UK and Russia face off


London is popular among Russian oligarchs and the arena where Moscow and the West settle their accounts. Diplomacy act as a buffer.

Resentment has been smouldering for some time. “I recommend the English Secret Service as the object of terrorist action,[..] my department hardly finds them a worthy adversary, but they are the best of an indifferent lot”. These words were spoken by Colonel Nikitin of the KGB; they were written by Ian Fleming, to describe a meeting of the Soviet SMERSH (“Death to spies”) which led to the plot of From Russia with Love.

That was in 1956. The good old days. Perhaps, with the right equipment, a few snippets of conversation could still be listened to today. The Western secret services are under review. Italy is eliminated right away (“They’re capable and active but they do us no damage. They’re only interested in the Mediterranean”). “The Americans have the largest service and the most money. Technologically they’re the best. But they don’t understand the job”. “Britain’s another matter” and London will be the one to be punished.

Fiction is one thing, reality another. What’s for sure is that the relationship between Russia and the United Kingdom has always been underpinned by love and hate. The Union Jack flies boldly in front of the Kremlin’s windows; Stalin hated the view. London is Russia’s oligarchs favourite watering hole; Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea FC, has obtained Israeli nationality to circumvent being refused a visa. The war of spies continues with defections, double agents, betrayals; and when the going gets tough, blood too.

In 2006 the British government had had to swallow Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination using polonium. And said enough is enough after the nerve gas attack against Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. A diplomatic shenanigans across the Atlantic followed.

The United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, 14 EU countries (including Italy) and Ukraine expelled over 100 Russian diplomats. Tit for tat. Moscow promptly threw out just as many. The USA closed down the Russian consulate in Seattle? Same fate for the American one in St. Petersburg. Leaving aside the personal ordeal suffered by those expelled and their families, there are three ways we can assess the consequences.

First. The impact on relations between Russia and the West has been minimal. They were already tense. Once accounts were square the storm blew over as fast as it had arrived. In a recent conference in Latvia (“Riga Dialogue”), on “the new normal” between Russia and the West, with the participation of dozens of Russians, the conversation was very affable and constructive in tone, but without sweetening the pill with Moscow and effectively acknowledging the existence (and the risks) of a new “cold war”. Yet no one had one word to say about the diplomatic expulsions, despite both sides rattling off their various divergences and reasons for tensions.

The expulsions can be removed from the dispute because they’re done for that very reason. The attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had triggered a strong anti-Russian reaction by the Brits and opened a rift between Moscow and London, with the latter backed by European and American solidarity. The expulsions where the answer but also the relief mechanism for the crisis. They meant that it could be handled politically, while avoiding having to resort to more powerful action, such as new sanctions. They contained the damage with the diplomatic sphere. Diplomacy is after all there to absorb the shocks (as far as possible). So measures such as warnings and expulsions are welcome if they manage to avoid a worse outcome.

The Skripal case thus found a diplomatic solution (it’s important to stress this), with the trusted method of reciprocity, the tribal an eye for an eye that is also an old way of meting out justice, a Salomonic halving of all wrongs. By common agreement, the practical effect was to a large extent buffered because the those expelled can be immediately replaced. Only if the offices are closed, as happened to the two consulates in Seattle and St. Petersburg, the effects are permanent.

When the expulsions, for purely demonstrative purposes, affect personnel that has recently taken up office, the loss of competence and contacts is limited and the damage fleeting. This is Italy’s case. Both sides have lost excellent officers but no one is indispensable. Where on the other hand actual “spies” have been targeted, meaning personnel engaged in intelligence activities under diplomatic cover, the “service” capacities have taken a hit but that’s all in the line of business. That’s almost certainly the case with many of the British and American expulsions, and the same holds true for the Russian retaliation. But there again everything evens out and this means the episode can be filed away almost painlessly.

Almost. Claiming that a diplomat is a persona non grata and sending him or her home is a fairly standard practice and generally it flies under the radar. This can happen not just for espionage, but also for a number of other reasons, often linked to the personal conduct of the people involved. They have immunity from the jurisdiction of the host country even for crimes not committed while carrying out one’s duties (although this no longer covers highway code infringements: even diplomats have sadly had to resign themselves to paying parking and speeding tickets…). What is not normal is the number of those expelled and, more than anything else, the European and Western joint response. Never before had twenty or so countries acted in concert when implementing measures of this kind.

Second. This choral response is an indication of the mood between Russia and the West. The seriousness of the Salisbury attack at first set in motion the British response, then its allies’ solidarity. Generally speaking spying matters are handled bilaterally. On this occasion however the measure spread because London’s appeal fell on fertile ground owing to the profound mistrust felt by other Western capitals towards Russia.

He lack of European and Western trust towards Putin’s Kremlin is different to that felt towards the Soviet Kremlin. The USSR was an outright ideological and military adversary. It had 5000 tanks stationed in the middle of Europe and made no mystery of the fact that it was ready to wage war against NATO, whether conventional and/or nuclear. But the rules of the game, and the mutual deterrence, were clear and accepted by both parties, particularly after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 had brought the world so close to mutual annihilation.

Today the risk of a military confrontation has been downgraded to the regional scale. In the Western camp, a few countries (in the Baltic and in Eastern Europe) feel vulnerable – understandably after the Georgian (2008) and Ukranian (2014) crises. But except for nuclear attacks, the likelihood of a global clash has receded. Countries like Germany (besides a touch of justified edginess following the deployment of Russian missiles in Kaliningrad), Spain and Italy do not feel threatened; the United States have other matters on hand in the Pacific (China, North Korea) and in the Middle East (Iran). What is worrying about Russia are its encroachments, such as the annexation of Crimea an a whole range of behaviour, from computer system hacking to electoral interference. Even in capitals that treasure their relationship with Moscow, such as Berlin, Putin is seen as an international actor who has no problem cheating. If he did so, or allowed it to happen (which is much the same thing) for a few more gold medals in Sochi, why trust him on anything else? But let it be clear: this total lack of trust is mutually reciprocated by the Russians.

The British appeal to European solidarity wouldn’t have had the same impact if it hadn’t found this streak of mistrust against Moscow already in place. We don’t know whether and what proof London provided in terms of intelligence regarding Russia’s responsibilities, but on a political level Theresa May and Boris Johnson didn’t have too much trouble convincing the rest of the European Union. For one simple reason: the Russian responsibility for the attack was all too believable, not only owing to the means used, an agent developed in Russian labs, or the designated victim, a “traitor”, but because the attack matches the ruthless international modus operandi that Moscow has become known for.

Third. We don’t know, and probably never will, at what decision level the operation against Skripal was decided nor why a chemical agent that points straight to Russia was used. However, Vladimir Putins responsibility is having created a system that allows this kind of operation. With the attack on Skripal it went a step too far.

It may be that the former GRU agent had defied the unwritten understanding that he was to stay out of trouble; Skripal had travelled and had meetings with other services, in Prague for example, where he had provided information on Russian spying techniques. But less drastic measures could have been used: a few messages, from Moscow to London, service to service, to ensure he went back into retirement. Instead “a lesson had to be taught”. The use of nerve gas on British soil was an unacceptable breach. London could only react as it did. European solidarity was just a sideshow.

The expendability of diplomats was then used to quell the crisis, but it added another mortgage to any trust towards Moscow. This doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t work towards improving the dialogue between the West and Russia. By no means. We must however hope that in Moscow someone will search their own hearts – and leave the konspiratsia to James Bond and his world.

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