Britain and the Russian spy

Boris Johnson is not a man known for his way with words.

And he was at it again this week. Following the attack on a former Russian foreign intelligence agent turned British informant — the Foreign Secretary has chosen to talk of Moscow as a malignant force. He has even gone as far as to put out there the not-at-all-thought-out notion of NATO going after its Cold War nemesis. This is all the more alarming given that the investigation into the suspected assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal, in which his daughter was likely collateral damage, is still ongoing.

Thus as the old song goes: it may be false, it may be true. But nothing has been proved.

This has naturally irked Putin who believes he has better things to think about than a return to James Bond-style rhetoric when he is all set to be re-elected to the presidency later this month. Indeed, at least one British pundit has dismissed BoJo’s blustering speech to the House of Commons — in which he warned of robust action if the finger ultimately pointed to the Kremlin — was nothing more than a blatant push for a bigger and better defence budget; when we all know that London’s main focus should be the Brexit talks. Or conversely, endeavours to contain ISIS; the terror group that came to prominence on the back of British military misadventure.

Not unreasonably, however, this latest scandal involving a Russian spy being targeted on Churchill’s soil draws uncomfortable comparisons with the assassination of the former secret service defector Alexander Litvinenko back in 2006. The latter was granted British asylum and enjoyed a career as a journalist and consultant for MI6; and the conclusion of a long drawn out inquiry had pointed to Putin’s “probable” involvement in his death. Which begs the question as to which sort of security measures London has adopted to keep safe foreign former agents who then go on the UK intelligence payroll; or who were on it much from the get-go like Mr Skripal. The opposition is now calling for a retrospective probe into 14 similar cases. Which will likely lead to Putin decrying any potential process as being politically motivated. For this would coincide with a resurgent Russian presence on the global stage from Afghanistan to Syria.

Espionage and turn-coatting have long been an accepted part of modern warfare. And the way forward today for Britain in terms of its relationship with Russia has to be engagement — and not yet another reinvented role for NATO. This is a view supported by a former permanent representative to the Alliance. In short, London needs Moscow; particularly in light of how much of the world is currently on fire. And cooperation on this front cannot be rendered subservient to sulking over the spoils of war when this war is thus far without end.  *

Published in Daily Times, March 9th 2018.