This week, a story that would not be unsuited to a James Bond or John Le Carre novel has been all over the headlines. But what does this mean for British-Russia relations?
What’s the story?
Colonel Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were discovered on Sunday afternoon unconscious on a bench in Salisbury city centre. Both are now in hospital, described to be in a critical condition.
This is odd in itself, but throw in the fact that Colonel Skripal was a Russian spy along with the confirmation that the reason the two were unconscious is as a result of a nerve agent, and the situation starts to be much more serious.
Convicted to 30 years imprisonment in Russia for passing details of Russian spys on to MI6, Colonel Skripal was released as part of a spy exchange organized by the FBI. He arrived in England in 2010, and has since lived in Salisbury, often visited by his daughter. Other relations of Mr Skripal’s have died in what the family believe to be suspicious circumstances.
Most nerve agents, highly toxic chemicals that prevent the body’s nervous system from working, were made illegal by the United Nations in 1997, but this has not stopped them from being used in other high-profile assassinations. Among those who are suspected to have died due to nerve agents is North Korean President Kim Jong Un’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, who died in Malaysia last year.
Around 180 military personnel, including Royal Marines and those who have specific chemical warfare training, have been dispatched to help the investigation into exactly what went on in Salisbury. The investigation has yet to release details of exactly what nerve agent was used.
Why is this important?
British-Russian relations have been far from smooth in the past years, demonstrated by the fact that Boris Johnson’s visit to Russia as Foreign Secretary last year was the first of its kind for 5 years. Prime Minister Theresa May has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin on several occasions of purposefully sowing discord in the west, and insulting tweets and images have been circulated around the Russian media in response. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has praised Putin’s leadership style, claiming him to be a better leader than Obama…no surprises there.
Although everyone differs on an exact date that constituted the end of the Cold War, most agree that the danger was over in the mid-90s. This sort of occurrence would seem to dispute that, however, as Russia uses its military power more than ever to threaten other countries. In an alarmingly 1980’s-esque manner, Russian State TV anchor Kirill Kleimenov ‘jokingly’ warned Russia that the fate of Colonel Skripal was one that awaited anyone who chose to become a double agent for Britain.
The Channel One news program is generally regarded as the mouthpiece for Russian government, but this comment on Wednesday was a significant digression from the usual stance taken by Russia in such situations – one of denial and ignorance. This indicates a dangerous increase in national tension between Britain and Russia that should not be ignored.
The Head of counter-terrorism operations in the UK has issued a statement saying that he believes Skripal and his daughter were purposefully targeted, which has opened up a whole new area of Espionage that many people believed died with the Cold War. The murder attempt shares chilling similarities with the attack on Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, whose death by poison was supposedly sanctioned by Putin himself.
The incident has not been declared an act of terrorism, but the response of the government is enough to indicate a mounting tension between Britain and Russia. The immediate scheduling of a meeting of Cobra – the government’s crisis team – is surely an illustration of the severity of the situation. Boris Johnson asking UK dignitaries not to attend the World Cup in Russia is merely the start of what will follow in terms of sanctions if the Russian government are found to be in any way involved in the attack.
The fact that both Russia and the UK have already thrown themselves into accusations before anything has been officially announced about the incident is worrying in itself. Alongside accusations of Russian cyber attacks against Britain and the public disapproval by the UK of Russian’s military involvement in Syria, this could be one of the last nails in the coffin. If it is discovered that Russian government is involved, what will Britain do? Can relations between the two countries really get any worse? The unfortunate answer is yes. The real question is, how far is Britain prepared to go in sanctioning Russia, and what will Russia’s retaliation be?
Just like in the Cold War, it appears that a stalemate might emerge – Britain too scared to impose too serious a sanction on Russia in fear of repercussions, and Russia continuing to push the limits as far as possible in terms of their own military action. The two countries have yet to resolve the Iran Nuclear deal or the North Korean situation. However much one wants to punish the other, they must remain civil to ensure mutually beneficial control over other countries….
Are we in the midst of a Cold War II?