Wesley Wark is currently an executive in residence at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.
An aging Russian general and former spy is found murdered in a London park, the victim of an assassin’s gun. That’s a story straight out of a John le Carré novel. An aging Russian colonel and former spy is discovered, along with his daughter, poisoned by a suspected nerve agent on a bench in the pretty cathedral town of Salisbury, England. What is this a story straight out of? It is scripted from the new Cold War that has set in between Russia and the West.
Sergei Skripal is a retired colonel from the Russian military intelligence agency the GRU. In the mid-1990s, he went to work as a double agent for British intelligence service MI6, reporting to them from Europe. He was caught in 2006 and given a sentence of 13 years in a penal colony. The Russians probably meant it as a death sentence.
But Mr. Skripal’s life took a dramatic turn in 2010 when he became part of a major spy exchange with the West. Mr. Skripal found himself released from imprisonment and on a plane to the United Kingdom, where he settled to live a quiet, under-the-radar life in Salisbury with members of his family. Whatever storm clouds were brewing between Russia and the West, he probably thought he was safe.
Instead, he looks to have been caught up in another example of Russian Murder Inc. on British soil. There are chilling similarities to that of another former Russian spy poisoned while living in Britain. Alexander Litvinenko, like Mr. Skripal, was a retired Russian spy but also a vociferous public critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. He was poisoned by a radioactive substance, polonium, while drinking tea at a London hotel in 2006. The British government initially dragged its feet over the matter because of diplomatic sensitivities, but ultimately launched a full public inquiry, which reported its conclusions in January, 2016. Those conclusions were shocking – Mr. Litvinenko had been murdered at the behest of the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, by named operatives; worse still, Mr. Putin – who is known to exercise tight control over the most sensitive operations of his intelligence apparatus – “probably” was aware of and sanctioned the assassination.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in an emergency statement in the House of Commons following the poisoning of Mr. Skripal and his daughter, denounced Russia as a “malign and disruptive force” and warned of robust British action if Russia is discovered to have been behind the poisoning. There is talk of increased sanctions, with the Foreign Secretary going off script to suggest that Britain might limit participation in the soccer World Cup, to be hosted this summer by Russia.
Whatever the facts of the Skripal case prove to be, the frame of the story has already been nailed tight. Both Russia and the West see a new Cold War, with evidence of this baleful reality at every turn. The Russians seethe West as inimical to natural Russian power and interests, as deeply suspicious and phobic about Russia and its President, as interfering and manipulating in the “internal” affairs of Russia (read to include the Crimea, human rights in Russia, Ukraine) and as attempting to strangle the Russian economy through unwarranted sanctions.
The West sees in Mr. Putin’s Russia a dangerously expansive and aggressive power, operating without limits: Invading other countries on their borders, meddling in the Middle East, breaking arms-control treaties, bragging about invincible nuclear weapons, interfering brazenly in democratic elections and conducting assassination plots in broad daylight in Western cities.
If the Skripal case proves to have been another example of a murderous Russian intelligence operation on British soil, it will only reinforce current convictions. If the evidence ultimately points away from a Russia connection, it won’t shake those convictions.
The new Cold War won’t be like the old. It will be fought mostly in the digital domain, as information warfare. Both sides have already reached for their info weapons – Mr. Johnson with his denunciation of Russia, the Russian government and tame media with denunciations of “British propaganda” and suggestions that the Skripal poisoning might just be a provocation by the West. One Russian journalist wrote on twitter, “The Anglo-Saxons have arranged Litvinenko 2.0 ahead of the elections [for Russian president].”
That the new Cold War might be fought mostly with information and not with nukes or conventional arms will be cold comfort to Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who were listed in critical condition in a Salisbury hospital.