Testing Times

Okay, so I’ve spent the morning trying to think of a reason why Putin would order this hit on Skirpal in a way that implicates Russia. Let’s look at something Jean said in the comments:

Quite simple people – as much as Putin would like to see NATO gone, he is far more interested in breaking up the EU. After the last expansion of both organizations, in 2004, he was asked whether he would cooperate with both and he replied that he couldn’t imagine not working with them. He changed his tune in 2005 after the EU commission starting talking about bringing an anti-trust case against Gazprom.

Perhaps unfairly I initially dismissed this, but let’s suppose he’s she’s right. From an outsider’s perspective, Britain and the EU are at each other’s throats, trading insults and seemingly as divided as ever as the Brexit negotiations lurch on in fits and starts. It may suit Putin to test the EU’s commitment to Britain and measure their hostility to Russia. Would the EU rush to Britain’s aid in the wake of a hostile Russian act, or will they mince their words and do nothing? The former would require principles and the belief that Russia is indeed a threat to Germany or France (the rest of the EU doesn’t count). The latter would be driven by EU hatred of Britain over Brexit and Germany’s considerable commercial interests in Russia. It’s not difficult to see how this will play out. I’d not be too surprised if Macron denounced Russia, whatever else you may think of the young French president, he doesn’t just say what everyone else wants him to. But this is weak sauce:

Mrs May spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday and “discussed the wide pattern of aggressive Russian behaviour and agreed that it would be important to continue to act in concert with allies to address it”, her spokesman said.

What allies? Germany? Heh.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the use of any nerve agent was “horrendous and completely unacceptable” and officials were in touch with the UK.

Downing Street said the incident was not an “article five” matter – a reference to Nato rules which say an attack on one member constitutes an attack on all.

No? Why not? I don’t think going to war with Russia is a good idea at all, but if this is a direct attack on the British people by the Russian government, as we are being told, then why does this not trigger Article 5? I know the answer: Article 5 is to be triggered only when it suits the geopolitical interests of the US. Which is fair enough, they’re the ones who will do the bulk of the nuking and the fighting.

So what will the Americans do? This is what the BBC reported:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US agreed with the UK that Russia was likely to be behind the attack.

“We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences,” he added.

“We stand in solidarity with our allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to coordinate closely our responses.”

Naturally, many people who think any hesitation on Trump’s part to launch an all-out nuclear strike on Moscow is proof that he’s Putin’s puppet, but we can ignore these idiots even though they’re many in number. But I don’t see why America is under any obligation to get involved here. Britain isn’t a particularly great ally of the United States right now: the public have generated considerable noise in letting Donald Trump know he won’t be welcome should he visit the United Kingdom, and he should expect mass protests of a size not seen since the Iraq War demonstrations. John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, has publicly stated that he would oppose the current US president from addressing parliament, and both Theresa May and Amber Rudd saw fit to chastise Trump for daring to retweet a video which made Muslims look bad. Sadiq Khan seems to think the office of London’s mayor has a foreign policy element, and that should be directed at criticising Trump. Then yesterday a credible story circulated that an American citizen had been denied entry into the United Kingdom because her Austrian boyfriend says mean things about Muslims.

At this point, Donald Trump would be forgiven for thinking Britain should deal with its own problems for a change. The Russians have attacked you? Oh dear. Perhaps you ought to have focused on Russian agents running around your cities with nerve agents instead of endlessly insulting me and telling me what I can and cannot share on Twitter. If I’m honest, I hope he says just that (see bobby b’s comment here, too).

So this issue is going to severely test the relationship Britain has with the US, as well as what remains of their relationship with the EU. Even if Putin was not behind this attack, he will be paying serious attention to what each leader says, and what actions they’re prepared to support. It seems an overly complicated and risky way to go about it, but perhaps this was his plan all along? We’ve got to consider it. Let’s see what the Russians say today in response to May’s demand for an explanation. I may have to acknowledge Jean called this right from the start.

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25 thoughts on “Testing Times

  1. I doubt that even Putin would have ordered a murder on foreign soil in order to “test the EU’s commitment to Britain and measure their hostility to Russia”. But I do know that he smells the weakness in Britain, a country now run by sociology graduates.

    And yes, why do people think Trump will give a shit about the UK after the way it’s behaved to him recently? If you act like he’s an enemy you can’t go crawling to him for help.

