• UK, Russia roar over ‘state-sponsored assassination’

Russia is having it rough with the West. Every day, it is in the news for wrong reasons. And there are no signs that there would be armistice soon. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been severally accused of trying to resuscitate the defunct Soviet Union in a show of power to browbeat other nations into acknowledging its influence in global affairs.

Analysts say some of the international activities of Putin’s administration are clear indications of Moscow’s desire to reclaim its lost glory. The country has been active in Syria, Ukraine and the Middle East (Israeli-Palestinian crisis). It has also shown renewed interest in African affairs with its Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, embarking on an African tour at the same period when United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was touring the continent.

Alleged Russian meddling ib the United States 2016 presidential election has been a major source of the political crisis rocking the President Donald Trump administration even as Moscow continues to deny any involvement. As Americans and the international community try to come to terms with the allegation, British Prime Minister Theresa May has accused Moscow of state-sponsored assassination, following a nerve gas attack on an ex-Russian spy in British soil, which has further deepened frosty relations between the two countries.

The nerve gas attack on Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, who were taking refuge in UK, raises global concern. Nerve gas attack might have become a new national security threat across the globe. Masterminds of state-sponsored assassinations may have concluded that, in an era of fast-growing technology, nerve gas attack is the fastest and most secretive means of carrying out killings, as the source would be difficult to trace.

Recently, in Malaysia, Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korean President Kim Jong-Un, who was taking refuge in Malaysia, died following a nerve gas attack on February 13, 2017.

Two women, a Vietnamese and an Indonesian, are on trial for the attack. Their alleged sponsor, Pyongyang, has denied any involvement even as investigations revealed it was the mastermind behind the gruesome act carried out at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

The denial by North Korea’s government resulted in a diplomatic row with Malaysia, one of its major allies. Following the refusal of Pyongyang to tender an apology for attacks on the investigations, an angry Malaysia expelled the North Korean Ambassador, Kang Chol, and declared him persona non grata.

Now, the scene of nerve gas attacks has shifted to Britain. After Britain, who’s next? This is the unanswered question that has created disquiet in the West as Prime Minister May pushes for a coalition against Russia.

Russia’s European allies have expressed their willingness to endorse a UK-sponsored statement condemning Moscow. For example, countries like Greece, Italy and Hungary are reportedly prepared to put their names to a statement that is critical of Russia. They are among countries “that are economically and politically far closer to Moscow than the UK.”

Addressing the British House of Commons on the matter, May had accused Moscow of being the mastermind of the attack on Skripal and Yulia.

Investigations by experts at Porton Down, run by the UK’s Ministry of Defense, revealed that the two were attacked by Novichok, “a deadly nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.” The UK claimed that it had the signature of Moscow. This, May said, was enough evidence that the Kremlin sponsored the attack.

Why May wants Russia isolated

The concerns May’s administration has expressed over the attack on Skripal was expected, considering the circumstance that made him and his daughter to take refuge in the UK. Skripal reportedly “betrayed dozens of Russian agents to Britain before being arrested in Moscow and later jailed in 2006. He was freed under a spy swap deal in 2010 and took refuge in Britain.”

As May would later tell UK parliamentarians, the attack on Skripal “represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.” A visibly angry May told the parliament that “Britain would not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.”

Interestingly, this is not the first case of a ‘murderous’ mission in the UK that Russia would be accused of.  In 2006, a former KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko was killed in London. Litvinenko, who was a critic of Putin, died after died “after drinking green tea laced with radioactive polonium 210.”

At the time, May was the Secretary of Interior. Britons were not satisfied with the government’s response, which “was widely criticised domestically as too weak.” The administration of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown expelled four Russian diplomats suspected of involvement in the killing of Litvinenko after Putin objected to the UK’s demand “to extradite Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, the two suspects who allegedly put polonium into Litvinenko’s tea. Russia retaliated by expelling four British diplomats.

Now, May, as Prime Minister, is faced with many domestic problems, including the Brexit challenge. Her government rating among Britons has not been too encouraging. May cannot but respond to the wishes of the people who have called for “much tougher” action against Russia this time around. Certainly, her response so far has positively buoyed her government rating.

Motive behind attack on ex-spy in UK

Pundits have argued that the attack on Skripal was politically-motivated. Putin has been accused of not being happy over the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the consequent erosion of its power in global politics. The thinking is that Putin’s administration may have sponsored the attack to boost Putin’s electoral chances. The result of the just concluded election attests to such claims. Putin won a landslide victory to secure a fourth term.

