An attack using a nerve agent in a British city is worse than an unspeakable crime. Amid domestic political disasters, the prime minister got the tone right in her statement to the House of Commons yesterday. It was a direct attack by Russia against this country using a powerful agent that is not known to have been deployed previously and is hard to detect. The incriminating evidence leaves only the possibility that the attack was authorised at the highest level of the Russian state or that the state had lost control of its stocks of novichok, the agent used. Make that just one possibility, then: the second is a diplomatic fiction that no observer with critical faculties would credit.
While Theresa May gave an impressive performance, Jeremy Corbyn responded feebly in ideas and delivery; no other Labour leader since the hapless pacifist George Lansbury could have plumbed such depths. You wouldn’t have imagined it as the response of a party that, under Clement Attlee’s postwar government, played a crucial role in founding of Nato to counter Soviet threats and aggression. But that must be a story for another time. The main interest here is to observe the Russian response when caught in a flagrant act of aggression. Its organised disinformation campaign lies, promotes conspiracy theories and blames the victims (in this case, the British). And there must be a cost for this, as lying propaganda – let’s call it, in the modern term, fake news – is a tactic to stymie peacemaking across the conflicts that Russia either creates or inflames.
The role of a foreign embassy is diplomatic, ceremonial and cultural. The Russian Embassy in London has additionally adopted the role of abusive online trolling. By conventional standards, it’s an extraordinary way for a diplomatic mission to behave, issuing personal insults against public figures and journalists who criticise the Putin regime. Yet Russia has a practised playbook. On March 6, two days after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, the Embassy felt so little horror at the attack or sympathy for its victims that it issued a press release condemning “a new phase of the anti-Russian campaign” and called for an end to “the demonisation of Russia”.
Thus the predictable and threadbare Russian propaganda campaign, in Moscow and in London, has been played out over the past week. It’s reminiscent of the ministry’s preposterous evasions after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
First, dispute that the attack is anything to do with Russia; then insist there’s a lack of evidence (deliberately confusing the concept of evidence that is in the public domain with evidence that is classified); next disingenuously declare that there should be a presumption of innocence (as if all the other brutal deaths of President Putin’s critics in Russia and elsewhere were a tragic and random series of coincidences); and finally blame the attempted assassination on the British security services seeking to whip up “Russophobia”.
It’s all preposterous, but government and civil society (including those of us in the media) should recognise the deliberate strategy behind it. Back in 2012, the Assad regime in Syria – Mr Putin’s client – perpetrated a heinous massacre of civilians at Houla, killing 108 people, mostly women and children. The Syrian army sprayed rooms with bullets. James Harding, then editor of The Times, asked me to spend an afternoon looking through the photographs we’d obtained of the scene. They were so harrowing that we were unable to publish them; James just wanted me to know what the issue was that we would be publishing editorials about. Having seen those pictures, lots of them, I recall with revulsion a statement by Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, that both sides, the rebels as well as Assad’s forces, bore culpability for the deaths at Houla. That was not some statement of reasonable caution in advance of hard facts. Mr Lavrov was instead peddling the Syrian regime’s duplicitous denial of responsibility for the murder of children.
The practice of lying is at the heart of the Russian state activities in the UK. I recall too a letter sent by Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador, sent to The Times objecting to our editorial position. He did so not with reasoned argument but by – of all things – casting doubt on the documented facts of the Racak massacre (in which 45 people died) committed by Serb forces in Kosovo in 1999, which precipitated Nato’s bombing campaign to stop genocide. The strategy of revisionist lies is longstanding and extensive.
Britain, its government and its civil society, shouldn’t take this. Against an aggressive and reckless act of warfare, the options open in response are diplomatic, cultural, economic and informational. Accepting that this is a Cold War not of our side’s choosing, we need to engage in it. Containment is the alternative to deadlier hostilities. Having cogently set out the facts of the case yesterday, the prime minister should command broad political support for expelling Russian “diplomats” who are reasonably suspected of hostile acts; freezing the UK assets of Mr Putin’s cronies; and boycotting the World Cup this summer.
But above all, like the Cold War with the old Soviet Union, this will be a campaign in which the transatlantic alliance will need to pull together and understand (as President Trump sadly shows few signs of doing) its treaty commitment to mutual defence. The role for us writers and journalists is now, as it was then, to expose official deceit. For all the inadequacies, evasions and imperfections of British liberal democracy, these are on a different scale from the monolith of fakery in the service of repression and xenophobia that the Russian state promulgates.
As is well known, the propaganda apparatus of the Putin regime operates in this country through the broadcaster Russia Today (now called more elliptically RT) and the purported news agency Sputnik. These are fake entities. Twitter has banned advertisements from them. Ofcom, the broadcast regulator, has sanctioned RT on multiple occasions for its failure to observe legal requirements for due fairness and impartiality in reporting the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.
It’s tempting just to leave these entities in place. They have a tiny audience, for the good reason that their programmes are made by obscure fantasists for likeminded viewers. The production values are risible. RT’s main anchor, Bill Dod, was previously a location reporter on the Carlton Food Network. The station’s pundits are a collection of unemployable and unlettered conspiracy cranks; some appear to have symptoms consistent with mental disorder (a state I’m familiar with, having suffered the same), and some may not exist at all.
Yet there is an issue of principle here. Regulation of the media is not done by the government but by independent bodies. Ofcom revoked the licence of Press TV, the Iranian state broadcaster, in 2012 for breaching broadcasting rules over editorial rules for the channel. No one any longer hears of Press TV, a venomous and antisemitic outlet. The regulators shouldn’t provide an exemption for the propaganda apparatus of another hostile autocracy just because it would be politically convenient. Russia will act against the BBC and other reputable journalistic outlets when its sees the opportunity, whether we like it or not. The regulators should without further delay apply the same criteria to Putin’s propaganda machine as it did to Iran’s.
The events of the past week have confirmed that the Kremlin does not act by normal considerations of statecraft. It’s torn up the rules of international diplomacy and attacked a British city with a chemical agent. Government and civil society must not shirk this struggle. It will be a long one.