Election hacking in the US, annexing territory in the Ukraine, state-sponsored doping, rigging their own ‘democratic’ elections, and now allegedly poisoning turncoats on British land: what is going on with Russia?
Since the poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer, turned British spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK on March 4th, tension between Russia and the West has reached new heights. Russia has been labeled by Britain and its allies as the culprit of the attack because the specific nerve agent used in poisoning was originally developed in Russia in the 1970s, and because there have been multiple cases of mysterious poisoning deaths of Russians in the UK over the last ten years or more (Radio Canada). Although the British were unable to concretely determine that the poison originated from Russia, the lack of other motives and pattern of Russian behavior has led British allies to support the UK in their condemnation of Russia in this action. The Kremlin has denied any involvement and even stated that the UK has fabricated the evidence and is creating a ‘set up job’ to defame Russia (CBC).
In the last two weeks several Western nations, including Canada, expelled Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning attempt. Russia has since responded with counteractions, expelling Western diplomats, including four Canadians (National Observer). Russia also convened a meeting at the UN Security Council this past week to discuss the letter submitted by British Prime Minister Theresa May, which said it was “highly likely” Moscow was responsible for the attack (Reuters). Russia used the meeting to tell Britain “you’re playing with fire and you’ll be sorry” (Globe and Mail) – extreme language that certainly plays a role in amplifying tensions.
This also unfolds as Russia continues its democratic deficit with the rigged March 18th election of President Vladimir Putin that enables him to remain in power for another 6 years – 24 years in total. Reports from the election include ballot stuffing and people being ordered to vote by employers, but most significant is the barring of opposition candidates from running in the election at all (Washington Post, The Guardian).
Since Putin came to power in 2000, his foreign policies appear to be centered around improving Russia’s image as a powerful nation, an image arguably lost since their ‘defeat’ in the Cold War. Many consider Russia’s aggression’s in Britain, Ukraine, Syria or other as driven by Putin’s shame of Russia’s reduced might (territorial or other) since the late 20th century. He seeks to challenge other powerful nations, and thereby promote Russia’s image as a powerful nation internally to feed his propaganda and maintain his authoritarian hold on the nation.
Skripal’s poisoning then, serves as a warning to what happens to those who make themselves enemies of the Russian state. The Kremlin is the only likely actor with a motive to attack Skripal. It is further possible that Russia is using the backlash as a means to distract from their ongoing participation in the conflict in Syria, including this weeks reports of chemical weapons attacks in eastern Ghouta. In reviewing those reports, a US State Department has claimed, “Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the brutal targeting of countless Syrians with chemical weapons” (Globe and Mail).
What will unfold next between Russia and the West? Have hopes for a renewed partnership between the West (ie. the new US administration) and the Kremlin now become impossible? Western states condemnations of Russia suggest this is so. For its part, Canada also seems to be taking a hard line on Russia. Since becoming Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, herself on a Russian blacklist, has engaged tough-on-Russia policies similar to the Harper-era (The Hill Times). While challenging Russia is indeed warranted given its aggression, the diplomatic implications for Canada and its allies may be severe.