Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
Given the international furor sparked by the poisoning, in an apparent attempt to murder, former GRU Colonel Skripal and his daughter, very public information has been released that would help ordinary citizens make up their minds on what happened. Scotland Yard has no suspects. In a country full of CCTV cameras, no images have been made public and no composite sketches, let alone photos, of persons of interest have been released. No images of Skripals have been released, and no Russian consular officials have been allowed to see them, in violation of international norms. Porton Down press release issued after preliminary investigation of samples only stated that the agent was a “Novichok class or a related agent”, which appears to narrow it down to the entire category of nerve agents. The British government refused Russia’s offer to assist in the investigation, and refused to share any evidence it claims to have gathered.
And yet 20 countries, with US and UK in the lead, decided to expel Russian diplomats solely on the basis of Theresa May’s assertion it was “highly likely” Russian government was responsible for this act, since the “confidential” British briefing that has been obtained by the Russian newspaper Kommersant did not contain any evidence implicating Russia. While both the British and US governments, as well as a bevy of neo-conservatives, hailed this decision as a show of unity against Russia, it would be a mistake to read too much into it. The Skripal case merely served as a means by which various countries chose to pursue their own interests, with the more powerful Western actors like the US, UK, Germany, and France, seeking to impose their will on weaker ones, and the ultimate outcome being the product of the conflicting interests and balance of power among them.
While Boris Johnson may have been an “early adopter” of the “Russia did it” version of events in order to try to outflank Theresa May and increase his odds of being the next Prime Minister (particularly since the support of the intelligence community is now de-rigeur in Western “democracies”), May for her part is facing the threat of losing the next general election to the surging and reinvigorated Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Skripal case placed Corbyn in the unenviable position of having to either go along with May’s claims or oppose them. He chose the latter course and instantly found himself on the receiving end of a propaganda campaign led by the “impartial” BBC, which was then followed for good measure with a second propaganda campaign aimed at making him appear an anti-Semite due to his support for Palestinian rights. Whether or not this campaign to return Labour to the days of Tony Blair will be successful is yet unclear. The crude use of this tragedy for political purposes does reveal the fragility of UK’s political system, however.
“Revenge” for Syria
The Skripal case is remarkable in that, when it happened, Russia and its allies were indeed anticipating a “false flag” chemical weapons use, but in Syria. At that time, Russia-supported Syrian offensives into Eastern Ghouta at long last succeeded in breaking one of the last jihadist strongholds and relieved Damascus of the perennial threat of rebel artillery bombardments that invariably claimed civilian lives. The utterly predictable Western reaction merely recycled the Battle of Aleppo-era “last hospital”, “targeting civilians”, “bloody Assad regime” propaganda, with Western leaders making grave pronouncements they would have no choice but to strike Syria in the event it used chemical weapons.
After the Trump Administration’s cruise missile strike on Khan Sheykhoun, however, these threats are no longer taken lightly, and Russia promptly took diplomatic and military measures to deter the West from a new round of military escalation. In addition to sending additional naval and air defense assets to Syria, Vladimir Putin made his now-famous speech outlining describing new weapons systems entering service with the Russian armed forces. Russian General Staff officers went a step further, warning that any strike on Syria that would endanger Russian troops would not merely result in Russia taking defensive measures but also efforts to destroy the launch platforms. These warnings appear to have had the desired effect as tensions around Syria subsided, only to unexpectedly reappear in the Skripal case where—surprise, surprise!—Russia was promptly accused of using or condoning the use of nerve agents, just as it was in Syria.
The fact that the US State Department has taken “credit” for coordinating the expulsion effort, and that the US has expelled by far the largest number of Russian diplomats, suggests it is the US that has the biggest stake in the Skripal case, and is most determined to make political use of it. Donald Trump’s personal role in the case remains ambiguous, as he has not made statements or even issued “tweets”, as is his custom. Moreover, US actions came after a Putin-Trump telephone conversation, suggesting this is the newly ascendant members of the US “deep state” like Pompeo and Bolton, in conjunction with deeply embedded ones left over from the previous administrations, who are behind this move and have seized control of US foreign policy.
The “Me Too” Crowd
Some of the countries which expelled Russian diplomats needed no encouragement at all. Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Canada, Australia, Croatia, Romania, Sweden, Netherlands, have all opted for conflict with Russia years ago, in order to achieve a variety of own economic and geopolitical interests. That they seized on this pretext to ratchet up tensions is not surprising—it would have been surprising had they stayed put.
