There is “no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality”. The poet Thomas Babington Macaulay might have had in mind the saga of the attempted killing and subsequent death of a bystander. The reaction to the sad affair has been cynical, disproportionate and hypocritical.
That members of a security agency should have a vendetta against someone they regard as a traitor is unsurprising. Britons would hardly have turned a hair if something nasty had happened in Moscow to British double agents Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean or Kim Philby. Fed on a diet of extrajudicial spy killings, they assume that in this murky, pseudo-glamorised world, traitors get their due deserts.
From the start it was likely, if not certain, that the Novichok attack in Salisbury was revenge by hit men with access to Russian poison, and with scant respect for recycling. No one is pretending that killing people is acceptable, nor is travelling on false passports or carrying nerve agents across international borders. It is also unwise for Russians to break a spy-swap deal, of which Russian double agent Sergei Skripal was a beneficiary.
The affair goes to show how pointless are British Prime Minister Theresa May’s heavy-handed visa and border controls. As for whom to blame, May says it was “not a rogue operation” and came from “a senior level in the Russian state”, by implication Russian President Vladimir Putin. But secret agencies have their own methods, of which their superiors understandably prefer to know nothing. The Cold War must have a deal of such scores still to settle. Of Putin’s involvement we are offered no knowledge.
The reality is that no one’s hands are clean in this dubious form of near-war. Someone in Whitehall regularly authorises the extrajudicial killing of British citizens Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain, who were killed by drones in Syria, as were Hussain’s wife, Sally Jones, and her 12-year-old son in 2017. However “guilty” the individuals, their execution was outside due process, carried out in a foreign state and prima facie against international law. But then Mosul, Raqqa and Idlib are not beloved Salisbury.
British justice loves geography. Few Britons realise how far, to Russians, London has become a Muscovite home from home, where no questions were asked and only money talked. To Russians, the idea of British authorities citing the rule of law and getting high and mighty about injury to a superannuated spy is laughable.
Instead, it was turned into an international crisis, with Putin as a mastermind of gigantic evil. May leapt into the fray. The attempt on Skripal’s life was “a chemical attack on British soil”, as if Putin had personally sent sarin canisters raining down on hospitals and schools. At the Foreign Office at the time, Boris Johnson exultantly called it an “act of war”. The attack on Skripal was an existential threat, requiring an allied response, tit-for-tat penalties, United Nations meetings, expulsions, sanctions and excoriations.
British diplomacy was deflected from Brexit to secure the expulsion of 153 Russian spies from western capitals, leading to the predictable removal of two dozen British spies from Russia. Sanctions were imposed, trade was impeded and Putin’s cronies were forced to spend more time and money at home, an outcome that reputedly pleased Putin.
There is no evidence that such frenzy has led to any shift in Russian policy, any more than the similar response to the Alexander Litvinenko poisoning in London in 2006 deterred more poisonings. Deterrence, like sanctions, is an overrated concept in diplomacy. Just as Putin’s mischief-making, mendacity and posturing show a leader craving for macho publicity, so does the West’s response. It is the politics of gestures, insults, headlines and staged indignation. It is infantile.
Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Europe’s democracies have driven Russia down the path on which Putin is set. They debilitated his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. They denied Russia aid and trade. They pushed Nato’s boundaries to Russia’s border and taunted it with encirclement. London embraced Russia’s kleptocrats and bled it dry of its resource wealth. For a leader such as Putin, Europe was Lenin’s useful idiot.
Now Moscow is on a roll. Despite domestic angst over pension reform, Putin’s foreign policy is cruising. European Union ineptitude is allowing him to re-establish Cold War allegiances, with admirers in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Serbia and even Germany. His economy may be in a mess, but who cares when he has America and Britain dancing like marionettes on a string? So some hit man goofs in Salisbury. In return we let Putin mock us and parade his injured innocence before the world. Everything we do — everything — helps him.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Simon Jenkins is a noted columnist.