March 13, 2018 – Fort Russ –
By Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold –
A new “spy scandal” in Britain is gathering storm clouds with increasing momentum over the poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer. A week ago, an ex-colonel of the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate, i.e., military intelligence), the 66-year-old Sergei Skripal, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia were discovered unconscious on a bench at a shopping center in the small British city of Salisbury. On March 12th, British Prime Minister Theresa May claimed that it is “highly likely” that the Russian state was involved, and issued Russia an ultimatum until today evening, March 13th, to provide a detailed explanation, or else face “more serious measures.”
Tomorrow, March 14th, the British National Security Council is set to hold a session on the “Skripal case” after which May will present the planned “measures” against Russia to parliament. Some of these “measures” have already been revealed, such as how UK authorities are considering the option of a cyber attack on Russia, an operation which could include attacking the Kremlin’s computer network and websites deemed responsible for “fake news” which, as everyone knows, for British authorities means whatever doesn’t match the name of the game of the Western mainstream. Such a measure is not the most serious imaginable, but would be very tangible.
Nor would such a measure be novel. The US’ 2011 cyber strategy document says that the US will henceforth equate computer sabotage with traditional military operations. This document is the logical successor of the International Strategy for Cyberspace approved by the White House on May 16th which also claims that the US has the right to respond to cyberattacks by any means deemed necessary.
May’s statement is not a mere British invention. The Americans have expressed solidarity as well. On March 13th, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson blamed Russia for assassinating Skripal, saying: “From Ukraine to Syria – and now the UK – Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.” Tillerson also made it clear that the UK Prime Minister’s statement on alleged Russian involvement was coordinated with the United States.
The British Prime Minister has also been supported by the sterile President of France. According to May, President Macron condemned the “attack”, expressed his solidarity with the UK, and the two agreed that the governments of France and the United Kingdom should closely collaborate in the investigation and following Russia’s response.
Finally, concern over the “Skripal case” has also been voiced by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, although his statement did not mention any “Russian trace” in the alleged assassination attempt.
In other words, Russia has been denied the right of being innocent until proven guilty. The Kremlin has been a priori accused of attempted murder on a traitor to its intelligence services who, since an exchange operation in 2006, has lived in the United Kingdom.
The very idea of eliminating such a small fish as Skripal, especially on the eve of Russia’s presidential elections set for March 18th, is simply absurd and contradicts the otherwise sound logic and interests of the Kremlin.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has appealed to British authorities with the request to jointly investigate the “Skripal case” on the grounds that his daughter, Yulia, is a Russian citizen. London, however, has not agreed, which suggests that the British authorities are not interested in an objective investigation.
The second fact that catches the eye is the typological similarity between Skripal’s death and the “international”, i.e., American coalition’s accusations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against the “moderate opposition”, i.e., pro-American jihadists, in East Ghouta.
The UK government’s accusations against Moscow are a very rude and far from convincing provocation aimed at alleging that Russia is behind terroristic warfare on British territory. One can with greater ease and success accuse the British authorities themselves of using the Skripal assassination as a pretext for allegations against Russia. Such arguments can be found in the Russian press, in which quite a lot was published beforehand about how the sports official, Rodchenkov, could be assigned the role of a “sacred victim.” But something changed, and such media accounts might have played a preventative, revelatory role. It is not for me to judge how realistic these hypotheses are. They are, however, no worse – and perhaps no better – than the British authorities’ claims. But they are not repeated on the level of the Russian state, unlike with the British, who have advanced conspiracies to the level of state policy.
The Kremlin is trying to solve international issues in a more delicate manner than Washington and London. Perhaps in vain, for diplomacy might be taken for weakness.
At any rate, the West has found a convenient pretext for pressing allegations against Russia and threatening to start a cyber war. The threat to launch cyber attacks on the Kremlin’s websites was voiced by the head of the British cabinet, which is in itself a precedent. Needless to say, however, the proposed pretext – the assassination of a traitor living in Britain for many years thanks to an exchange of arrested spies – clearly does not even correspond to such a successive reaction.
That’s not all. London’s demarche is only one thread in a complex tangle of contradictions and confrontations between the West and Russia. If we recall the notes exchanged between Russia and the US – when the US threatened to repeat rocket attacks on the legal Syrian government while Russia upheld the sovereign Syrian government’s right to self-defense – then it becomes obvious just how high the probability of a direct armed clash between the two leading world powers in the Middle East is. The US directly attacked volunteers from Russia fighting for the private military company Wagner, but Russia swallowed its offense. But another such strike, which could risk the lives of regular troops of the Russian Ministry of Defense, will not go unanswered, and American troops will die. The situation in the Middle East thus risks repeating the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The “Skripal case” and the West’s threats only compound this overall tense situation which already threatens to escalate into a military conflict.
Finally, it is worth remembering another front: the threat of war in Donbass restarting on the eve of Russia’s presidential elections, or immediately after them, a scenario which I have predicted on multiple occasions. According to my colleagues and friends in the Donbass republics, it is unlikely that war will break out in the next few weeks or even month due to weather conditions, but world history provides rich precedents for such disregard for common sense for the sake of political gain. Therefore, I am not as optimistic as my friends in Lugansk and Donetsk.
The accusation could be made that I am over-dramatizing the prevailing situation. But I stand by the feeling in the pit of my stomach and soul. The stench of war is in the air, and not just a war with the half-decayed Ukrainian army. The West is crossing all permissible boundaries, and Russia will ultimately be forced to respond harshly and by any means.
Perhaps I was correct in characterizing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s March 1st Address to the Federal Assembly as an appeal from Russia’s Commander-in-Chief to the nation.
Whether war will break out in Syria, Donbass, or merely on the diplomatic battlefield – only the near future will tell.
Eduard Popov is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia, and from 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don and actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass. In addition to being Fort Russ’ guest analyst since June, 2016, Popov is currently the leading research fellow of the Institute of the Russian Abroad and the founding director of the Europe Center for Public and Information Cooperation.