Sunday 18 March 2018

10 Points on Russia and British Politics

1. Was Russia set on murdering Sergei Skripal? I don't know. You don't know. Even Theresa May doesn't know, not that it stopped her from apportioning blame. As she belatedly acknowledged, there are two possible explanations for what happened: an action officially sanctioned by the state, or a poisoning using nerve agent stocks looted from chemical warfare labs as the Soviet Union crumbled and vast chunks of military infrastructure were abandoned. Yes, but it could be even more complex than these two scenarios suggest. Anyone bothering to follow Russian politics for more than five minutes will tell you that as a mafia state there are many rivalries and enemies criss-crossing it. Putin is certainly the creature of this state, but that doesn't mean the state is the creature of Putin. Not every assassination of a journalist, which happens with disturbing regularity, is ordered by him. Not every attempted hit against exiles residing in London and elsewhere is undertaken with his nod. Among the coterie seeking his favour and promotion, there is an element of "working toward the fuhrer" guiding their actions.

2. This isn't to exculpate Putin and his rotten gang, but simply a statement of how things are. An irony of authoritarian government is how chaotic they tend to be. Even under Stalin, when the USSR was the exemplar and epitome of the totalitarian state, the terror his regime visited upon millions had a dynamic of its own, of ambitious office holders and state employees using the febrile atmosphere of the purges to settle scores, bump someone out of a flat they fancy, disappearing a co-worker so their job could be given to a mate, securing your own position from ambitious underlings or covetous outsiders, or taking out one's immediate superiors to get that promotion. A river of blood and misery separates Stalin from the current occupant of the Kremlin, but we see a similar pattern of behaviour in and around the state and its agencies.

3. Memory is a useful thing to have in politics. In the first place is the acknowledged plundering of Soviet military secrets as research labs and weapons facilities right across its vast territory were abandoned. Who is responsible for this, apart from the people who did the looting? In an effort to appear reasonable in the absence of evidence, May was open to this possibility - at least rhetorically - but moved to quickly shut it down by issuing her ludicrous ultimatum to Putin to prove (by the stroke of midnight) that criminal or other rogue elements were responsible for deploying the nerve agent. Failure to do so would render him responsible. If his or elements of his regime aren't responsible, how do they prove a negative? How could any state? The absence of evidence never constitutes evidence. Saying otherwise is conspiracy theorising, and is not an argument a supposedly serious government of a supposedly serious power should be making. But we're not dealing with a serious party or a serious Prime Minister, because ...

4. Politics, politics, politics. Moments of national crisis, especially on matters of external threat, are always an opportunity to grand stand and play politics, which is exactly what Theresa May has done. Getting up and categorically pinning the attack on Putin is an attempt to reset the political story of her premiership. A Falklands moment for May is not only good optics that could restore her strong and stable/bloody difficult woman reputation, it's electorally popular. After all, her numbers peaked when, early in the general election campaign, she attacked Brussels for "meddling" in British politics. Leading the charge against Putin allows for a similar dynamic to come into play. She becomes the focal point of defiance against a hostile action, and one that everyone in politics will subsequently cede authority to. Expect on this occasion it did not turn out like this.

5. When Jeremy Corbyn rose in the House to condemn the attack, and raised the awkward issue of the penetration of the Tory party by Russian money, not all of which was given by involuntary exiles and opponents of Vladimir Putin, he was absolutely right to do so. If the party in government charged with opposing Moscow and its various shady works is simultaneously in receipt of donations coming in at just under a million quid from Russian exiles as well as figures close to Putin, elementary security demands questions be raised about these relationships. What checks have been done on the sources of this cash? What was talked about when Boris Johnson played tennis with a Putin crony? (Ditto Gavin Williamson. The Tory party having accepted £30k from the very same individual for dinner with the defence secretary, this is one Russian he won't tell to "go away and shut up".) Don't the public have a right to know more about these cash-for-access shindigs? And, we have to ask, why is it Russian oligarchs, whether pro or anti-Putin, are happy to funnel their money to the Tories? What's in it for them?

6. Corbyn has been attacked for playing politics, not least by fools sitting on the Labour benches. But the real games' playing was by the Prime Minister. It emerged over the last couple of days that she withheld access to the highest level of intelligence from Corbyn. The politics of this is so obvious even my cat gets it. After their recent campaign of insinuation and lies, informing the press that Corbyn was kept out the loop not-so-subtly reinforces their argument that he is a threat to national security, that he just cannot be trusted with the most sensitive stuff. Additionally, it allows the Tories to frame the situation to their advantage. Remember, Dave shared intelligence with Ed Miliband in the lead up to the Commons vote on bombing Syria and Labour refused to play along. Giving Corbyn all the facts allows him to contest their interpretation on a level playing field while, at the moment, they can claim, or insinuate, their "tough" stance is informed by the bigger picture. Keeping it under wraps also helps maintain the reputation of the secret services. Declassified materials often show a good deal of intelligence is no better than unsubstantiated rumour and tittle-tattle, and no doubt would have been questioned by the Labour leader. Ultra secrecy suits the politics of the Tories and protects the reputation of a service yet to recover from the Iraq debacle.

