By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
For Londoners, one of the most notorious events of 2006 was the fatal poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. Not only was this bold attack by Russian operatives on British streets a psychological shock, but the botched use of polonium left traces throughout the city and exposed the public to dangerous doses of this radioactive material. History appears to be repeating itself in 2018, with an attack against another Russian former double agent in remarkably similar circumstances.
Sergei Skripal was jailed for treason in Russia in 2006, having been accused of passing on state secrets to British intelligence. He relocated to the UK after being released as part of a 2010 spy swap. It is established convention among global intelligence agencies that individuals benefitting from such deals are subsequently untouchable; although Putin darkly warned that any traitor would “come to regret his choice thousands of times over.”
Having settled with his family in the quiet cathedral town of Salisbury, Skripal must have assumed that the world had forgotten about him and he could live out his retirement in peace. Indeed, CCTV footage and eyewitness accounts from prior to the attack show him dining in a restaurant and shopping leisurely with his daughter.
Skripal and his daughter were later discovered collapsed on a bench, having been attacked with a deadly nerve agent; a substance probably manufactured by a state with chemical weapons capabilities. One of the first policemen on the scene was also rushed to hospital in a critical condition and military teams specializing in chemical contamination were deployed. At the time of writing, Skripal and his daughter remain dangerously ill.
Although Moscow predictably denied involvement, a prominent state TV presenter had a chilling message: “I have a warning for anyone who dreams of such a career… The profession of a traitor is one of the most dangerous in the world.” He continued: “Don’t choose England as a place to live… In recent years there have been too many strange incidents with a grave outcome.”
This attack follows a succession of recent suspicious deaths of UK-based Russian dissidents and their relatives. One report identified 14 such incidents. This is in addition to numerous politicians and media figures who fell foul of Putin and were murdered in Russia itself, including journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburova, and activist Natalya Estemirova. It is impossible to attribute responsibility for all these deaths, although observers note that Putin’s hard-man image is reinforced by being seen to act with impunity against his enemies, wherever they may be found.
Of arguably more menacing geopolitical import is the growing flood of evidence concerning how Moscow has subverted election processes across the Western world. If Putin was merely endeavoring to promote preferred candidates, that would be one thing. However, this meddling has mendaciously sought to stoke social tensions and undermine public trust in democracy itself. Fake social media accounts have incited ethnic groups against one other and encouraged certain demographics not to vote at all. The hacking of political parties’ computer systems, then leaking incriminating data online, has become standard procedure.
Investigations have shown how Russian operatives were particularly active in the crucial swing state of Florida during the 2016 US presidential election. Elaborate fake identities and bank accounts were created. For example, these professional saboteurs staged pro-Trump rallies and paid activists to build giant cages containing mannequins of Hillary Clinton, while crowds were goaded into chanting “lock her up.” Putin felt particular hostility toward Clinton, who he saw as instrumental in measures against Moscow during her time in the State Department.
In Eastern Europe (notably Poland, Hungary and Ukraine), as well as bank-rolling far-right candidates, Russian agents have mobilized minority factions in neighboring states against each other. They staged arson attacks against political headquarters, vandalism campaigns, and fascist rallies. Moscow may not be solely responsible for the rebirth of the far-right, but it has expended considerable energy in stimulating these trends. In a vicious self-feeding circle, the cultivation of white supremacist American groups fuelled momentum among like-minded European factions, all of whom received backing from Russia. Italy this month was the latest election where a majority of votes were won by far-right and populist factions, with evidence of Russian meddling behind the scenes. The lights of liberal Europe are going out one by one.
Americans have been stunned by their president’s reluctance to take action against Russian meddling. The White House went to extraordinary lengths to block a package of Congress sanctions against Moscow, and Trump took great pains to stress Putin’s denials of meddling following their meetings. Trump is understandably reluctant for the legitimacy of his presidency to be called into question. However, Americans are increasingly wondering what kind of “kompromat” Putin is wielding over the leader of the free world.
Following Putin’s announcement of an “invincible” new generation of nuclear weapons (the accompanying video appeared to portray a nuclear strike against Florida), American military experts expressed horror at their leadership’s lack of Russia strategy. One Western diplomat told me after emerging ashen-faced from a briefing by a Russian counterpart that “Moscow’s capabilities are real” and I should go and enjoy myself “before Armageddon.” Putin promised “global catastrophe” in the event of any nuclear confrontation, chillingly asking: “Why do we need a world if Russia ceases to exist?”
One general stressed before a US Senate hearing that Russia saw no negative consequences for its actions: “They don’t fear us,” he warned. Senators furthermore questioned the chief of US Cyber Command Adm. Mike Rogers about the failure to respond to Russian cyberattacks, particularly given evidence that Moscow was already escalating its activities toward the 2018 mid-term elections. Rogers replied that he would need a policy decision from the president for such actions. Asked if he had been granted such authority, Rogers simply responded: “No, I have not.”
As both a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a major protagonist in undermining global security, Russia has inflicted fatal damage upon international law institutions. In Syria, Ukraine, Georgia and other states where Moscow holds a stake, it has repeatedly wielded its veto to prevent any international response. Russia’s dominance of Syrian airspace has wrought a particularly grizzly toll on citizens, while the ongoing slaughter in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta would have been inconceivable without Russian cover — on the ground and via diplomatic channels.
Are we entering a new Cold War? With Putin next week almost certain to be elected for a fourth six-year term, relations between Russia and Western democracies can only worsen. However, the lethargic and hesitant response to this threat entices Moscow toward an even more bellicose global posture.
In its lethal actions against individual dissidents, and its broader efforts to sabotage liberal democracy, Putin’s Russia appears more ruthless and unconstrained than ever before. This would have aroused immense concern even if Western nations were united in a common strategy to contain and confront Putin’s aggression.
However, with a US administration that appears beholden to Moscow, and European leaders standing like terrified rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck, there are scant prospects of a credible deterrent to convince Putin that his destabilizing actions have meaningful consequences.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.