Decoding the Skripal Affair: Part 1 – When Poisoning Spies is in NATO’s Interests

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March 26, 2018 – Fort Russ – 

By Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold – 

Diplomatic war gains momentum

Contrary to the somewhat optimistic forecasts put forth by some Russian political analysts and British diplomats, the “Skripal affair” is by no means subsiding. As we have feared, it is ceasing to be (or, perhaps, is showing that it never even was) a private affair of London, and is becoming the common endeavor of the collective West. The European states within the US’ sphere of influence have hastened to express solidarity with the “injured” British government and have begun expelling Russian diplomats.

Just late last week it was announced that Poland and the Baltic states would follow the UK’s lead in expelling Russian diplomats. On March 26th, additional European and other heavyweights have joined in the fray.

The United States has decided to expel Russian diplomats and their missions’ employees. Overall, more than 60 Russian diplomats will be forced to leave the US. What’s more, the US has decided to shut down Russia’s Consulate General in Seattle.

Leading European countries, specifically France and Europe’s locomotive, Germany, have been somewhat more restrained in their actions. The latter will expel four Russian diplomats over the “Skripal case”, as Germany’s foreign ministry announced on Twitter. France will also send four Russian diplomats home. Meanwhile, on March 26th, even Italy, which sympathizes with Russia more than others, announced that it will join the initiative. Overall, 14 European countries have declared that they will expel Russian diplomats, which means a total of 28 diplomatic employees will have to pack their bags.

Nor could, of course, Ukraine hold itself back from participating in this anti-Russian action. Although this country belongs to Europe only geographically, it has readily joined Western countries’ campaign and announced its decision to expel 13 Russian diplomats, thus coming in third after Britain and the Americans. Nevertheless, such a small number has a big impact – it will greatly reduce Russia’s diplomatic corps in Ukraine and therefore further deteriorate the countries’ diplomatic relations. With this decision, official Kiev is not only demonstrating solidarity with the collective West, but is also displaying its hope to be considered for cooption if not into the European Union, then at least NATO. This, of course, would contradict Ukraine’s official neutral status spelled out in its constitution and would open the prospects for a hot war between NATO and Russia.

We can be sure that this rather radical measure by the West will not be the last in this “conflict.” European Council head Donald Tusk has said that he does not rule out additional anti-Russian measures over the Skripal controversy. Tusk mentioned among possible steps the expulsion of even more Russian diplomats. Without a doubt, a wide arsenal of political and economic pressure mechanisms or, in the terminology of Western countries, “punishment” will be unleashed on Russia.

It cannot be ruled out that in the near future we will hear Western statements on the complete or partial non-recognition of the Russian presidential elections held on March 18th. It is almost guaranteed that at least a partial boycott of the World Cup will be proclaimed. Moreover, the prospects of cutting Russia out of the SWIFT banking system have long since been on the table, which would seriously trouble Russian businesses.

However, the single most serious threat is that looming over Russia’s strategic project: Nord Stream 2. We will return to this point a bit later. For now, let us present the situation as it is seen from Russia.

The goal and people behind the “Skripal affair”: the view from Russia

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In Russia one can find two main conceptual points of view on the “Skripal affair” which are similar only at first glance. The first is that adhered to by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the state as a whole. This position is one of categorical denial of any Russian involvement in Skripal and his daughter’s alleged poisoning. A number of arguments can be made in defense of this presumption of innocence. Despite the unity of the Western world claimed by Western diplomats, this argument is even accepted by part of the European elite, a point which we will explore later.

The Russian foreign ministry cites, first and foremost, the lack of any serious motives for poisoning a military intelligence traitor who was exchanged years ago and has lived in Great Britain posing no threat to the interests of his former country. The very idea of assassinating Skripal, who is closely controlled by British intelligence, at the peak of aggravation in Russia-West relations and ahead of Russian presidential elections is, in the very least, unreasonable. Even Vladimir Putin’s worst enemies have reproached him for the supposed non-rational nature of such an alleged act.

Another point of view which is widespread in public and expert circles, such as that insisted on by the ex-State Duma deputy and well-known expert Sergei Markov, is that the Skripal affair is either a conscious provocation by British or American intelligence or the political order of American politicians. Here this is some diversity of opinions, as some experts suggest that Skripal’s poisoning was linked to the “Russian dossier” on President Trump. Skripal is alleged to be one of the key figures behind this dossier who helped seek out information on Trump and his team’s alleged ties to Russians. In this case, Skripal’s demonstrative elimination would once again be a convenient restart for the campaign of accusations against the White House. Symptomatically enough, the Skripal affair coincided with the US Congress’ failure to find any “Russian trace” in Trump’s election.

The other point of view related to this approach is based on the fact that the US needs a pretext to further taboo Russia as an eternal Evil Empire in order to consolidate the crisis-ridden, stumbling West. It is important to mention that a whole number of European countries have recently begun probing the waters for lifting the anti-Russian sanctions. Moreover, perhaps the greatest threat to the prolongation of the EU’s anti-Russia policy has been posed by the victory of the right-centrist coalition and the impressive results of the Lega Nord leader, Matteo Salvini, in Italy’s recent elections.

I am by no means inclined to assume that the Italian and, overall, European political scene are truly independent and decisive. But the presence of more or less influential Eurosceptic parties in a number of EU countries, when combined with the visible harm caused by sanctions to the economies of many European countries, and not only Italy’s, makes the cancellation of sanctions only a matter of time.

Indeed, one more fact begs attention, namely, that the Skripal affair took off several days after what I called the “Munich speech 2.0” – Vladimir Putin’s Address to the Federal Assembly which emphasized the unequal nature of international relations and boasted of Russia’s possible asymmetric responses to the US’ missile defense systems being erected in Eastern Europe.

The Skripal affair, as I see it, can be called a reaction to this speech of Putin’s. This point of view allows me to explain the haste and chaos with which British politicians and officials have run with it. Earlier I drew attention to the insufficiency of reason and consequences. Even if Russia is guilty of poisoning a traitor, this is no grounds to start a cold or, even more so, hot war between NATO and Russia. Moreover, these hasty accusations fall in line with the tried and tested American and British routines of accusing unfriendly regimes in the Middle East of possessing or using chemical weapons. The latter accusation, let us recall, was the pretext for the American coalition, the second place role in which was played by Britain, to invade Iraq, and it has repeatedly been attempted to justify aggression against Syria. 

During my time at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, I on more than one occasion listened to the stories told by the institute’s leader, Lieutenant General of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Leonid Reshetnikov, about his interactions with British and American “colleagues.” According to Reshetnikov, British intelligence officers, unlike the Americans, admitted off the record that they knew that the allegations that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction were groundless. It cannot be ruled out that the current accusations against Russia of poisoning Skripal and his daughter will sooner or later turn out to be false or incorrect.

However, even if such is revealed, this provocation has still succeeded in its aim of declaring Russia an Evil Empire, uniting the sprawling European Union against it, and justifying the existence and strengthening of NATO in Europe. This is being done under the auspices of the United States, which is rapidly losing its role as the world leader.

I am of the opinion that this whole “Skripal adventure” was needed by the US and its junior partners in the British establishment to justify the extension of American hegemony in Europe – military-political and economic. Reviving the “Russian threat” conveniently justifies NATO’s build-up and even the deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons in certain European countries on the bloc’s eastern borders. It is also extremely important to note, moreover, that this affair is being used to ideologically discredit the Eurosceptics and those in favor of a pragmatic approach to relations with Russia. Whether these attempts will be successful will be the subject of part two. 

To be continued…

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. 

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