Arthur I. Cyr: Attacks in Britain reflect Russian ruthlessness
“Highly likely” is how Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May describes involvement of Russia’s government in a shocking poison incident. She fiercely denounced a “brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.”
The poisoning March 4 of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, provides a grim reminder that the Cold War may be over, but features of that long bitter struggle remain.
A police officer found the father and daughter unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury, a city near London. They remain hospitalized in intensive care. The nerve agent also affected the officer, now hospitalized.
They were the victims of an extremely rare chemical not readily available to the public, or even the criminal underworld. The military nerve agent is a product of Russia.
Skripal worked for the GRU, the military intelligence arm of Russia’s government, until he retired in 1999. Later he confessed to working as a double agent for British intelligence from 1995.
In 2006, a Russia court convicted him and imposed a prison sentence of 13 years. In 2010, authorities freed him as part of a U.S.-Russian spy swap, following the exposure of a ring of Russian espionage agents in the United States.
During Skripal’s trial, Russian media compared the damage done to state security to that of Oleg Penkovsky. That double agent provided important secret data to United States agents regarding Soviet military and intelligence resources. Information he provided is credited with helping President John F. Kennedy and associates maneuver successfully through the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
The Soviet state executed Penkovsky in 1963. According to one report, executioners burned him alive in a crematorium, a warning to deter others.
Also in 2006, Russian intelligence defector Alexander Litvinenko mysteriously suffered poisoning in London. On his deathbed, he blamed the Russian government.
Russian domestic politics also has involved gruesome violence. In early 2009, near the Kremlin on a sunny day on a public street, activist attorney Stanislav Markelov was murdered. The hitman also murdered journalist Anastasia Baburova as she tried to help Markelov. The killer was a pro, his pistol equipped with a silencer.
Markelov had publicly denounced the early release from prison of Colonel Yuri Budanov, sentenced to 10 years for strangling a woman during the war in Chechnya. Budanov claimed she was a partisan sniper, but the court rejected his defense. Granting him freedom stoked controversy. Budanov in turn was murdered gangland-style in Moscow in June 2011.
Baburova worked for “Novaya Gazeta,” an opposition newspaper. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya of that paper was very prominent in investigation of human-rights abuses in Chechnya. She was murdered in 2006.
In a dramatic interview with Voice of America, after the killings of Baburova and Markelov, “Novaya Gazeta” representative Nadezhda Prosenkova stated that the newspaper’s staff literally risked their lives simply by endeavoring to do their jobs.
How should British, American and others deal with Kremlin killers? Winston Churchill observed “the key” to Russia is national interest. During World War II, our interests joined.
Today, as during the Cold War, consistency and firmness are essential in dealing with Moscow. Russia’s economy remains fragile, dangerously dependent on petroleum and other natural resources, hostage to declines in the price of oil, plagued by corruption.
NATO must resist Russia’s expansion efforts in Europe. Middle East engagement by both Russia and the U.S. may bring cooperation, but also confrontation, notably in Syria.
Weighing Russian crimes should be only one component of policy.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.