Unnerving tensions: The Russo-British shadow wars

Hany Ghoraba
Thursday 22 Mar 2018

Another episode unfolded in the turbulent relations between Britain and Russia this month, pushing them further towards a dark abyss.

The tension escalated after former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in a sleepy town in southwest England.

Britain, the US, Germany and France then labelled the event the first time such a nerve agent had been used in Europe since World War II.

Britain has hosted a plethora of former Russian spies over the past decade, and according to the British authorities these have been targeted by the FSB Russian Intelligence Agency.

The British authorities do not respond to Russian demands for the extradition of runaway agents, and instead Britain uses them as sources of information and for leverage against Russia. This has caused recurring political and security tensions between the two countries.

In response to the attack on Skripal Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats from the UK and is now mulling further actions against the Russian state.

The British government seems to be quite certain of the involvement of the Russian authorities in the assassination attempt, and it has also alleged that the Russians were involved in other similar cases in Britain over the past year.

 However, the British authorities have failed to provide conclusive evidence of Russian involvement in the assassination attempt.

Though Britain addressed the UN Security Council and accused Russia of carrying out the attack, it has thus far failed to produce any evidence of the direct involvement of Russian security or intelligence agents in the assassination attempt.

The involvement of Russian intelligence agencies in hunting former double-agents or defected spies seems logical according to the rules of the espionage world.

In every country there are spies who roam around freely, while being recognisable to the counter-intelligence agencies, but they are usually left unharmed as arresting them could cause diplomatic feuds.

Arrests only happen if they attempt to steal confidential information or come close to revealing state secrets.

In the present case, Russia had little to gain by assassinating a former agent in a foreign country with which its diplomatic relations were already sour.

Russia has offered to assist the British authorities in their investigations, but the request was turned down as the British are adamant about Russian guilt.

Over the years, Britain has several times accused Russia of assassinating its former agents on British soil, notably in the case of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

An investigation has also been opened into the death of Russian dissident Nikolai Glushkov, found dead in London this month.

British politicians have been using phrases like “highly likely”, “possibly”, and “probably” in their accusations against the Russian government and the attempted assassination of the former Russian spy.

Their accusations of alleged Russian interference in the US presidential elections that led to the election of US President Donald Trump and in the UK referendum on leaving the European Union have been presented in the same terms.

But thus far the British authorities have not presented a shred of evidence or even an investigative lead justifying their accusations against Russia.

Something similar occurred between Britain and Egypt in 2015 regarding the horrendous Russian civilian airplane crash over Sinai that the British authorities attributed to the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

The British believed that IS was behind the downing of the Russian plane and banned all UK flights to Sharm El-Sheikh for two consecutive years.

Moreover, some 15 years ago, a British intelligence report claimed that the regime led by former president Saddam Hussein in Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be launched in only 45 minutes at targets in the Middle East and Europe.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair cited this report in a speech to the British nation and used it as a pretext for joining the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The report was later proven to contain bogus information and more fiction than a Stephen King novel.

However, it helped to build up the case for the invasion of Iraq, and what has since transpired has been 15 years of misery and destruction in Iraq and the wider region.

The fact remains that British intelligence reports are not written by oracles with mystical powers capable of revealing hidden truths. They are drafted by human security analysts who gather information to the best of their abilities.

Whether they are accurate or not depends on the source of the information they contain. In the case of the Iraq report, the information was nonsense.

The point here is not that Russia did not attempt to assassinate Skripal, because in all probability it did. Instead, it is that the British authorities’ inability to provide any evidence or even leads justifying the accusations made against Russia is extremely dangerous as they could lead to devastating feuds.

Given the ongoing tensions that already exist between the United States and its allies and Russia, it would have been more prudent to investigate first and acquire irrefutable evidence against Russia, instead of relying on presumptions, when issuing such allegations.

Such accusations should be based on clear intelligence reports that include details of who, where, why, what and how and give conclusive proof. Otherwise, they may be perceived as acts of provocation even if the accusations turn out to be true.

Words such as “hypothetically”, “theoretically”, “presumably”, “likely” and others have no place in diplomatic and political terminology.

Only absolute certainty should be allowed into political circles, especially when launching accusations, and this is the case regardless of their truth.

This is even more crucial when pointing the finger of accusation at a superpower such as Russia at a time when a new cold war is already on the horizon, if not something worse.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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