  2. Meh. Putin is no more engaged in 7-dimensional chess than Trump. If the question is cock-up versus conspiracy, 99% of the time it’s a cock up. And bear in mind Putin heads a mafia state – there’s a variety of factions competing violently against each other, with disporportionate rewards for getting on top, and the boss is not getting any younger. If Skripal had sold a bunch of people down the river in the past, and one of them / their friends / their family now has the means of revenge, they probably (as with Litvinenko) bought their own BS and considered that giving the victim this stuff in the right dosage would be untraceable and look like a heart attack / a dodgy pizza.

    But as with Litvinenko and with the N Korean assassination of Kim Jong Nam (good BBC documentary by the way: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b091wy13) transport and dosage is hard to get right, and Western police and forensics are a category apart from their Moscow equivalents. In addition, how much are scientists in Eastern European biochem facilities being paid? Not a king’s ransom I expect, so someone with money and motivation would presumably find a way to get some of this, even they don’t really know how to use it. The question should be, how many other heart attacks, food poisonings, suicides and car accidents have happened to superannuated spies with lots of enemies that nobody picked up or could be bothered to investigate? And why did Skripal not even have an assumed name?

  3. Yes, I still think the scenario involving rogue elements is the more likely. But I still want to consider that perhaps Putin did it, and try to work out why.

  4. As with most things, the legal concept cui bono applies.

    How does Putin benefit from Russian security services offing a former spy? Is he really sending a message to other former defectors/double agents or any current agents considering defection?

    Something about this Skripal incident smells extremely fishy to me. I think further investigation is required into to whom Skripal and his daughter are or have been linked in the past (as has been suggested in previous posts and comments). It seems way too convenient that politicians and the press have been so quick to blame those dastardly Russkies. Definitely a lot more to this than meets the eye.

  5. The existence of the EU is to Putin ‘s advantage. All he needs to do is put some minor financial pressure on Germany, and Germany would pull all the other member states into line without Russia even needing to try.

  6. The existence of the EU is to Putin ‘s advantage. All he needs to do is put some minor financial pressure on Germany, and Germany would pull all the other member states into line without Russia even needing to try.

    With the only one likely to object being the UK, who might be able to get the Yanks involved. So yes, getting the UK out of the picture makes the EU far more prone to manipulation by Russia.

  7. Henry Crun

    “Something about this Skripal incident smells extremely fishy to me.”

    Yes, it doesn’t add up. The Russian state could have off’ed him at almost any time, by any means, and still sent the right message to those who needed that message. There was never any need to use a highly complex method that not only failed (assuming the intent was his murder), but also screamed RUSSIA!

    That seems to say, to me at least, the intent was more likely about screaming RUSSIA! more than anything else. Quite why or who is outside my speculation, but I’d take a $10 , long shot, bet on the Clinton Foundation……

  8. Bardon, you may be onto something….common enemies and all that, Britain needs to remain to resist the Russians, etc.

  9. I’m surprised no-one has mentioned the upcoming election in Russia. For all this talk of Machiavellian geopolitics, it’s quite possible he just wanted to look tough for his domestic base. Whether he personally ordered the hit or not, he’s definitely playing up to it a bit in his public appearances at the moment.

  10. “John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, has publicly stated that he would oppose the current US president from addressing parliament”

    I’d completely forgotten about that. What a stupid posturing little ninny that man is.

  11. She! Jean is a she – assuming we’re still allowed to use pronouns. And tons of Russians residing both in Russia and elsewhere have a statistically unlikely
    ‘accident’ rate. Russia is a mafia state, but facing Putin down will require unity in Western countries. Good luck with that!

  12. She! Jean is a she – assuming we’re still allowed to use pronouns.

    Oh my goodness, I’m sorry! I’ve been in France too long, I read it as “Zhon”!