7. Are fist bumps and posing with babies an appropriate prime ministerial response to a chemical weapons attack?

8. Turns out Corbyn has friends on the right. As the press have predictably piled in to the attack - institutions Tim Bale rightly characterises as the "Conservative Party in the media" in his history of the Tories from Thatcher to Dave - it's interesting that a unanimity of opinion is lacking. Take The Spectator for instance, or Peter Hitchens rushing, not for the first time, to defend Corbyn's position against the mainstream right. One or two straws, maybe, but Hitchens is a star columnist in one of the right's biggest titles and The Speccie is generally reflective of what remains of Conservative intellectual opinion. Both know that hasty judgement now stores up penitence for later. With the media reach of the right crumbling away and mass scepticism toward anything whiffing even slightly of military action, they know the political cost if British evidence of Putin's culpability falls short of that demanded by international law.

9. If only certain sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party were as questioning and sceptical. It was disappointing to see some of the names on the EDM backing the Prime Minister, but others were the usual pathetic bunch of malcontents. When the time comes, one hopes their constituency parties press the deselect button with the alacrity these honourable members have previously shown in Commons votes to bomb people. Their EDM was and is a transparently factional stunt. One, because they didn't like Corbyn reminding them and the country that politics is about irreconcilable interests. Two, they foolishly believe taking a hard stand on international issues endears them to Tory leaning voters (it doesn't) and the Tory press (two time). And three, they are saying to anyone paying attention that they trust May more than the leader of their party. As such are participants in her efforts to salvage her reputation, whether they see it that way or not.

10. Politics, like history, is full of irony. For all of May's posing, for all the ego massaging she received from Labour MPs, it is the case Jeremy Corbyn's position on Russia is tougher. Going down the international law route, working toward stronger international controls and enforcement of bans on chemical and biological weapons, and - what the Tories have hitherto resisted - a crack down on Russian money laundered through London and the crumbs eagerly scooped up by the Conservative Party in political donations, all these are more powerful and more forceful responses to Kremlin gangsterism.


John Edwards said...

Craig Murray has been excellent on this issue. See for example his dissection of Boris Johnson's claims that Russia has a secret stockpile of Novichoks and an assassination programme. This is a very serious claim indeed given that the OPCW itself certified that Russia had disposed of its chemical weapons. As Craig points out this announcement should have been made to Parliament not the Andrew Marr show. Also it is important to examine the wording of Government statements very closely. What does we received this information "in the last decade" mean? (and why was it not reported to the OPCW before?. Very importantly "of a type developed in Russia" which occurs in all Government statements does not equal "made or produced in Russia"

Phil said...

Craig Murray may have "been excellent" on this, but broken clocks etc. He's not someone anyone on the left should give time of day to IMO.

monkaiboy said...

Why do you say that Phil? (Genuinely interested)

Anonymous said...

There is no-one other than the Russian state (and quite possibly Putin himself) that would target an ex-spy cum traitor. The Russian mafia or any other body or state would simply not know of him or his whereabouts or be interested. JC missed the boat on this issue - he did not present as a leader. The millions donated by oligarchs to the Tories is a valid point but it should be made *after* backing UK action against a state that used a chemical weapon on British soil. Timing is all.

Ian Gibson said...

I think your post is spot on, and articulates some matters that I haven't yet seen discussed elsewhere - such as what happens when others investigate and find the evidence woefully insufficient to justify the level of blame pinned on Putin. However, I really don't get the anti-love for Craig Murray: yes, he can be emotive and impulsive, but those are the very same qualities which led him to throw away his career and (to a degree) health standing up against the state when he saw its wrong-doing at first hand. He has moral courage, to the extent of severe personal cost, and that's worth a lot of anyone's respect. He's as honest as they come too.

However, his particular value is his ability to read 'high-level civil servant' speak and his insider knowledge of how these things work, and this is certainly to the fore in this particular issue.

(He doesn't, it's true, have much time for Labour - but, from a Scottish point of view that is, I am afraid to say, an entirely reasonable, nay sensible position to hold, given their continuing proclivity to prioritise scoring points against the SNP no matter what the issue over opposing the Tories. It certainly shouldn't be equated with not being truly 'left')

Boffy said...

Putin's right-wing vile regime is no friend of workers anywhere, and there is no reason why socialists should give them any credence whether they attacked people in Salisbury or anywhere else. Corbyn was right to point out the vile nature of that regime, and the need for us to give our support to those oppressed by it in Russia. That is something, which, of course, Theresa May and the Tories do not do, because they are in hock to dirty Russian oligarch money.

The Tories and Tory media do not seem to be aware that Putin and his regime are the product of the fall of the USSR, and of the right-wing ideology that was imposed on the Russian people by Yeltsin with the assistance of right-wing western economists and ideologists, and which created the conditions for all of the gangster oligarchs to rip off the Russian people via the privatisation programmes that mirrored a similar process undertaken by Thatcher in Britain during the 1980's.

Yet, its not just the Tories who seem to have failed to recognise that change. The Stalinists of the CPB and Morning Star, as well as some others on the left blinded have also failed to notice that Putin's regime is a right-wing, reactionary, vile regime, which raises the question of why Corbyn allows such people to have any influence in his advisors.

