by Martin Odoni

Without wishing to downplay the controversy over the former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, apparently being poisoned by agents of the nation of his birth, I have to say, I find the national outrage somewhat out-of-proportion. If the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is indeed the man behind the use of a nerve agent as an assassination tool, then it is right that he is condemned for it. But the scale of the reaction in some parts of the media is starting to make it sound like the United Kingdom either has suffered a civil tragedy on the scale of the Hillsborough Disaster, or faces a full-scale military invasion.

Let us get the matter into proportion for a moment; –

A grand total of three people have been poisoned in the incident. None of them has died. The attack appears to have been narrowly targeted at Skripal, not at the wider community, or even at the UK as a whole.

None of this stops it being a vile act, and if it turns out that the Russians are behind it, it tells us nothing about Putin or the Russian Federal Security Bureau (FSB) that we did not already know.

Yes, we do genuinely need to be wary of Putin, but we should not become engorged in paranoia about him. Modern Russia is nowhere near as powerful as the old Soviet Union was. Its military is only about one-third the size of the old ‘Red Army’, and much of it is using weaponry and equipment that is now decades out-of-date. Meanwhile, the Russian nation is strategically on the defensive at all times; having lost control of the natural defences of the old ‘Eastern bloc’ countries, parts of which are now even members of NATO, most of Russia’s western frontier terrain is now flat, open land, ill-suited to fighting defensive warfare. Russia is the country under real international pressure, and has not been in the right shape for a confrontation at any time since the USSR was dissolved. The main menace from Moscow these days appears to be in cyberspace only.

The threat Russia poses is, in short, simply not worth the present degree of fixation.

Vladimir Satan

NOTE: Putin is not really this powerful.

As for Skripal himself, I am a little bewildered at the references to him as an ‘innocent’. As Craig Murray points out, Skripal’s history is quite different from that of, say, Alexander Litvinenko, and not especially laudable. But more specifically, how can anyone who has a history of working in espionage be called an ‘innocent’? I do not wish to sound callous, but surely the risk of becoming a target is simply part of the spy’s job description? I can accept that Skripal’s daughter, Yulia, is an innocent bystander caught up in the attack, but the ever-dimwitted Boris Johnson has appended the word to both father and daughter.

This exaggerated air of “a-nation-in-fearful-mourning” became faintly ridiculous on Monday. Responding to a statement by Theresa May in the House of Commons, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, drew attention to the indisputable truth that Conservative MPs routinely accept campaign donations from Russia. Inevitably, there were cries of theatrical outrage from Tories across the House. The hypocrisy of this clamour should be enough to make the nation queasy, given we had to sit through over a month of Tories and the right-wing media trying to smear Corbyn with largely-fictitious accusations of him supposedly leaking secrets to Czechoslovakia during the Cold War.

Iain Duncan-Smith, one of the most zealously-malicious MPs of the last quarter of a century, had the nerve to argue that Corbyn was playing “party politics” with a national security situation. As I say,  what were the Tories doing for a month over the Czech spy fiction? At least Corbyn’s accusations are truthful and closely-relevant to an issue set in the present day, not falsehoods based on a couple of coffee-breaks taken over thirty years in the past, and connected to a country that does not even exist anymore.

Chris Leslie, ever the Blairite, decided not for the first time to side with the Conservatives against his own leader, saying,

“When our country is potentially under attack, that is just not appropriate.”

But the country, as I say, is not under attack, and the potential of it happening is low. (Not that I value people’s lives by nationality, but the target of this assassination attempt is not even British.) Sounding so over-dramatic is irresponsible panic-mongering, while trying to devalue legitimate concerns over the influence the supposed ‘bad guy’ in the matter exercises on Western politics is frankly anti-democratic.

It is quite clear that both Duncan-Smith and Leslie were trying to use a political form of emotional-blackmail to shout Corbyn down. At least in their case, much of the sting was taken out of it because it was entirely predictable that they would resort to such politically-charged theatrics. What really got up my nose was on Tuesday, when James O’Brien, normally a voice of objective reason, joined in with it on LBC Radio. He said Corbyn was wrong to raise the matter, and solemnly described the Poisoned-Russian-Spy incident as “a moment of national unity”.

Says who, James? I am a citizen of this nation, for a start, and no one told me that I had to get into line with everyone else. Nor would I feel compelled to, even if they had. I am not going to let the all-purpose ‘Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free’ card that Governments routinely deploy to shut things – or people – up, of declaring “This is a matter of national security!” stop me from discussing what I think needs to be discussed. And I am clearly far from the only one. Russian money in Britain and the USA is a serious corruption problem, and this poisoning incident should only underline that, and make such discussions more urgent, not more postponable.

I think O’Brien is having one of those rare weeks when he seriously needs to take a cold shower. He sounds like the Russian army has conquered Western Europe and is poised on the north coast of France to launch an invasion. Or like London has just been blitzed by Yak-130 bombers. Or half of Birmingham has been consumed in a great Muscovite-lit fire. Or Glasgow has been quarantined due to a cholera epidemic released from a bale of infected blankets dropped from a Russian cargo-plane.

Let me repeat, three people were poisoned in the attack, and all of them are still alive. The harm done to them could affect them for the rest of their lives, but they do still have a ‘rest-of-their-lives’ to which they can look forward. Yes, what happened is bad, and if Russia is indeed behind it, it should face serious repercussions (not that I am convinced that the UK is in a position to dish any out). Precautions must be taken to deter it from happening further. But this does not mean the country is on the brink of a state-of-emergency.

Bizarrely, at the same time as O’Brien makes out that this is an out-and-out crisis that everyone needs to take ultra-seriously, he condemns Corbyn for trying to discuss a very under-exposed dimension of it! A dimension that clearly makes it easier for Russian agents to operate in the UK in the first place!

Pull yourself together, James!

(I do find O’Brien is awfully quick to leap on anything he perceives Corbyn says or does wrong. He has often complained on his radio show that he is endlessly accused by right-wing listeners of being some kind of hard-left Marxist, which he certainly is not, and I do wonder at times whether he is trying a little too hard to prove them wrong.)

If the criticism is of when Corbyn chose to make the point, by the way, I find that argument just as nauseating. It is akin to the very manipulative way the National Rifle Association and Republican politicians in the USA always protest, “Now is not the time to discuss gun controls!” in the aftermath of gun massacres. Again, it is just a cynical way of exploiting fear and grief to silence legitimate debate.

Incidentally, no I do not subscribe to the inevitable ‘false-flag’ theories that are circulating about the attack. They make very little sense. The following meme is circulating on social media at the moment, and I have shared it on my Twitter feed myself; –

Strange Russian MO

It does sound weird put that way. But it does not change the fact that it does describe the attack as the evidence suggests it was carried out, and therefore makes it no more or less likely that the Russians are behind it. If it was someone else, the same peculiarities would apply.