In light of the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, and the tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats by NATO countries and Russia that followed, one might begin to wonder: what exactly is the endgame of this increasing confrontation between Russia and the West?
When Prime Minister Theresa May announced the initial expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, identified by British authorities as “undeclared intelligence officers”, the mood in the House of Commons was one of apparently sincere moral outrage. How dare Russia carry out such an attack on our soil! How can we punish the Putin regime to the maximum extent? From what most of the MPs had to say, one might conclude that their concerns were solely around the human rights record of Putin’s Russia.
Few would deny that Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian leader with scant regard for human rights, but there is no shortage of such leaders today on the world stage. The United Kingdom happily sells arms to Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy carrying out a brutal war on the Houthi rebels in Yemen and inflicting a terrible cost on that country’s civilian population. Britain rolls out the red carpet for Xi Jinping, now likely to be China’s dictator-for-life.
Perhaps the problem is that Putin’s ruthlessness is not confined to Russia’s borders, and extends as far as Britain’s shores. This argument lacks geopolitical perspective, however. Even after assurances were given to the Russians that NATO would not expand any further into what was formerly Russia’s sphere of influence, that organisation, redundant after the fall of Soviet Communism, went on to expand right up to the Russian border with Estonia and Latvia. While both the West and Russia have interfered in Ukraine’s affairs, to the detriment of Ukrainians, it should be obvious that the latter has a much greater interest in what transpires in that country. Even in further-flung Syria, Russia has many military assets as well as a decades-old alliance with the Assad regime. The West, meanwhile, has effectively supported radical Islamist groups in an effort to overthrow Assad, having failed to learn from its mistakes in Iraq and Libya.
The West cannot accuse Russia of playing realpolitik when it does so itself, under the guise of humanitarian intervention or democracy promotion. Put another way, it is not military intervention per se that the Western establishment opposes; it is military intervention by an outside power, in service of its national interest rather than that of “the liberal international order”. Russia as a nation state stubbornly refuses to go quietly into the night and let the “end of history” dawn .
Even the poisoning of the Skripals looks more like a pretext to pursue anti-Russia policies, instead of the real cause. Skripal was a double agent, and spies put their lives on the line. More inexcusable is the careless way in which he was targeted, putting his daughter’s as well as other innocent lives at risk. However, one has to be rather naïve to think that that MI6 has never endangered or harmed any innocent people during its various activities abroad.
What really seems to lie behind the hostility towards Russia is the overblown idea–verging on a conspiracy theory–that without malicious Russian cyber-activity, Brexit, the Trump presidency, Catalan separatism, virtually any unwelcome political development in the West that one cares to name… would not have happened. This is not to deny that Russia tried to interfere in elections by spreading propaganda. The United States has long engaged in similar activity and continues to do so this day, as former CIA director James Woolsey admitted in a recent television interview. The problem, however, is that Russia is blamed disproportionately or even entirely for certain political outcomes that might have come to pass anyway. Russia did not create the economic grievances, social divisions and culture wars that characterise the contemporary West; the most that can be said is that it–along with many other actors–moved to exploit them where possible. In other words, Russia is a scapegoat. The process of scapegoating is driven by sentiment, rather than reason. Unfortunately, this means that the current policy of confrontation with Russia has not been rationally thought out. If it had been, it would have been seen for the madness that it is.
Firstly, it has not in fact been proven that the Salisbury attack was carried out by “the Russian state”. If indeed it was not, and the British government rushed to judgement, this would be highly irresponsible – especially given the stakes of a conflict with Russia. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn has pointed this out does not make it false.
Secondly, if tensions with Russia continue to escalate, it is difficult to see how they will be ratcheted down. One cannot simultaneously believe that Putin is an evil genius and that he will simply back down after the next round of sanctions. The more he is pushed into a corner, the more likely he is to take military action of some kind. And the truth is that the West no longer has much of a stomach for that. If this is true even of a military superpower like the United States, which now does much of its fighting with drones and avoids putting its own citizens in harm’s way, how much more so must it be true of the United Kingdom?
If Russia is as wicked an adversary as many in the Western elite appear to believe, why antagonise this nuclear power further? How can anyone imagine that embarking on such a course of action will end well?
3 April Update: Gary Aitkenhead, the head of Britain’s military research centre, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, was “unable yet to say whether the military-grade nerve agent that poisoned a Russian double-agent last month had been produced in Russia.”