  13. Like our host, I struggle to believe pretty much any of this story as it is presented. Beyond the very sad impact on the two targets and the policeman, what as happened since is like a 1980’s comedy with John Cleese. Whoops.
    Let us have faith the WMD techies and the investigating coppers know what they are doing, but what we are told by the politicans and the media does not follow, no surprise there I guess!
    Men in noddy suits parading round, in a city full of unprotected civilians. Where is the mass evacuation: the closure of schools and nurseries? You know, the ones next to the scenes so dangerous that noddy suits are required? This isn’t a threat to public safety, it’s political theatre. And one that would shame even a poor AmDram society.
    Let us take on faith the claim the agent was this Novichok stuff, discovered, we are told, by the Soviets/Russians. What does this prove/imply? Very little. Discovery of the stuff and its toxicity may indeed have required a state-funded weapons programme. But once found, it’s just a formula. Chemistry works the same everywhere.
    The US was heavily involved in helping the USSR/Russia secure and clean up many WMD sites, so at the least, they must have taken samples for improving detection and treatment (let’s be charitable here!). Indeed, the very reporting that this agent was used rather proves the point they did.
    So it isn’t just the Russians who had the stuff, and allowed it to be used by choice or by negligence, the same applies to the US and all those involved in that cleanup also. Others perhaps too. Not donning a tinfoil hat, just establish that the current claim ‘it must have been from the Russians’ has no logical or evidential basis.
    What we can establish is that whoever did this chose to leave a big message, in flashing neon, “From Russia, with hate”. That says nothing about ‘who’ of course. I work in telecoms, and spoofing CLI is widespread. No one up to dirty tricks leaves a valid ‘Sender address’. Not unless they want to. More interesting, is why would Putin want to be so blatant it was him? And if it wasn’t Putin’s Russia, what was the motive of both the attempted murders, and the big ‘Message from Putin’ stuck to it?

  14. It could be a double bluff! “Do you really think we would be so stupid to use our own secret new chemical weapon and cause collateral damage? Of course it can only be someone trying to implicate us”.

    Putin is a bully and scares remarkably easily. Article 5 time. At the end of the day, it’s an act of war against a NATO member using a weapon of mass destruction. Probably the first in history.

    If the Russian state is behi d it this is a test of may and NATO, not the EU.

    Nothing will happen, but it’s a little less likely this will happen again.

  15. On no evidence other than it sort of makes some kind of sense, given what has happened, I kind of like the deep state idea that the nerve gas attack was designed to make Russia look as if it is engaged in killing people it does not like.

    So if this is a Le Carre novel, the perpetrators would be in MI6–or the CIA–or whatever, where the rogue unit decides to pop the defector so as to stoke up anti-Russian sentiment.

    It so happens we have upcoming elections and “crises” always make the government look good, if handled correctly.

    Draw your own conclusions…

    (But in truth, it does make for a good premise for one of those movies or novels where you have absolutely no idea who are the good guys–or even if there are any good guys. So if you are into conspiracy theories…)

  16. Nope, it was still the Wussians wot did it. First, it sends a message to other spies, ex-spies and business rivals of Putin’s associates. If one of them dies in a mysterious automobile accident, their associates might just believe that their car crashed. When someone dies via polonium, nerve gas or something only available to the Russian government, the message is unmistakeable. Not only to double agents etc, but to anyone thinking of becoming one.

    Second, it’s a bit of chest-beating at a time when Putin’s crony capitalist state is suffering from low commodity prices, sanctions, and pointless proxy wars in Ukraine and Syria. (Seriously, his foreign policy there would have had him expelled from the KGB academy. The point about proxy wars is that you provide the proxy and your opponent provides the war, and Putin has managed the opposite). Showing that you can murder people on foreign soil and get away (which he certainly will with primary school headmistress May running the UK) with it will boost your reputation as a macho man.

  17. First, it sends a message to other spies, ex-spies and business rivals of Putin’s associates.

    As if that message wasn’t sent loud, clear, and consistently for the past 10-15 years. Everyone got that message when Khodorkovsky was jailed, no need to risk a major diplomatic incident with the UK to tell Russians what they already know.

    Showing that you can murder people on foreign soil and get away (which he certainly will with primary school headmistress May running the UK) with it will boost your reputation as a macho man.

    Among whom? I haven’t heard a single Russian voice expressing admiration for this (in contrast to, say, the Crimean annexation) and I doubt any waverers inner circle would be that impressed.

  18. Putin is a bully and scares remarkably easily.

    Indeed, and they should have hammered him over MH-17 and Crimea. But to scare a bully you need to have your own shit together, and that is definitely something Theresa May’s government cannot be accused of.

  19. Men in noddy suits parading round, in a city full of unprotected civilians. Where is the mass evacuation: the closure of schools and nurseries? You know, the ones next to the scenes so dangerous that noddy suits are required? This isn’t a threat to public safety, it’s political theatre.

    Absolutely.

  20. I’m surprised no-one has mentioned the upcoming election in Russia.

    This will have no impact whatsoever: even supposing it was done on Putin’s orders, it wouldn’t have been to impress ordinary Russians.

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