A new Cold War?
The row over the poisoning through a nerve agent of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain seems to be escalating. At Britain’s urging, 18 countries, including the US and Canada and 16 European Union members, have expelled Russian diplomats numbering at least 113. This follows the earlier expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats by Britain. That move was reciprocated by Russia by also expelling 23 British diplomats and closing down the British Council in Saint Petersburg. The biggest new expulsion is by the US, numbering 60 diplomats in all, 12 of whom were serving in the Russian UN mission in New York. In what appears to be a post facto justification, Washington claims all those expelled were intelligence officials spying on the US under cover of their diplomatic status and represented a threat to the security of the US. One may be forgiven for asking an obvious but logical question: has Washington ‘suddenly’ discovered the ‘unacceptable’ activities of the expelled 60 diplomats in the wake of the spy poisoning affair? Is it not the case that some if not all those expelled have been serving in their respective embassy and UN mission for some time? If so, the ‘justification’ now trotted out appears tissue thin and highly convenient. The whole affair raises some serious questions in fact. Britain rushed to judgement even before the ink was dry on the startling news that a military-type nerve agent had been used on the victims who are still in hospital in critical condition. That nerve agent, it was asserted, could only have come from Russia, the inheritor of the Soviet Union’s development of that particular nerve agent. Russia replies that it has destroyed its stores of that and all other chemical weapons. Moscow asked London when the row broke out after British Prime Minister Theresa May went public with her accusation against Russia to follow the protocol in such matters by making a formal request for investigation/cooperation in the matter, failing which Moscow was not obliged to respond to what it has labelled a ‘provocation’. Also, Moscow wanted evidence to prove that the nerve agent in question came from Russia. Neither requirement was fulfilled by Britain. Instead, the British government seems to have gone on a spree to persuade its western allies to show solidarity, condemn Moscow and take the kind of diplomats’ expulsion steps that have now followed. The European Union (EU) claims evidence shared by Britain “more than likely” points the finger of accusation at Russia. ‘More than likely’ may satisfy the EU but it is hardly conclusive on the touchstone of international law or perhaps even global public opinion. After all, why has London been so reluctant to make public what it has gathered about the affair? In all fairness, no one, including Russia, should be condemned as ‘guilty until proven innocent’ in the absence of credible proof. Things can only get worse as and when Russia exercises its right of reciprocal expulsions of diplomats from the countries involved.
The affair itself may have led to the present development of attempts to isolate Russia, especially now when it no longer can depend on the support of the erstwhile Eastern European communist states grouped in the Warsaw Pact. But informed objective observers will wonder whether there is more to it than meets the eye. Is Russia being punished for pushing back against ‘NATO creep’ in its near abroad (in violation of then US President Ronald Reagan’s assurances to then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev) and its drawing a line in the sand over Syria after it realized its mistake in backing the so-called ‘Right to Protect’ UN Security Council resolution on Libya, a sleight of hand that allowed the western alliance led by the US to ‘take out’ Gaddafi? Is it also being taken to task for resisting Georgia’s attempt to join the west or Ukraine’s through ‘engineered’ uprisings? And of course Russia stands condemned in the west for taking back Crimea from Ukraine, which was originally Russian territory ‘gifted’ to Ukraine by Khrushchev. Sceptical and critical minds will find it hard to miss this sequence of events that boil down in essence to aggressive doing down of post-Soviet Russia in case it once again attains its lost superpower status. Western post-Cold War hegemonic ambitions may end up fuelling a new Cold War. Can the world today afford being dragged back to a period of confrontation and conflict between Russia and the west yet again?