Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the British Labour Party, who does not hide his adherence to principles of the “traditional left” – as opposed to the neoliberalism of the “third way”, which is still being advocated by ideological heirs of Tony Blair. Corbyn is a politician of quite a rare breed as he does not seem to give up on his principles only because it would be politically convenient to do so. This was now demonstrated by his reluctance to immediately point to Russia as the possible perpetrator of the attack by a nerve agent in Salisbury on 4 March. This earned him a lot of ire from the House of Commons as well as from English-speaking media.
Corbyn’s response to Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement to expel 23 Russian diplomats (alleged to be also intelligence officers) was too mild for some. Corbyn was instead more cautious and asked why the Russians “had not been given a sample of the nerve agent as they had requested and wondered whether more diplomatic resources could have helped prevent the escalation of tensions between Moscow and London.” What might seem as a rather reasonable request to first fully investigate the case does not seem to be sufficiently combative in Europe’s current political climate, however.
While the attack by a nerve gas on the UK soil is unprecedented – in fact, it is the first use of a nerve agent on the European soil since the end of Second World War – it requires a thorough investigation. Only when there is a reasonable amount of evidence can the perpetrators be pursued and then tried to be brought to justice. This did not yet happen and instead, there seems to be a wide acceptance in the UK and elsewhere in Europe that a “muscular response” does not have to wait for a tangible proof. Everyone is jumping up and down almost in a kind of a Pavlovian reaction that it was another hostile action from “the traditional boogieman” Vladimir Putin. So far, however the only link pointing in the direction of Russia is the nerve agent “Novichek”, which apparently used to be manufactured only at one place in the world – somewhere in Siberia. But even the fact that it was Novicheck and that the only place it could have originated from is Russia is not clear until this is investigated by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, in which Russia expressed readiness to cooperate.
The idea that Putin ordered the assassination of an ex-GRU agent, who was in the UK already since 2010, does not make much sense. No doubt, the last secrets that Skripal had, he already revealed to British intelligence services long-time ago. And ordering a murder of someone with “little value,” and in such a spectacular, aggressive manner, which leaves a trace back to Russia in the form of the Soviet-manufactured nerve agent, does not seem very credulous. Just to show a bit of bravado in the stand-off against the West before the upcoming elections, as some commentators suggest, that seems as far too small a gain for such a provocative gamble.
Yes, it is still possible that Skripal’s assassination was signed off by Putin. It is also possible that a group of rogue agents did it, one of those “who do not forget” that Skripal revealed to MI6 over 300 GRU agents. There is also a possibility that Novichek ended up in the hands of someone else following the break-up of the Soviet Union, from whom it got to the ultimate perpetrator, whoever it may be. The point is, we do not know what was the trail of this nerve agent originating in Russia to the UK, and who exactly attacked Skripal and for what purpose. Yet, the doors to Russia are already being shut, the UK Government did not even permit any cooperation on the investigation based on its “firm belief” traces lead back to Kremlin.
Should European countries continue basing their foreign policy on belief and not on the facts and evidence? Certainly, Russia’s behaviour in similar cases in the past, notably in the case of Litvinenko, put the bar for trust very low. In the same breath it is essential to add that Russia regards the UK and Western countries with a similar suspicion after promises that Kremlin received were broken on, for example, Libya or Ukraine. As a result, and unfortunately for Europe, the state of the EU-Russian relations has now reached such a low point that improving them does not seem very politically expedient for either side.
To get back to Theresa May, for her, fighting the “villain from Kremlin” is a way to earn at least some political credit, after her government has spent last months demonstrating its lack of competence in handling Brexit. For Vladimir Putin, the “struggle against the West” has become a defining moment of his Presidency – as well as convenient tool to mobilise the Russian electorate, while strengthening the security state. The unfortunate victim is Europe as a continent, since it would have much to benefit = politically, economically and culturally – if both sides started making careful, yet determinate steps to restoring trust and cooperation. Giving Russia a benefit of doubt on Skripal before jumping to conclusions might have been such a step, but there is neither will, nor interest. Except for principled Jeremy Corbyn – and he is being universally condemned for it. This is a sad and dissapointing result for British and EU elites (as well as for people who accept it without second thought), since it demonstrates that primitive posturing has triumphed over the capacity for dispassionate, independent judgment.