Getting it wrong over the Skripal assassination attempt

The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal has sparked outrage, but are we in danger of responding in a way that actually does what Putin wants, the British Government needs, and helps no-one?

Sergei Skripal

The bare facts of the story seem straightforward. Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia were found seriously ill in Salisbury on 4 March 2018, suffering from the effects of a nerve agent Novochok, known to be made in Russia. Skripal is a former spy, in the UK after a spy swap. The strong implication is that Russia has a motive to seek his death, and used means closely linked to them (which looks as if they were not trying to hide their tracks).

The ensuing controversy has seen the death linked to Russia, with the implication that there is confidential intelligence information to support this assertion. There are parallels with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. For its part, Russia denies the claims and has taken the issue first to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN Security Council.

The storm has seen over 100 Russian diplomats expelled across the world, and the UK shift from adversarial language towards the EU to seeking help in a diplomatic response.


So far there’s been no clear explanation of why this might have happened. Painting himself as a strongman in defiance of the world probably helped Putin’s vote in the Russian presidential election a fortnight later, but that result was never in doubt. This is the last of the four terms in office permitted by the Russian constitution, and extra support might help Putin change that, except that he has (so far) said he won’t. It might serve as a warning to others in the intelligence community — but they can hardly have been unaware of the risks, and stories circulating since 8 March suggest that thre have a fair number of suspicious Russian deaths. But in any case, assassinating a spy after a spy swap makes it harder for Russia to get its people back in future spy swaps.

But there is a political possibility. The storm since the attack has allowed Putin to present within Russia as a strong leader defying the west, which helps build support at home and in the near abroad, such as Eastern Ukraine. An attack on British soil underlines the weakness of Britain in the process of Brexit — forcing Theresa May to react strongly to avoid seeming powerless, and giving Putin a diplomatic enemy in the UK that does now have very limited power. Increasing polarisation also protects Russia from allegations of interfering in the US presidential election because it makes a friendly link between Putin and Trump seem less credible, and gives an excuse for Trump to make the strong gesture of expelling 50 Russian diplomats, helping him evade the charge of being too close to Russia.

A deeper “Why?”

Adam Curtis film Hypernormalisation brilliantly depicts the erosion of truth in politics in recent decades, and in particular, gives a stark account of how blame for the Lockerbie bombing was shifted from Syria to Lybia for political reasons. That’s a stark example of the message-manipulation that has been going on for ages, where blame is pinned on a target where this makes political sense, without being over-concerned with truth.

There is a striking contrast with the death of Litvinenko, where it took five years of campaigning by his wife to get an inquest to happen, a further three years before it could start because of difficulties over examinable evidence, but, after a year of work, the inquest concluded that it was an operation by the Russian FSB security servuce, probably approved by Putin. This time, people jumped much more quickly, as if truth matters less than the need for a strong story, and already people are using language of this as a “new cold war”.

The idea of a “new cold war” is interesting. A Kleinian reading of responses to anxiety would suggest that, when things are complicated and unsettling, a way to make things manageable is to regress to simple binaries of “good” and “bad”.

I’ve been concerned that the “threat” of “Islamic terrorism” or a “war on terror” fits into this category. In this case, talk of “Islamic terrorism” is a gross over-simplification, and about as absurd as it would have been to refer to the IRA as “Christian terrorists” with the implication that all churches are hotbeds of terror. But what that does do is to fuel the sense of alienation felt by Muslim minorities in the West, and Muslim-majority countries in a world dominated by the West, making life harder for the majority and making the most emotionally-unstable fringes susceptible to radicalisation. In a perverse way, the talk of “Islamic terrorism” has helped manufacture an enemy to meet the West’s need for a simple binary world — because the real problem is something else.

Recently, I have been less conscious of stories of “Islamic terrorism”, but this failed assassination means we are now getting a binary “new cold war” rhetoric to take its place.

For the UK, it has been possible for the government to act in a way that seems potent, re-claiming Britain’s place on the world stage. Michel Barnier described the British position on Brexit as full of “nostalgia” and this has managed to give the British government a chance to act in a way that connects with a time when a powerful Britain was a world leader [sic] against the cold war foe which fits with nostalgia rather than present reality. It’s proved a wonderful distraction from the impotence and dysfunction which is characterising the British government’s situation over Brexit.

For Russia, it creates a sense of power, re-kindling memories of the time when it seemed as if the world had two superpowers. For Russia, the loss of superpower status came with the collapse of communism, but the reality now is that power is shifting. China is emerging to challenge the USA’s dominant position, and it doesn’t seem fanciful to suggest that the world’s most important powers before long will be China, India, and (perhaps) the USA and EU in concert.

In one act of botched assassination, Russia has asserted its power, the British government has managed to seem competent and Trump has found a smoke-screen.

The problem is that all of these are fake.

The British media has been able to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn is treacherous for asking for evidence, which is starting to feel like a familiar pattern where Corbyn challenges the spin world, and ruffles feathers. Boris Johnson has taken that further with an attack on Corbyn that is so extreme as to raise eyebrows — especially given the degree of mis-information from Johnson’s side in the referendum.

A solution

This should all ring alarm bells.

The British government fuels the problem by reacting strongly, and yet can’t not react. It needs another response which would re-frame things. Jungians would say this was time to “look for the third”, and they have a point.

In this case the answer is to turn down the volume. What has actually happened is attempted murder, presumably involving a group of people conspiring together. If we could take away the political flack, the aim should be to bring these people to trial, and, if that is not possible, at least to present evidence through a public enquiry, so that people know what happened. The point here is that this changes the way of thinking, from primitive mindset that needs binaries of “black” and “white”, to the nuance and complexity of impartial justice.

If the pressure on Russia now (or soon) were pressure to co-operate in an international criminal investigation, that would take away the emotional distortions we are now seeing. For Russia, the choice would be between helping or obstructing justice. For all the world’s leaders this would be about affirming justice in the present tense, rather than escaping contemporary anxieties by grasping for old ways of exercising power.

Helping on the path of good sense, the EU is pushing for Russia to co-operate with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The irony, of course, is that China is not noted for the benign use of power. We need to put the things in place now which mean that justice can triumph over the abuse of power outside a country’s borders, which is the very opposite of what currently seems to be happening.

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