By Keiko Iizuka / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Political WriterLondon — Confrontation has intensified between Russia on one side, and Europe and the United States on the other, triggered by the assassination attempt on a former Russian spy in Britain on March 4.
Furious backlash from European countries and the United States against the Russian move, in addition to Russia’s recent repeated military provocations and manipulation of information in other countries, has reached a peak. As a result, both sides have been dragged into an unprecedented tit-for-tat exchange of expelling large numbers of diplomats.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who won his fourth term in the presidential election on March 18, is expected to maintain his hard-line policies by making use of both military and non-military measures. Concerns are therefore rising that the confrontation will lead Russia and the West to face off in a “new Cold War.”
Britain immediately responded to the assassination attempt. After the former spy and his daughter were found unconscious in southwestern Britain on March 4, the House of Commons summoned an “Urgent Question” just two days later on “Government policy on Russia.”
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stated from the beginning the presence of “much speculation” and hinted at the possibility of the Russian government’s involvement. Prime Minister Theresa May declared on March 12 that it was clear that “a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia” was used and “the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible” for the act against the former spy and his daughter.
May subsequently warned of grave consequences of the incident in the international community, saying it is “the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War II.” On March 26, more than 20 countries, including the United States, Germany and France, announced they would expel Russian diplomats.
British position led to unity
What united the West in such a short time?
One reason could be that the British government seemed to have shown definite evidence — use of a military-level nerve agent — to the other countries.
France was initially cautious of taking action, but French President Emmanuel Macron soon clarified his position to stand with Britain. Leaders of Britain, the United States, Germany and France issued a joint statement condemning Russia on March 15. A decision by the Trump administration to expel 60 diplomats also influenced other countries’ decisions to follow suit.
What lies behind the series of expulsions was the common understanding that the attempted assassination is not an isolated incident. The countries agree that it was part of hybrid warfare (see below) which Russia has intensified since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Spies on the increase
With regard to expelling Russian diplomats, Nigel Gould-Davies, a former U.K. ambassador to Belarus, said these moves represent an “information war against the Putin administration’s blackmail,” which carries a message that “former spies who sold confidential information will never be forgiven.”
“May described the 23 people expelled by the British government as ‘undeclared intelligence officers’ labeled as diplomats.’ This refers to spies. The number of Russian spies infiltrating Western countries has increased over recent years. All measures taken by the British authorities aim to damage the Russian spy networks through deterrence,” he emphasized.
American strategist Edward Luttwak interprets the Trump administration’s decision to close the Russian consulate in Seattle as clearly demonstrating part of the counter-intelligence.
The consulate is adjacent to a nuclear submarine base of the U.S. Navy. Seattle is also a base for Boeing, a manufacturer of military aircraft and missiles.
At this stage, Japan is not participating in retaliatory measures taken by Western countries. “It’s partly that the Abe administration regards bilateral relations with Russia as very important, but also the assassination attempt is deeply entwined with intelligence sections, making us rather hesitant to get involved,” a senior official at the Foreign Ministry said.
Reinforce U.S.-U.K. alliance
It seems that Putin, however, is not willing to face off in an all-out confrontation with the United States and Europe.
Russia’s economy has been struggling under the economic sanctions imposed after annexing Crimea. One of Putin’s tasks during his fourth-term is how to get the sanctions lifted.
A person related to the British Conservative Party said: “Putin’s biggest aim is to divide Europe into anti-Russia Britain and countries with deep economic ties with Russia, such as Germany and France. He is focusing on ‘hybrid warfare,’ including manipulating information via television, the internet and social media.”
An expert on Russian diplomacy said: “What Putin is closely looking at is the number of diplomats expelled from each country. Germany and France have each expelled four, which is less than Britain and the United States have, indicating differences of resolution. The fact that some countries, like Austria in Central [Europe] and [others in] Eastern Europe, have not joined the expulsions gives Russia opportunities to drive a wedge between European countries.”
How relations between Europe and the United States and Russia develop remains to be seen. Sir Richard Shirreff of Britain, former deputy commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said: “In his fourth term, President Putin is likely to maintain his hard-line policies in the medium term and a ‘new Cold War’ could ensue. Europe and the United States have not been able to show strong deterrence to deal with the annexation of Crimea and issues over Syria.” He emphasizes the importance of strengthening cooperation as is being demonstrated over the assassination attempt case.
He also showed concern, saying: “Since the annexation of Crimea, military dialogue between the two sides has been effectively discontinued. Because interactions have been much lower compared to those during the Cold War, misunderstanding could easily spread.”
Gould-Davies shares this view, saying: “While certain rules were established between the East and West during the Cold War in the 20th century, there are fewer rules regulating the rivalry today, and thus greater danger. In addition to the military aspects, there are no rules yet for ‘hybrid warfare,’ which involves intelligence activities and information war through manipulation via the internet. These factors could be dangerous elements in a new Cold War.”
But he also added: “Russia is much weaker than the old Soviet Union, and no longer has a genuinely global reach, except with its nuclear weapons. It also has no alternative ideology to the West, as it did when it was leading the communist world. It seeks to undermine the West, but without an attractive vision of its own. Under these circumstances, we have to be cautious about which path Russia will go down, either reckless action or self-restraint.”
Prime Minister May, who initiated the united reaction of Europe and the United States this time, has to formulate a grand strategy of how to deal with Russia under these circumstances. Strengthening Britain’s alliance with the United States, led by the unstable Trump administration, is essential.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 4, 2018)
A mode of warfare that combines military and non-military elements to achieve specific political objectives and serve national interests. In recent years, Russia has been criticized for reinforcing armaments including nuclear missiles, and intervening in elections and politics in Europe and the United States by manipulating public opinion via the internet. RAND Corp., a U.S.-based think tank, has deemed the purpose of Russia’s hybrid warfare to be sowing division among Western countries, creating a pretext for war and securing its access to European markets.Speech