While Putin’s desire for continuity in government might form the basis for the immediate motive behind the attack, the remote motive could be Putin’s desire to re-launch Soviet hegemony. Putin and a section of Russian society are said to be unhappy over the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the consequent erosion of its power in global politics.

Therefore, there has been a need for the Putin administration to convince Russians that it has the capability to recreate the expertise of the former Soviet Union in tracking down enemies of the state. An analyst, Nick Paton Walsh, aptly put it when he said the attack on Skripal “sends the message that Moscow is powerful, is unafraid to chase traitors anywhere, is able to thumb its nose at NATO members and former world powers, and is resilient to all possible consequence,” adding that “perhaps a message designed to reassure the hawks in Moscow that the next Putin term will not see a rapprochement with the West.”

Rain of sanctions on Russia

The decision of Britain to impose sanctions on Russia coincided with that of the United States, though for a different reason. Hours after London announced sanctions on Russia, Washington “slapped sanctions on Russian individuals and entities for US election meddling and cyber attacks.”  It, however, stopped short of “targeting oligarchs and government officials close to President Vladimir Putin, prompting lawmakers in both parties (Republican and Democrat) to say President Donald Trump needs to do much more.”

With the United States under pressure to act, the steps announced by the U.S. Treasury Department represented the most significant taken against Moscow since Trump assumed office in January 2017.

Sanctions announced by May include the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats “identified as undeclared intelligence officers.” Reports said “it was the biggest single expulsion of Russian envoys from Britain since 1985 when 31 diplomats from the former Soviet Union were told to leave.”

Other measures announced by May include the revocation of an invitation to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to visit the UK, suspension of all planned bilateral contacts between London and Moscow, boycott of the FIFA World Cup in Russia by ministers or members of the British royal family and freezing of Russian state assets “wherever we have evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents.”

May also announced that “new laws would be urgently developed to counter any threat from a hostile state, including a power to detain those suspected of hostile state activity at the UK border.”

May did not stop there. She listed Russia’s sins to include the “illegal annexation of Crimea, violating European airspace, sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption, meddling in elections, hacking the Danish Ministry of Defense and the Bundestag, extra-judicial killing of terrorists and dissidents outside Russia and the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.”

May warned that the UK would “never tolerate a threat to the life of British citizens and others on British soil from the Russian government.” The European Union and NATO have “offered help to track down those responsible even as it demanded an explanation from Moscow.”

Russia not cowed

It is obvious that Russia has not shed its Cold War traits. While London was boiling over Russia’s alleged atrocities on its soil, Moscow exhibited a quiet determination to study the situation and how to respond. Besides denying culpability in the attack on the ex-spy, it warned London that the decision to expel its diplomats was “a sign of confrontation.”

In a retaliatory move, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador to inform him of the expulsion of 23 British diplomats and the shutdown of the British Council in Russia. The ministry also said it would close the British Consulate in St. Petersburg.

Meanwhile, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has said the government anticipated such a response and that the National Security Council would consider the next steps. It is a season of sanctions on Russia as Britain considers other measures to clamp down on Moscow.

Meanwhile, in its response to the sanctions announced by Washington, Moscow said it would retaliate by expanding its own blacklist of Americans. Russian state news agency, RIA Novosti, on Friday quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying that Russia would use “the principle of parity” as it responds. Additional measures are not ruled out, he added.

He also said that the retaliatory measures Russia would take were not the preference of Moscow.

Another Cold War

Can the US and the UK undermine Russia? On the other hand, is the US or the UK dispensable to Russia? There are concerns that there could be a spillover of the crisis, with some allies of Russia, the US and the UK, respectively, getting entangled. Already, Syria and Ukraine are victims of the evolving Cold War between Russia and the West.

Even then, there are indications that the three countries are not oblivious of the harm a long-drawn confrontation could cause politically, socially and economically. Perhaps, this explains why Ryabkov was cautious in saying that Russia did not want to close the window of dialogue with the US or the possibility of stabilising bilateral relations.

“It is also worth thinking about that, destroying Russian-American relations,” said Ryabkov, adding that “these politicians play with fire, because they simultaneously undermine global stability.”

Whatever the level brinkmanship, the threat of nerve gas attack to national security is of concern to the international community. The act must be discouraged.