This time Putin has gone too far

LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to expel 40 percent of the diplomatic staff of the Russian embassy is not just different in scale to previous responses to the Kremlin’s behavior, it is a response to a quite different type of provocation.

When then Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home filleted the size of the Russian Embassy in the 1970s, he did it because of the vast increase in the number of its staff who were known to be there for reasons of espionage.

On other occasions similar action has been taken as part of a package of responses to some deeply divisive Soviet foreign policy action.

This time, the expulsions follow the attempted assassination of two people on the streets of Salisbury in southern England: one a British citizen, the other his daughter. Faced by such brutish behavior, any civilized government would respond in the way that May has.

Whether there will be any Russian intelligence operatives left at the Russian embassy by the end of next week is unclear. The British government is likely to have a second list of staff ready to join their comrades if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s response is disproportionate.

What shocked me was the Russian response to being accused of being behind the attempted murder.

In any event, the foreign office and MI6 will not be unhappy if one or two remain. It will be useful to keep some channel of communication open between Russia’s intelligence services and ours.

There is another cunning wheeze sometimes used on such occasions. If one of their spies remains in London, the Russian will never know whether he had managed to conceal his true intelligence identity or whether he was, in fact, a double agent left unmolested specifically for that reason!

I do not want to intrude on the private grief of the Labour Party as to Jeremy Corbyn’s cack-handed response to this affair.

Corbyn has protested that he is not yet convinced that the attempted killings are the responsibility of the Kremlin and that it might have been the work of some Russian mafia types who had got hold of the nerve agent that was used.

I must, politely, suggest that he has missed the point and appears to be unaware that the Russians and, in particular, their intelligence agencies have the deepest links with their country’s criminal gangs. In some incidents they cooperate with each other. In others, it might suit Russian intelligence agents to get Russian criminal gangs to do their dirty work for them.

Has Kim Jong Un become Vladimir Putin’s role model? How sad.

Novichok, the nerve agent used, was exclusively manufactured in the Soviet Union in what is now Uzbekistan. The supplies of this agent were supposed to have been destroyed in the 1990s. It would always have been assumed that the Russian government held on to some stocks. If criminals got hold of this nerve agent in order to try and kill a former Russian double agent who had betrayed Moscow, it would have been the Russian intelligence agencies that supplied it.

What shocked me was the Russian response to being accused of being behind the attempted murder. That they denied it was, of course, inevitable. But instead of feigning horror that someone had used a Russian nerve agent, their embassy in London responded by tweeting mockery, sarcasm and trivial attempts at humor. The authors appeared utterly insensitive that two people are still fighting for their lives as a result of this criminal act.

If the Russian ambassador in London authorized this behavior he should be ashamed of himself and should start packing his suitcase to return home.

The whole incident is desperately sad. We are told by some that it has been engineered to help Putin present himself as a strong leader in the days before the presidential election. Alternatively, it is described as a warning to anyone who angers the Kremlin that they will never be able to escape the long reach of Russian intelligence.

Whatever the true explanation, Putin needs to realize that if he wants to restore the respect of the world for Russia he will not achieve that by poisoning his enemies and their children on the streets of foreign cities.

The only other national leader who has done that in the recent past is the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, who eliminated his half-brother in a similar way.

Has Kim Jong Un become Vladimir Putin’s role model? How sad.

Malcolm Rifkind is a former British foreign secretary and former secretary of state for defense.

Original Article

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