Maintaining the Illusion of Unity
The next category of countries went along with the circus in order to avoid disrupting the official image of European/Western/Transatlantic unity, as illusory as it is in the era of the refugee crisis and America First. These countries include Italy, Spain, Hungary, Macedonia, Belgium, Montenegro, Denmark, Czech Republic, and Finland. None of them have been noted for out-of-the-ordinary anti-Russian sentiment in the past and this action does not appear to signal a dramatic shift. However, this category of countries includes many small and/or economically vulnerable states which are not in the position to defy their stronger neighbors. Indeed, their statements accompanying the expulsions were almost apologetic—the move was not intended “against Russia”, but was rather an “expression of European solidarity.”
The Shadow of Brexit
One of the more remarkable developments in the Skripal case is the abrupt reversal of the French position. While the initial French reaction was plainly dismissive of British claims, which were literally described as “fantasy”, within only a day of that statement the French line hardened, as Macron was among the first EU leaders to “stand with May”. Similarly, while Ireland has never found itself in conflict with Russia and is not a NATO member, it too embraced the official narrative when its officials stated Ireland’s neutrality does not extend to political assassinations and the use of chemical weapons. Given the importance of this issue to the UK and the damage its case would have suffered in the event its closest neighbors refused to back Theresa May’s policies, the unexpected French and Irish about-face likely has to do with British concessions on Brexit, which also coincided with the onset of the Skripal case. France and Ireland are, after all, the two countries most heavily affected by Brexit, and Theresa May’s urgent need of external political support endowed them with additional bargaining power on that issue.
North Stream-2 in Cross-Hairs
While Germany also joined in the stampede by expelling four Russian diplomats, its actions fall into a category all of its own. It is not as interested in the Brexit travails nearly as much as France or Ireland, its interest in the outcome of the Syria war is also lower than in the US or France. What Germany does care about is the fate of North Stream-2, which has long been the target of the United States and its European satellites (UK and the limited-sovereignty states of Eastern Europe) because it stands in the way of transforming the EU into a protectorate subordinate, politically, militarily, and economically, to the United States.
It is not known to what extent North Stream-2 figured in the negotiations during the EU summit that preceded the EU announcements on expulsions. When asked, Theresa May said she did not bring it up though she was planning to in the future. That explanation, true to form, is almost certainly not true. North Stream-2 is at the moment the single most important joint venture between Russia and the EU, which renders claims it was not even mentioned in this context implausible. It appears more likely Theresa May’s efforts to use the Skripal case to scuttle the pipeline were rebuffed by Germany and its allies, something she was not prepared to admit. Germany’s willingness to participate in the expulsions could therefore be a compromise solution, intended to shield it from the pressure to adopt a harder line against Russia at the cost of its own economic interests and avoid risking losing its leadership position within the EU by breaking ranks with the rest of the union.
Notably, Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also sought to soften the blow by announcing that the expelled Russian diplomats could be replaced by new ones. It is possible other countries that participated in the expulsions have quietly made it known to Russia that the expulsions were not intended to be permanent; that Germany made it public is indicative of its efforts to reconcile its desire to continue economic cooperation with Russia with the need to avoid political isolation within EU and NATO.
The most notable of the hold-outs was Austria, which cited its long-standing tradition of neutrality when resisting the pressure to conform, though the country also has an interest in the continuation of Russia-EU gas projects and as such its abstention is a mirror image of Germany’s stance, modified by the fact that Austria is not an EU leader and its abstention does not threaten the precious image of European unity.
Other countries which could reasonably be described as US satellites that opted not to join in the Skripal case hysteria include Turkey, Japan, Republic of Korea, and New Zealand. All of them also happen to have good business ties with Russia and, in the case of ROK, hope to use Russia’s good offices to address their security problems. Turkey’s abstention should be interpreted as a continuation of its charting out an independent foreign and domestic policy course due to apparently irreconcilable conflict of interests between it and the US, and possibly also the EU.
The bright spot in the otherwise dismal picture is that the expulsion of diplomats has not been accompanied by economic measures, not even in the UK, at least not so far. One should note here that Western media have listed a whole range of possible economic measures against Russia, including the end of North Stream 2, seizure of Russian private and government assets, arresting Aeroflot airliners because they “highly likely” carried “Russian assassins” to the UK, ending Russia’s access to the SWIFT system. None of them have come to pass, and diplomat expulsions have a bigger “bark” than “bite”, particularly if the diplomats are allowed to return or be replaced. But that does not mean that the West’s hybrid war on Russia is over. It does mean that the geography of Russia’s adversaries and their motives has become clearer.