But, however much the fact that we should recognise that Putin's regime is vile, is also no reason to believe that the British intelligence services are any less ruthless or deserving of blind belief than any other. Even the obnoxious Andrew Pierce of the Daily Mail a week or so ago pointed out that no doubt British spooks undertake the same kinds of operation on foreign soil that the GRU are being accused of in Salisbury.

The job of every intelligence agency is at least as much to spread disinformation as it is to gather information. British intelligence agencies have always been at the forefront of that, e.g. in order to hide the fact they had developed radar, or had cracked the Enigma codes. In other words their job is to lie effectively, and to lie effectively the intelligence agencies have to also lie to everyone. Only a fool, therefore, believes anything that any intelligence agency says, because unless those agencies are telling lies they are not doing their job!

Phil said...

Conspiranoid nonsense mainly, Monkai. Including suggesting - without any evidence at all - that Israel should be in the frame for the above. That and the ludicrous arguments his made in defence of lechy behaviour in the past. He can't help it, apparently.

Ian Gibson said...

I think you may have missed his point about Israel: I don't think he's actually claimed that they did it. The way I read it, he was suggesting that, on the criteria that has been announced by government figures thus far, a truly objective assessment would not come to the 'inescapable' conclusion that Russia was responsible: by all of those criteria, Israel would be a far better fit:

Form for assassination: check, makes Russia look like amateurs

Chemical weapons program: no-one knows for sure, but the assessment of many (including us and the CIA) is that they do have an active program and plentiful stocks, They refuse to sign up to any regulation, unlike Russia, the verified destruction of whose stock and programs was announced only last year by the OPCW. So, a qualified check.

Motive: far more plausible (wish to undermine Russia due to its brokering of power for Iran in the Middle East and Syria in particular) than any that can be constructed around Russia (having been pronounced clean, they now decide to give the game away barely 6 months later, and for what? an act of petty revenge? or a fairly obscure warning that would have been equally effective had it employed any of a hundred other methods available to them.) Check

Stephen said...

Good article and some good subsequent comments. Some problems: (a) Putin and the Russian gangster state notwithstanding, it's still not clear that Russians were involved in the Salisbury poisoning. The nerve gas mentioned was developed in Uzbekistan and its destruction confirmed by international bodies. Western interests gained access to the plant itself in the 1990s. If remnants of the agent were used in Salisbury, a number of people have attested that two people initially poisoned could not have survived. (b) I don't understand the dismissal of Craig Murray, one of the sanest and best informed voices in this controversy thus far (c) Phil's explanation for the moves of the Labour right didn't wholly convince. To me, they behave like people beholden to outside interests - the arms industry in Woodcock's case, and a number of the others are pro-Israeli lobbyists/sympathisers who angry at Corbyn's support for the Palestinian cause and have leveled constant charges of anti-Semitism at the Labour left ever since Corbyn got the job. They jumped at a further chance to undermine Corbyn and the alacrity with which they did so suggested to me that they knew what was coming.

Speedy said...

1) There was an "election" in Russia - motive-wise this was a good opportunity for Putin to show off his The West Hates Us And We Don't Care chops.
2) This could explain why nerve gas. I'm sure if any state wanted to dispose of an individual subtly ("suicide" for example) it has the resources to do so, this chemical can only be used as a signature.
3) That does not rule out that the same signature may be forged. But it is a huge stretch to suggest anyone else - Brtish, Israeli or otherwise - would commit the resources for nefarious, fleeting political purposes.
4) Although Phil's point about it not necessarily coming from the very top is a good one, and Bojo is a complete twat, but that's one thing we knew for sure already.

Johny Conspiranoid said...

Apparently this letter has appeared in the Times
Sir, Further to your report (“Poison exposure leaves almost 40 needing treatment”, Mar 14), may I clarify that no patients have experienced symptoms of nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury and there have only ever been three patients with significant poisoning. Several people have attended the emergency department concerned that they may have been exposed. None has had symptoms of poisoning and none has needed treatment. Any blood tests performed have shown no abnormality. No member of the public has been contaminated by the agent involved.
Stephen Davies
Consultant in emergency medicine, Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust

Blissex said...

«they didn't like Corbyn reminding them and the country that politics is about irreconcilable interests.»

I have a very good quote about this from G Mikes "How to be an alien", a humorous book from the 1950s about english culture, as to english politics:

The Labour party is a fair compromise between Socialism and Bureaucracy; the Beveridge Plan is a fair compromise between being and not being a Socialist at the same time; the Liberal Party is a fair compromise between the Beveridge Plan and Toryism; the Independent Labour Party is a fair compromise between Independent Labour and a political party; the Tory-reformers are a fair compromise between revolutionary conservatism and retrograde progress;
and the whole British political life is a huge and non-compromising fight between compromising Conservatives and compromising Socialists.

Johny Conspiranoid. said...

" A river of blood and misery separates Stalin from the current occupant of the Kremlin, but we see a similar pattern of behaviour in and around the state and its agencies". What is the evidence for this?