There was a growling Russian maniac on the BBC’s Today programme last week, an MP from the United Russia party called Vitaly Milonov. Breathing rather heavily, as if he were pleasuring himself, Mr Milonov likened our country to Hitler’s Germany for having accused Russia over the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. At this point he was cut off by the presenter — rather a shame, I thought, at the time. I would have liked to hear Vitaly expand upon some of his other beliefs, such as homosexuals being responsible for the Ebola virus and Jews being Satanists. He also hates cyclists, so not all bad, then. If you wanted to conjure up a post-commie reactionary Russian pantomime villain, Vitaly is what you would end up with. But he is not a chimera; he is real. And Putin is real enough too.
It is troubling, then, to find myself on the side of both of those appalling men when it comes to the UK government’s response to the attacks on Mr Skripal and his daughter. Not just the three of us, mind, but Jeremy Corbyn too. And RT, formerly Russia Today. Lovely bedfellows, all of them. The sinister, the devious and the dullards. History tells us that Corbyn will always support any country or organisation which hates Britain and the West. This makes him unfit to lead the Labour party, in my opinion. But it does not mean he is always wrong. It is quite possible he might be right on occasion, if only by accident.
I think he is right now, although probably for the wrong reasons. Our response to the Salisbury nerve gas attack has been precipitous, shrill, petulant and an act of self-harm. Governments are never more vulnerable to committing acts of stupidity than when they are hellbent on showing the electorate and the world that they are determined to do something. Something, anything, to prove they are tough and taking action. And so we have a fatuous ultimatum delivered to the Russkies, which of course they had no intention of meeting, and the subsequent expulsion of 23 diplomats from the Russian embassy, followed by the expulsion of 23 of our own from Moscow. Are we better off as a consequence? Do the Russians have a look of chastisement about them? And already our European allies are — rightly — beginning to row back a little from their original stance of unequivocal support for the UK and refusing to attribute the attack directly to the Kremlin. That’s because they don’t know it is attributable to the Kremlin, and frankly nor do we at this stage.
And if that’s the case, which it sur ly is, why start throwing ineffectual slings and arrows at the Bear? Why not, you know, wait a little? Gather a bit more evidence? There are still parts of Salisbury cordoned off. The investigators still do not know how the toxic substance was delivered. Was it on the car door handles, or on the present brought by Yulia? We are told, via Porton Down, that it was definitely Novichok, an organophosphorus nerve agent developed in the 1970s by the Soviet Union. How do they know this? It’s a mystery, because by their own admission they have never seen Novichok before, so it would surely be impossible to tie it directly to the Russian state. But then there are plenty of instructions online regarding how to make it, and Iran has reportedly brewed up a batch of its own, so the early and confident assertions that it must de facto have emanated from the Russian state are clearly mistaken.
We are told this demonic substance is five to eight times more lethal than VX — in which case, how come nobody is dead? The merest pinhead of VX would kill a human within too short a time for treatment to be effective. Reasonably enough, the UK refused to hand over a sample of this stuff to the Russians. But why has it taken so long to have the specimen independently verified? If we wish to have international backing for whatever action we are planning to take against Putin’s mafioso state, would it not have been sensible to move more quickly? And it is also worth noting that while Novichok was indeed developed by the USSR a long time ago, its manufacture was supposedly centred in Uzbekistan, not Russia.
I do not necessarily smell a conspiracy here. It is simply that the urgency with which our government wished to point the finger of blame was a case of jumping the gun, to our own eventual detriment. And perhaps, allied to that, a certain penchant for cherry--picking the available expert evidence in order to support an at least questionable thesis which already existed in the mind of the government and, I daresay, the military. We have been there before, of course, with those ‘dodgy dossiers’ which led us into an illegal and catastrophic war in Iraq.
To advance these arguments, though, is to be immediately outed as an apologist for Putin — a sure sign that the capacity for rational consideration has deserted us. I carry no torch for Vlad. He is a brutal, narcissistic authoritarian and I do not like the fact that half of London is owned by his repulsive oligarchic thugs. And it seems to me marginally more likely than not that either Putin or rogue elements of his preening yet incompetent regime may indeed have been guilty of the attempted murder of Mr Skripal, much as they were for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. I would just rather we were a little more sure, a little cannier, and rather less hysterical.