Is it just me, or are too many people still refusing to see what is staring them in the face?
Someone is waging war on the West. They are, if the latest reports are to be believed, hacking into the US energy grid. They are spreading fake propaganda in the hope of destabilising Western democratic processes; they are financing insurgent political groups; they run so-called ‘troll factories’ to swamp social media sites with anti-Western messaging ― oh yes, and they use chemical weapons on the territory of sovereign nations to try to eliminate perceived enemies.
Yes, President Putin, I’m talking about you. Can I prove that you are behind all of the above? No, because I am neither a police officer nor an intelligence analyst. Do I have good reason to believe that you are to blame? I do.
To establish that someone has committed a crime, it is useful to be able to show that they have the means, a motive, and the opportunity. So let’s examine each in turn.
Means? We know that Russia has advanced cyber-warfare capabilities. In 2007, it all but paralysed Estonia by launching a massive cyber attack on its government and media websites. In 2014, Ukraine came under a similar attack. We also know that according to Facebook, in testimony to the US Senate, Russia-backed content reached as many as 126million Americans during and after the 2016 presidential election.
We also know that the UK Electoral Commission is investigating whether Russia channelled funds, possibly illegally, to the pro-Brexit campaign. And of course, in the US, a special prosecutor is hard at work looking at links between Moscow and the Trump campaign.
Motive? To weaken and destabilise Russia’s European neighbours at a time when it looks to Moscow as if they are already deeply riven by internal disagreements (Brexit, refugees, the rise of anti-establishment sentiment). We know that as long ago as 2005, Putin said the collapse of the Soviet Union was ‘a major geopolitical disaster of the century.’ We know that he bases his appeal to Russian voters on building up an image as a strong leader, rebuilding a strong Russia. And we know there just happen to be elections this weekend.
Opportunity? A visit to Britain by the daughter of a reviled double agent. (One report suggests the nerve agent that was used to attack her father could have been placed in her suitcase.) A narcissistic, impulsive and ignorant US President in the White House who has a long history of wanting to do business in Russia, and on whom Moscow may well have deeply compromising material.
The former foreign secretary William Hague puts it in stark terms: ‘Can it really be true that Russia is equipping itself to snap the undersea cables on which all our communications and finances depend? Afraid it is. Are they actually positioning themselves to hack into our vital national infrastructure and disrupt it? Looks like it. Can they possibly maintain Soviet levels of espionage and covert activity in our free European societies? You bet they can. Are they flying aggressive sorties to test our air defences? Yup. And surely they’re not developing new chemicals and deadly poisons as well? Of course they are.’
What do bullies do when they think they have the upper hand? They mock their opponents, laughing dismissively as they sit back to observe the impact of their attacks.
The Russian embassy in London: ‘The temperature of Russia-UK relations drops to minus 23 ― but we are not afraid of cold weather.’
Russian TV presenter Kirill Kleimenov, who said he had some advice for ‘traitors or those who simply hate their country in their free time’: ‘Don’t choose Britain as a place to live ... Maybe it’s the climate, but in recent years there have been too many strange incidents with grave outcomes there.’
These are not the words of an innocent, injured party. They are the words of a gloating bully. Do we honestly believe that they would have been uttered had the tone not been approved by the Kremlin?
Perhaps you remember the heavily armed ‘little green men’ who suddenly appeared in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014. Were they Russian troops? Absolutely not, said Moscow. Except, of course, that they were, as President Putin happily acknowledged once the operation had succeeded.
I am genuinely puzzled that some people on the Left refuse to believe that Russia was responsible for the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. It’s as if they haven’t yet noticed that Russia under Vladimir Putin has become an extreme nationalist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic kleptocracy in which opponents are routinely murdered.
(When Putin was asked to comment on the US special prosecutor’s decision to charge 13 Russians in connection with the Trump election collusion allegations, he said: ‘Maybe they’re not even Russians, but Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews ...’)
Why, some ask, would Russia have used a readily identifiable nerve agent to try to kill Sergei Skripal, when they could have shot him, strangled him or otherwise disposed of him in a far less noticeable manner?
The answer, I suspect, is that Mr Putin is a fan of the Scarlet Pimpernel, who left behind a calling card every time he went into action. The whole point of being brazen is that you must be visible. ‘Hey, look at me, look what I can do. Bet you can’t stop me.’
Not that Moscow has a monopoly on childish taunts. The UK’s oh-so-grown-up defence secretary Gavin Williamson was reduced to similar playground language on Thursday when he delivered the unforgettable line: ‘Russia should go away and shut up.’
In response, the Russian defence ministry called him a ‘vulgar old harpy.’ It’s quite a picture, isn’t it ― two nuclear powers, both with permanent seats on the UN security council, exchanging schoolyard insults. You can either laugh or cry ― the decision is yours.
The US, France and Germany have all backed the UK government’s view that there is no plausible alternative explanation for the attack on the Skripals other than that it was authorised in Moscow. (France, remember, never bought into the Iraq WMD narrative, so it is significant that this time it accepts that the intelligence is more compelling than it was then.)
You want evidence, real, hard evidence, that Moscow is to blame? What in particular would convince you? CCTV footage showing a named, identifiable Russian administering the nerve agent ― with an official order in his pocket signed personally by Vladimir Putin?
Not in the real world, alas. But all the signs are that the attack was a deliberate act designed to highlight the weakness of the West ― and of the UK in particular, as it struggles to work out what sort of relationship it wants with its neighbours.
All the more important, then, for NATO and the EU to respond with a united front. Because if they don’t, Mr Putin will have proved his point.
Let me be clear: I am not a warmonger, neither of the hot nor of the cold variety (for the record, I opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003). But I do believe in clear thinking and clear speaking. As Philip Stephens put it in the Financial Times: ‘Mr Putin’s goal is obvious enough — to destabilise and divide European democracies and chip away at the values that underpin the liberal order.’
We truly do live in dangerous times.