British russophobia once again grips politics
British russophobia has had a good airing once again in UK politics, this time over the poisoning of a former spy and his daughter in the quiet cathedral city of Salisbury. Remarkably quickly, Putin has been accused and found guilty and a massive effort made to secure backing from Western allies for a verbal counter-attack, in contrast to previous murders of exiled Russians and others from Eastern Europe. One might legitimately ask why.
History of Russophobia
Ramping up Russophobia has a long history. In the 19th Century, politicians were much occupied by what they thought was the threat to Britain’s hold over India by the advance of the Russian Empire under the Tsars. Hence the support for the “Sick Man of Europe”, the declining Ottoman Empire. Russia was seen as expansionist and authoritarian. So too was the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors, the fear of Communist expansionism and subversion of western democracy. Putin has simply stepped into the shoes of his illustrious predessors and, through efforts to recover the lost influence following the fall of the Soviet Union, has again revived fears of Russia’s intentions in Europe. So too has Russophobia had a domestic, electoral side, most famously, or infamously, when a (forged) letter from Zinoviev, which appeared to suggest Russian Communist support for seditious activities in Britain at a time when the Labour Party was growing electorally, was published by the Daily Mail days before the 1924 general election which the Conservatives then won.
Why the rapid rise in tension today?
Yet British responses to perceived Russian aggression since the war have been more measured, particularly during the Cold War, at least until this time, as was seen with the poisoning of Litvinenko in 2006. What is different now? The answer probably lies in the febrile atmosphere and bitter divisions aroused by Brexit. May and Johnson have quickly drawn the conclusion, ahead of the completion of investigations, that it must be Putin to blame and have accordingly expelled Russian diplomats and announced other measures against Russia. Corbyn’s response as Leader of the Opposition has however been very interesting, although the right of his party don’t like it, adopting a critical attitude towards the government’s response. Allowing for his Bennite position on Russia, he still has a point, the need for thorough investigation before finger-pointing, and the risks of ramping up anti-Russian feeling.
If one steps back from this issue a bit, Britain in the past has had a problem dealing with aggressive (or defensive, depending on your point of view) authoritarian regimes, whether to go softly and reasonably, or be tough. Also plenty of countries have used foreign policy to divert attention from domestic difficulties. May is pretty well stuck domestically and not much else is going on. Action on other pressing issues is almost on hold. So, how convenient is this poisoning of a Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. So too, Putin has an election coming up, another stage-managed vote in a country where there is no real opposition, and the most genuine opponents have been barred from taking part. Yet, engagement has been flagging and he needs to galvanise opinion. Russia does also have a long history of covert aggression (see for example the technique of maskirovka, most recently used in the Ukraine).
The uses and risks of ramping up foreign policy distractions
Both sides can use a bit of foreign policy aggro. It suits Putin to divide his opponents and make some of the Western allies look weak, as the UK already does with Brexit. This however impacts the EU just as much as the UK, since the real threat arguably to Putin has been the expansion of the EU eastwards. May also needs some distraction from Brexit divisions, this issue can be used to make Labour look divided and disloyal, and it can play to May’s nationalistic hard right. It could yet turn out that others have instigated this whole nasty episode to suit their own agenda. The history of spying is full of duplicity, misinformation and actions that are made to look as though they come from someone else.
Yet, whoever is responsible, and poisoning or not, Putin is winning right now and the “West” have a problem in how to deal with him. Also there is a whole movement in the world away from rules-based, collaborative, consensual international relations and from liberal democracy towards a me-first authoritarian nationalism, and it’s getting very unstable and therefore dangerous. High stakes are being played for on both sides, and not all is necessarily as it seems.