Photo: A forensics tent covers the bench where Sergei and Yulia Skripal fell unconscious. CC BY 2.5 - Photo: 2018

Trade War, Skripal, Arsenic and Old Lace

Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*

ROME (IDN) – Like the rest of humanity, I have no way of identifying the instigator of the attempted assassination of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. But I venture some reasoning, just to clear the field of fantasies and focus on real problems.

It is true that personalities unwelcome to the Kremlin sometimes meet with serious and mysterious pathologies. One of the famous cases is that of Viktor Yushchenko, a candidate for the presidential elections of Ukraine in 2004, in an election campaign during which, among others, Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled seven times to that country to support Yushchenko’s competitor Viktor Yanukovych.

Others include: Aleksandr Litvinenko, former official of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) and critic of Putin, poisoned to death with polonium in London in 2006; journalist Anna Politkovskaya, distinguished for her services on the war in Chechnya, gunned down in Moscow, also in 2006; Boris Berezovsky, the most influential Russian oligarch at the time of Russian President Boris Eltsin, another exile critical of Putin who died in unclear circumstances in London in 2013; and Boris Nemtsov, head of the Sojuz Pravych Sil [Union of Right Forces] party, assassinated in 2015.

However, it is incomprehensible what interest Moscow could have in eliminating Skripal, risking an international crisis. Why kill an individual already regularly released in 2010 as part of an exchange of arrested “spies” with the United States? What other terrible revelations could there be eight years later and after having been questioned – immediately and at length – by the competent services?

And then, why eliminate him with such a sophisticated means as nerve gas, the origin of which could be traced? Would not it have been better to simulate a car accident? A tile on his head? A pistol shot or the classic anonymous arsenic? Have these perhaps gone out of fashion?

On the other hand, neither is it clear why Skripal should be eliminated by some “Western” service. There is no shortage of motivations for further increasing tension with Moscow and, if necessary, bigger and more emotional ones can be invented for public opinion.

The truth is that in cases like these, the imagination can have free rein. Could Skripal have been poisoned by other players interested in increasing tension between Russia and the “West”?

Let us speculate: could those responsible not have been North Korean agents interested in neutralising Russian pressure towards an agreement with the United States, or agents of ISIS or of the Assad regime? Or Chechen separatists? Or also, why not, could it not have been the sophisticated killers of an occult “Spectre” of businessmen linked to the military-industrial complex who used the nerve gas?

Actually, not only do I not have the means, but also I am not even interested in knowing who poisoned Sergej Skripal and his daughter. From the point of view of world history and the interests of ordinary citizens, this is irrelevant. I do not need a judicial truth to know that – if they so wish – states can act without scruples, kill and slaughter. Reasons of state exist, but good states do not exist.

To give another example, I remember well that in July 1985 the French secret services blew up the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior which was protesting against nuclear explosions in French Polynesia, causing the death of a man. President then was “companion” Mitterand … of the Union of the Left.

Two of the saboteurs of the French General Directorate for External Security were arrested by the New Zealand police, tried and sentenced to ten years. The French Defence Minister was forced to resign, but New Zealand, placed under economic blackmail by France, was forced into an agreement whereby the two assassins were first transferred under French custody, then released and finally given a promotion.

What happened to the Rainbow Warrior is crystal clear, unlike the Skripal case and in general of real historically relevant plots, which have the unfortunate characteristic of remaining secret in the phase of preparation, but of revealing themselves in implementation; coups d’état are an easy example.

So I willingly leave investigations to the competent bodies and conjectures to the devotees of spy stories and the conspiracy theorists of every sort, who however already have the pre-packaged answer according to their personal paranoias and political sympathies.

The personalisation and Manichaean division of political players into good and bad – of course the villains are cunning and treacherous, although doomed to defeat – belong to a view of the world that is infantile and easily manipulated.

Something else is important in this filthy affair, whoever the instigators: the flurry of mass expulsions of Russian diplomats from NATO countries and of NATO diplomats from Russia. For many commentators, together with the looming trade war between the United States and China, this affair seems to be the prelude to a new Cold War.

However, care must also be taken not to arrive at hasty conclusions that can distract attention from the underlying issues.

It may be recalled that in 1986 the United States expelled 80 Soviet diplomats after the arrest of a Russian-American journalist in Moscow and the Soviets, in turn, reciprocated. Nevertheless, the following year Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty on medium-range missiles and three years later the Second Cold War was officially declared over.

And then, in 2001, the United States and Russia expelled 53 diplomats each, but – despite other major problems – this did not prevent the two powers from continuing to collaborate in the “war on terror”, and Putin saying of the American president during the celebrations of the anniversary of the foundation of St. Petersburg: ” We have many points of coincidence of our views on many issues. And it is precisely these things that enable me to call President Bush my friend, not only personally – because personally I do like him a lot – but as my counterpart and the President of a friendly nation”.

