Patrick Mercer: What would Putin gain from Salisbury spy attack?
If poor Mr Skripal, his daughter and Serjeant Bailey hadn’t been grievously injured, I would laugh at the irony: nerve agents being used in sleepy Salisbury – really? Yes, really; what we’ve seen is a game of highly dangerous international chess with Salisbury the board upon which a new, hot/Cold War kicked off.
I do, however, find myself siding with some unusual (for me) allies in this case. First, Jeremy Corbyn who has demanded that Russian involvement be proved rather than assumed. And second, the French government who have called the sending home of 23 Russian diplomats ‘fantasy politics’ if Britain thinks that such a gesture will trouble the Kremlin.
I’ve also been talking to friends in Russia who take a very different view. All of these elements have caused me to ask myself some very difficult questions about Vladimir Putin’s motives on the verge of crucial elections.
The first question is why does Russia have so many ‘spies’ in her embassy? Twenty-three diplomats is about 40 per cent of the entire staff, any one of whom might have bought a return ticket to Salisbury. But the same question could be asked about the number of intelligence officers in the US embassy. Are they spying, too? Of course they are: just like the Russians they’re mainly spying on Islamist fundamentalists in what the French call ‘Londonistan’ and other cities of ours where terrorists teem. Boris Johnson says that this expulsion will ‘eviscerate’ Russian intelligence gathering – it will. But when I ask how many British jihadists have been killed in, say, Abkhazia by Russian forces, the phrase ‘own goal’ is on my lips.
That said, Mr Putin recently stated that defectors would be hunted down and ‘dealt with’. This wasn’t in connection with Mr Skripal, but Russia does have a track record of such things in this country – remember Alexander Litvinenko? His poisoning and death happened on Mrs May’s watch as Home Secretary but the eventual inquest found that Russia was probably culpable, while Theresa May was accused of ‘Tough talk but little action’ by The Economist.
Yet we’re a democracy and we expect other democracies to behave decently – we certainly wouldn’t condone their executing folk on other sovereign nations’ soil, would we? Except our ally Israel, of course. Similarly, we rightly enshrine the concept that a person is innocent until proven guilty and handle our own terrorist murderers with kid gloves.
Russia was condemned almost immediately, though, condemned by a fragile government and a Prime Minister who was under pressure from a shrieking media to talk tough and damn the niceties.
But what has Mr Putin to gain from such behaviour? Remember, Litvinenko fled from Russia and then published several articles accusing his country of the sort of behaviour that probably caused his death.
Mr Skripal, on the other hand, was exchanged – he didn’t run – and has lived in silence ever since. Why would Mr Putin bring international condemnation on himself just before a vital election? It’s not as if Russia is a land of serfs who have no access to other nations’ opinions. Muscovites aren’t shrouded in xenophobia: Beria and Stalin are long gone.
No, my Russian friends have other theories. First, they are more horrified by what has happened to Yulia Skripal than her father. When travelling in Russia it’s obvious that this is a country that values its young people above all else (a nation that, within living memory, lost over 26,000,000 at the hands of the West may be entitled to) and whilst an attack on the traitor Segei might be acceptable, Yulia is off limits. Some may see her as unfortunate collateral damage, but Mr Putin’s electoral chances would suffer the same if accusations stuck.
They also point out that the former, main Soviet Novichok facility was in Uzbekistan which is now under the insecure control of that country and that the formula for these weapons is publicly available. It could be made in advanced laboratories such as those in the US, UK Israel or... Ukraine. Ah, Ukraine – aren’t they in the middle of a dirty, bitter war with Russia at the moment and wouldn’t Mr Putin’s embarrassment at the polls be a great advantage to them?
But Britain has gone ahead and blamed Russia squarely without proof and without complying with the Chemical Weapons Convention which states that injured parties should provide samples of the weapons used. That’s what Russia asked for, what France urged and why President Trump was initially cautious in his comments. Shouldn’t a confident, steady Westminster be more measured in its reaction and remember that a nation who stood by us against Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler deserves to be treated in the same way as we treat our citizens who are suspected of a crime?
So what is to be done? We may chuck out some diplomats, talk about introducing laws against dodgy oligarchs and forbid the Royals from going to the footie, but we won’t really clamp down on all that funny money swilling around the City as there’s too much of it. Neither will we stop our footballers from going to the World Cup as that would anger millions.
Perhaps we should stop whining about Mr Putin trying to manipulate voters and put our own house in order first.
Patrick Mercer OBE served extensively in Northern Ireland before becoming an MP and Chairman of the Counter-Terrorism Sub-Committee.