It began as something in a spy thriller rather than real life, the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in UK, allegedly with a nerve agent. However, as the drama played out, fears were being raised of a new Cold War , what with the blasts of expulsions and counter-expulsions of diplomats, affecting the old protagonists of the Cold War , the USA and the USSR.
However, what followed the poisoning might not have been how thrillers would have moved, for though diplomats were being expelled, they had also taken over. The initial British response was seen as not just excessive, but wrongheaded, by Russia, which rejected the allegation it was behind the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. It countercharged that the UK was trying to shift blame for the way Brexit negotiations were going. The UK had expelled 23 Russian diplomats after it had failed to explain the incident. It blamed Russia not just because a double agent was involved, but because Novochik nerve gas was identified as the poisoning agent. Russia not only expelled an equal number of British diplomats, but also alleged that it was not allowed access to Yulia, a Russian citizen on a visit to Skripal at the time of the attack.
So far, it had been an essentially bilateral matter between Russia and the UK. However, the UK took its case to its friends, with the result that 21 states expelled 133 diplomats, basically fellow NATO members. Russia responded with corresponding expulsions. The USA itself expelled 60 diplomats and closed down a Russian consulate, the one in Seattle, sacrificing its own in St Petersburg. Russia then proposed parity in representation, and said pointedly that there were more than 50 British diplomats in Russia more than Russian in the UK.
An instructive comparison is with the alleged assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 of radioactive poisoning after being exposed to polonium, which is both very rare and highly radioactive, in London, where he had fled in 1999 after having defected. Like Skripal, he was a former FSB officer, but he was not initially a spy for the UK. On the other hand, Skripal was, had been caught and convicted to that espionage. He was included in the swap in 2010, under which Russians arrested in the USA in the Illegals Program, went back to Russia in exchange for convicts in Russian jails.
That episode taught two major lessons. First, it indicated how Russia might have intervened in the US presidential election, and how it might again intervene this November. Russian agents were accused of establishing deep cover. Using this, such sleeper agents might use social networks to push one candidate or another. Of course, that would involve making a massive leap of imagination, and assuming without evidence that such a network exists. Second, it showed that the end of the Cold War had not stopped countries spying on each other.
The Cold War may be blamed for many things, but it should not be blamed for the existence of spying. Indeed, in pre-Revolutionary times, espionage was a growth industry, as Europe hurtled towards what was to be World War I. At that time, there was not as much desire to influence elections, as to obtain military intelligence. This desire for information about the actions and intentions of other powers continued after World War I into World War II. The Cold War introduced an ideological element. It should not be forgotten that the USSR obtained the secret of the atomic bomb from the USA through the Rosenbergs, subsequently caught and hanged, who did what they did because they were convinced Communists, and worked for the ultimate victory of Communism.
That may well be the main reason why there cannot be a Cold War now between Russia and the USA. There is no ideological tension. The only motive for spying would be money, which incidentally was seen as the prime motive for spies in the 19th century in a literature in which mid-European adventurers operated without ideological motivation, but admirable dedication, and for the money.
Irrespective of the Russian role in the murder of Litvinenko and the attempted murder of Skripal, Russia is as capitalist as the UK one fled to, and the other spied for. To an extent, both are the products of post-Communist Russia, of an intelligence apparatus which did not belong to a world power any more. Skripal is of interest to Pakistanis because he is an engineer, having originally been a sapper before joining the Airborne Forces as an engineering officer before being recruited for GRU, the military intelligence organization. It was from there that he was recruited by British intelligence, and he was instrumental in providing the UK with the identity of many Russian agents. He was caught, convicted and jailed, only to get away when the Illegal Program swap took place. The echo is of Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav, who was also an engineer, though with the Navy, who was recruited by RAW. The chances are that engineers are not on the average sneakier than non-engineers, though Yadav and Skripal show engineers have as much propensity for intelligence work as anyone. It should not be forgotten that Russian and Indian intelligence agencies have cooperated in the past, and may have developed similar personnel policies.
It should also not be forgotten that Russian President Vladimir Putin is also an old intelligence hand, having risen to the rank of colonel before resigning to go into politics, and having worked in foreign intelligence. (While Skripal was in intelligence, Litvinenko had been in the organized-crime unit). As President, Putin has worked to get Russia to play the same global role as the old USSR. However, the adoption of capitalism by Russia has meant that it is not the leading state of a global ideology, but relies on its own strength to carry it forward. There is global goodwill for Russia, but that is harking back to the Soviet era, when the USA got a run for its money in virtually every global capital, and where the local communist party played the role of a Soviet proxy.
While there is the element of punishing Russia for not adhering to the norms of international behavior, there is also the apparent disdain for the Russian state. Russia has experienced this since Peter the Great tried to take Russia, then semi-Asiatic, into Europe, and experienced this again after the 1917 Revolution. It is almost as if Western Europe is forcing a repetition of the experience.
In any new rivalry, Russia simply does not have the funds needed to develop the mechanisms needed to project its soft power abroad. In the decades following the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall, which is used to mark the end of the Cold War , Russia had contracted, and stopped funding those activities which projected Soviet soft power. True, a lot of that expenditure went on projecting communist party activities and achievements. However, it remains true that the USSR collapsed because it could no longer afford superpower status. Can Russia today afford it? The USA is finding it hard going maintaining its superpower status because of the fiscal problems it causes. In a capitalist world, where the bottom line is the last line, is it worth splurging on national prestige? Russia might learn from the British example, of how a country adapts to the loss of great-power status, even as it expels its diplomats.
The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.