Of course, we need to contextualise … and this is the point.

The use of the term “Cold War” – without further qualifications – was very popular for the entire post-World War II period but also misleading, and the same applies to the current framework of relations between Russia and the “West”.

I think the periodisation proposed by Fred Halliday in his book The Making of the Second Cold War is correct: it distinguishes the First Cold War (1946-1953), oscillatory antagonism (1953-1969), détente (1969-1979) and the Second Cold War (from 1980 and ending de facto with the Reykjavik summit between Gorbachev and Reagan in October 1986).

The phase of oscillatory antagonism was characterised by negotiations and repeated attempts to reduce tensions between the two sides, each of which failed due to events in part outside the control of the two powers, but which necessarily involved both and pitted one against the other.

It was therefore a phase that combined aspects of the Cold War with aspects of détente and which, unlike the latter, was clearly defined more in retrospect than when it was in vigour.

Well, all in all, it is this that the relations between the United States and Putin’s Russia resemble: so much so that jihadist terrorism (and for Russia, in particular, Chechen terrorism) is a common enemy; and the energy flows from Russia to Western Europe would have been unthinkable during the First Cold War (these flows began during détente and were among the reasons for the postponement of Soviet reforms and the paradoxical “resource curse” still affecting the Russian economy).

There is also a fundamental reason why we must be very careful about likening contemporary relations between Russia and “West” to the Cold War, which was a contrast between different social systems: capitalist imperialism on the one hand and totalitarian pseudo-socialism on the other.

In the 21st century, neither Soviet nor Maoist “communism” exist any longer. We only have capitalisms, and those of Russia and China are also imperialisms (in the proper and structural sense that leaves aside a more or less aggressive policy; at least for Marxists, this should be obvious).

Posing the question as if it were the Cold War is a way to fuel tension and confusion. Or to create the consolatory illusion of reliving old “glorious” times: something even more erroneous when one considers – moreover – that Putin and Trump are both placed to the right of the political spectrum: traditionalists, nationalists, authoritarians, militarists and chauvinists.

However, it is since the Ukrainian crisis and the annexation of the Crimea that the pendulum has tended towards the freeze: the current diplomatic crisis is part of the picture, but we cannot rule out the easing of tension. We will see.

As for the protectionist initiative of the Trump administration, this was long awaited.

So, coincidence between the two facts? Yes, most likely. Also because moving at the same time towards Cold War with Russia and China would be quite stupid, and it would be even more stupid to do this while threatening or actually undertaking a trade war with allies.

Can we speculate that behind the poisoning of Skripal there is the Machiavellian European Commission, which intends to prevent Trump from kissing Putin’s cheek? Or that it is a ruse of the opponents of Brexit? The list of possible plots can be lengthened.

There is no doubt that there is negotiation with China and that in March it initially responded moderately to US tariffs, promising concessions; in the meantime, it appears that the European Commission and Gazprom are coming to an agreement to close a very expensive antitrust case dating back to 2011; and the meeting in Washington proposed by Trump to Putin during the congratulatory call for the third re-election of the Russian president (so, two weeks after the poisoning of Skripal) remains to be defined.

In my opinion, the crucial question is that when well contextualised, far from being the result of the strategy of a director, the scenography of relations with Russia seems quite botched and susceptible to very different developments.

It is true, however, that this it is not just a question of fortuity. It is the kind of situation that highlights the inherent contradictions of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.

The protectionist impetus responds to demands of domestic legitimation – based on electoral promises – but is in contrast with the international division of labour and the reproduction of US capital on a global scale. A conflict is taking shape between US international economic policy and its policy of alliances and national security.

Protectionism is also a way to avoid implementing serious socio-economic reforms in the United States. Behind the contradictions of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is the latent conflict between it and the population of ordinary North American citizens, including the white male workers who voted for Trump.

For the world, this is much more important than stories of spies, arsenic and old ideological lace.

* Michele Nobile has published essays and books on the contradiction between capitalism and the environment (Goods-Nature and Ecosocialism, 1993), on the theory and history of imperialism (Imperialism. The Real Face of Globalisation, 2006), and on the transformations of the state and economic policy in the crisis (Capitalism and Post-Democracy. Economics and Politics in the Systemic Crisis, 2012).

He is one of the founders of the international association Utopia Rossa (Red Utopia) which published this article in Italian under the titleGuerra Commerciale, Skripal, Arsenico e Vecchi Merletti’. Translated by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 April 2018]

Photo: A forensics tent covers the bench where Sergei and Yulia Skripal fell unconscious. CC BY 2.5

IDN is the flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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