russian state could have shot him at the time, and they did not; the court put him in prison. Later, they decided to pardon him and release him. They could have kept him in Russia, and they did not. They let him go abroad in exchange for some of their own spies. There is absolutely no “what about” defence for trying to kill him now – let alone his daughter, who lives in Moscow and has never been charged with anything.
Should Britain respond? Yes, absolutely. The expulsion of diplomats thought to be undercover intelligence operatives is appropriate. So are measures against particular Russians now living in Britain on the basis of “unexplained wealth.”
It’s important to understand that nearly all forms of sanction bring risks of collateral damage, which we should try to limit. British and Russia have many cultural and business ties, most of them completely innocent and bringing large benefits. Most Russians living or studying in Britain are entirely innocent of connections to this or any crime. Britons living in Russia are as vulnerable to indiscriminate sanctions as Russians in Britain. Footballers and football fans are mostly innocent bystanders. Whatever are the rights and wrongs of football’s international governance, we should try not to damage these links.
We should also keep talking to the Russians, but, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, the value of high-level contacts is low when the tone of the Russian side is currently limited to sarcasm and passive aggression.
One of the most important responses should be to investigate the Skripal affair thoroughly and to publish the results, as after the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. It was a bad mistake of the government in 2006 to try to limit the damage from the Litvinenko affair by suppressing evidence for the inquest. Lasting damage resulted; possibly, Putin or the FSB concluded that Britain was a soft target. If the individual wrong-doers in the Skripal affair cannot be brought to justice, their public exposure is still vitally important.
Beyond these things, Britain can do little alone. That’s why we have allies in the European Union and in NATO – to help defend us when we are attacked.
What will the Russians do next?
Because both sides need to maintain the appearance of injured innocence, there will be a period of tit-for-tat. These processes do not usually go to many rounds. But everything depends on intentions. If the Russian government intends to escalate the situation, and is not frightened of the consequences, there is little we can do immediately to limit the process. But it should surely give us pause for thought: why we have allowed a situation to arise in which a potential adversary feels able to act against us with impunity?
Are we risking war with the Russians? The risk of unintentional war is very low, and is nearly always lower than many people think. Many believe, wrongly, that the First World War came about through unintended escalation from trivial starting points. This is wrong: the First World War was planned in Berlin and Vienna, and went ahead in 1914 because London and Paris allowed deterrence to fail.
Today the main risk of escalation comes from the possibility that the Russian government might intend to benefit from increased international tension or from conflict. In Russia there’s a presidential campaign under way. Whatever the motivation, the only way we can protect ourselves against this is by deterrence, which requires reliable defences and a strong alliance.