Unjustified retaliation

Vladimir Putin has been demonized by the political class in the West

By Kanwal Sibal
  • Published 26.04.18

The strategic calculations behind the intensified Russia-baiting by the West after the poisoning incident in Salisbury involving Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, are difficult to understand. Without providing any proof or following the established Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons procedures to investigate incidents involving the use of chemical weapons, the British prime minister, Theresa May, immediately held Russia responsible. A series of punitive diplomatic steps by the United Kingdom, the United States of America, most European Union countries, Canada and Australia followed. All in all, 150 Russian diplomats were expelled by these countries, with the US alone expelling 60 and ordering the closure of Russia's consulate in Seattle. These collective steps followed May's conclusion that it is "highly likely" that Russia was behind the poisoning act. This is not a firm conclusion; yet very firm action has been taken against Moscow. Russia has, in turn, reacted by expelling an equal number of diplomats from the countries that expelled Russian diplomats, besides closing down US and UK consulates in Saint Petersburg.

It is unclear why evidence that the UK has found sufficiently satisfactory to mobilize severe steps against Russia was not made public or shared with the OPCW. The joint statement issued by the US, the UK, France and Germany was highly tendentious when it said that the four countries "share the UK assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation, and note that Russia's failure to address the legitimate request by the UK government further underlines its responsibility." France and Germany have endorsed what is clearly a thin statement in terms of prescribing guilt. The UK has been such a loyal partner of the US and the Nato in all their military operations - it will remain a major player in the defence of Europe even outside the EU - that not showing solidarity with them would have been politically impossible, although a few EU countries baulked at sanctioning Moscow. A failure by France and Germany to do so would have made May's position untenable and exposed a major rift within Europe which would have played into Russian hands.

Strikingly this joint statement talks of 'assessment' and 'plausibility' - not proof - and throws the burden on Russia to satisfy the UK as to why it is not guilty. Russia is accused of an act, but the basis on which the accusation is being made has not been revealed to Russia or to an international organization in charge of investigations into such an incident. Russia is thus required to prove its innocence to judges who have already passed their judgment. Not sharing the basic information about Russia's purported guilt but, nonetheless, giving it an ultimatum to respond and satisfy the UK that it is not culpable is unconscionable by any standards. Apart from the fact that no self-respecting country will accept ultimatums, especially one as powerful as Russia, such a juridical procedure would be unthinkable in any country governed by the rule of law. Yet the UK and its allies believe that they can get away in the court of international public opinion by adopting a position that it is for Russia to prove that it is not guilty and that is not for the accusers to prove Russian guilt based on evidence.

Russia has denied all responsibility for the poisoning act, and its arguments prima facie have merit. It has demanded and obtained an investigation by the OPCW to ascertain the truth. It has lost its bid to be associated with the investigation - this would appear to be normal under the circumstances - with the majority in the OPCW governing council voting against. The large number of abstentions signified that several countries, including India, were not willing to endorse the US/UK stand on the issue and will await the results of the investigation. The UK's castigation of Russia's proposal for joint investigation as "perverse" goes against common sense as Russia will be obliged to present its case and provide answers were the OPCW to conclude that the source of the nerve agent was Russia. The OPCW has since confirmed the British findings about the nerve agent used, but its summary report made public does not assign blame for the incident or the source of the agent.

That the head of the UK's chemical research laboratory close to Salisbury should state publicly that it has not been able to identify the precise source of the nerve agent used in the Skripal case, and that only a State actor would have the sophisticated capability to produce such an agent, did not deter the UK from continuing to castigate Russia. Any objective observer would find the conduct of the US and the UK, and the pressure mounted by them on their allies to support their position, difficult to comprehend. Why they would want to create a crisis atmosphere in their relations with Russia in total disregard of its international impact is baffling. As it is, a lot of uncertainty has been created internationally because of rising anti-globalization, protectionist and populist trends in the West, the geographically spread challenge of terrorism and radical Islam, the conflict in West Asia and the ensuing refugee influx that has had a destabilizing impact on Europe. To these one can add China's aggressive rise, its willingness to challenge US power in Asia and, eventually, globally, and the threat of Beijing disrupting the existing international order, which, though seen to be flawed by many, will not be ameliorated by the kind of concepts and policies of self-aggrandisement that China is espousing. Why then raise the pitch of tensions with Russia, greatly spurred by domestic politics, to the point of risking an actual conflict that could go out of hand? Russia and Vladimir Putin have been so systemically demonized by the political class and the mainstream press in the West - public opinion has been conditioned to believe the worst of Russia - that restoring some normality in relations with it will be an uphill task. When Putin is compared to Hitler and is accused of personally ordering the killing of political opponents, including the attempted murder of Skripal and his daughter, the space for re-establishing a sane dialogue and re-building a minimum amount of trust shrinks greatly.

The US Congress has shown an alarming determination to corner Putin and his entourage, believing that across the board sanctions on Russian politicians, parliamentarians, high officials, key government entities, banks, top-level Russian businessmen and so on would put the Kremlin in an untenable situation. It has most recently announced sanctions against seven Russian oligarchs, 17 senior government officials as well as 12 companies. The inclusion of Russia's arms export agency has implications for India. The attempt is to squeeze Russia out of the international system in stages. Ironically, neither Russia's permanent membership of the United Nations security council nor its massive nuclear capability is acting as a shield against the kind of treatment it is being subjected to. The economic tool is the only one that will deter the West, which is why China is being excused for sins far more serious than those Russia is being accused of. There are lessons in this for the non-Western world.

The author is former foreign secretary of India; sibalkanwal@gmail.com