Jeremy Corbyn has called for calm in the response to the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal – and has warned against rushing into a new Cold War with Russia before full evidence of Moscow’s culpability is proven.
In a column for the Guardian on Friday, he wrote:
“Either this was a crime authored by the Russian state; or that state has allowed these deadly toxins to slip out of the control it has an obligation to exercise. If the latter, a connection to Russian mafia-like groups that have been allowed to gain a toehold in Britain cannot be excluded.”
But Corbyn’s suggestion the Russian mafia, rather than Kremlin, could be behind the “first offensive use” of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War, relies on one major assumption - that they are two entirely separate entities.
Professor Mark Galeotti from the Institute of International Relations, told HuffPost UK: “It’s very, very unlikely this was carried out by organised crime. If it was, then they would have been doing so as arms of the Russian security apparatus, so really it makes no difference.
“It was still coming from basically the same people.”
The close ties between the Kremlin and organised crime are well documented.
In 2010, US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks quoted a Spanish prosecutor as saying “one cannot differentiate between the activities of the Government and OC (organised crime) groups”.
“Criminals are suspected in assassinations of Chechen rebels in Turkey; Russian cybercriminals have been used to fight the Kremlin’s virtual wars in Georgia and Ukraine and to crack into German and Polish government systems; and cigarette smugglers in the Baltics appear to have been used to raise funds for Russian political influence operations.”
This sentiment was echoed last night by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of Open Russia and a long-time critic of Putin.
He told Newsnight: “Well it looks as though either it is the secret service without the approval of the Kremlin, or the secret service with the approval of the Kremlin.
“I have been thinking about it and I don’t know which is worse. Either Putin has given his consent to this operation or he doesn’t control the secret service to such an extent that they can do it without his approval.”
Corbyn’s response to the Salisbury incident has sparked a row in Westminster and within his own party.
Splits have now emerged between Corbyn and members of his shadow cabinet over how Labour should respond to the crisis.
A senior ally of the leader said on Friday that MPs who supported Theresa May’s position were as much “political enemies” as the Tories.
Chris Williamson, the Labour MP for Derby North, said his party colleagues in parliament who had decided Moscow was “unequivocally” to blame were “baying for blood” and suggested they face deselection.
Meanwhile Russia’s ambassador to London suggested Britain is using the Salisbury incident to divert attention from Brexit.
Speaking to the Russian state-funded RT network, Alexander Yakovenko said: “There is one more reason for diverting the attention of the British public, which is Brexit, because the situation in negotiations is not so easy...
“In order to divert attention from Brexit, they have to present something to the public that could move a little bit to the other side.
“That’s a great possibility to launch this anti-Russian campaign. This is a scenario that was written in London but it’s a short-sighted scenario because, in the long run, Britain will have to explain what is behind all these things in Salisbury,” Yakovenko said.