Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in Prime Minister’s question time last week on the nerve gas attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter was met with predictable opprobrium in the press. One of Corbyn’s many intellectual flaws is that he generally assumes that people who stand up to the USA are OK, by virtue of them standing up to the USA.
I happen to agree with Corbyn that the record of the USA and to a lesser extent their lapdog Britain, of supporting murderous dictators, overthrowing democratic regimes and of bombing innocent people has been pretty shameful. But the people who have been opposed to the USA and the West have often been pretty unpleasant themselves, of which Vladimir Putin is a prime example.
Saying all of this, Corbyn has got a point. The attack on Skripal falls somewhere between a crime and an act of aggression between two states, and in the use of a banned chemical weapon. If it is the first; attempted murder, then the burden of proof is on the prosecution, and it is not right for the government to jump to conclusions about guilt before this has been brought to court.
But in the latter instance, the burden of proof is somewhat different. The state has a duty to protect itself and its citizens, so it needs to take action in response to an attack or potential attack faster than a criminal prosecution to prevent further assaults, as well as attempting to bring the perpetrators to justice.
From what we know, it is very likely that this was carried out by the Russian state. In fact, this could be seen as a speech act by the Russian state letting the world know that it was them. They could have more easily killed Skripal in a variety of ways which would not implicate them.
What is the threat to Britain? It seems pretty unlikely, and would be entirely out of character, that Russia will for some unknown reason decide to unilaterally attack Britain. It is very likely though, that Russia will continue to assassinate enemies of the Russian government on foreign soil, including in Britain.
Britain has to act then by a mixture of security and deterrence. The first, I would be surprised if we are not already doing – not just expelling known Russian agents from Britain, but closely monitoring people associated with Russia entering the country, and protecting potential victims.
Deterrence is more of a problem, which is where the government has proved itself as useless as ever. First of all, this has highlighted how very weak Britain is – probably an aim of Russia – and Britain is so weak largely having alienated all our friends in Europe and with an imbecile in the White House. May, that very difficult woman, and her court jester Johnson’s empty threats, surely cannot be taken seriously by anyone over the age of five – they say they will take the strongest measures, but there is nothing they can do to hurt Russia. Our weakness is largely due to the Conservative Party, because of Brexit and decisions on defence spending.
We can expel diplomats and confiscate Russian’s property; the latter hurting the UK more than Russia, as this will result in Russian money and money from oligarchs from other countries leaving London. They can do the same to us back. This attack proves that the inordinate amounts of money spent on historical defence projects, Trident, airplane-less aircraft carriers, warships that don’t work, and so on, are useless in the 21st century.
There is one form of deterrence that would work and Putin has shown us the way: cyber and the dark arts of social media propaganda. The UK’s economy is twice the size of Russia’s, and we are a much more sophisticated economy. This means that the UK’s potential cyber capabilities are many times that of Russia.
Reports on Russian cyber and social media operations portray them as being amateurish, with staff taking selfies in front of the computers they used to hack the US election.
To develop a new deterrent, the UK has to develop an offensive capability for the cold wars of the 21st century. These are cyber offensive capabilities, which can hack into Russian systems, and to attack Russia with anti-Putin and anti-government messaging targeted at the Russian people. Putin is a self-styled strong man: his biggest fear is to look stupid, weak and be mocked by his fellow Russians. This should be our aim. And mockery is the one thing we Brits excel at.
So, as there is no immediate threat to UK that we can do anything about, except taking security measures, we might as well do what Corbyn suggests: take our time to build up a strong evidence base, in collaboration with the international community through the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, to prove that this was definitely Russia.
Jumping to conclusions and making empty threats just show how weak we are. But we also need to re-think our defence strategy and spending to build defence deterrence fit for the 21st century.
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