Every new Foreign Secretary used, until recently, to think there must be something we can do to improve relations with Russia.
This error is no longer being made. Russia has behaved so badly, in such a variety of places, ranging from Ukraine to Syria to Salisbury, that the need to combat Russian propaganda has instead come to the fore, and the Foreign Office and other parts of the British Government have become better at doing so.
In the present crisis, western public opinion has been prepared for the likelihood that Moscow, by mounting false flag operations, will seek, in an outrageous and implausible way, to blame its aggressive acts on Kiev.
Much Russian propaganda is cack-handed, to say the least. “Their tradecraft is not very good,” a source remarked, and instanced the Salisbury attack, which was so clumsy it constituted a kind of education in how shameless Moscow is prepared to be.
Jeremy Corbyn was pretty much alone in failing to accept the evidence in that case of Russian culpability. The attack happened on 4th March 2018, and on 12th March the Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, was summoned to the Foreign Office to be addressed by Boris Johnson, the then Foreign Secretary, in the presence of Alan Duncan, Minister of State for Europe and the Americas, and one British official. Duncan has since published his diary account of this meeting:
Yakovenko and his deputy came in, all jaunty and smiling as if nothing had happened. Boris and I were suitably severe. We all remained standing up, on facing sides of the Foreign Secretary’s large office table.
“Ambassador. Two people have been poisoned on UK soil in Salisbury. One is in a critical condition and might die. His daughter and a policeman are in hospital. Our laboratory has established beyond doubt that the poison used was a banned military-grade nerve agent called Novichok.
“We know that this was made in Russia, and can only have been handled by the Russian state. Either the Russian state did this or it has lost control of its Novichok stocks. You have until midnight tomorrow to let us know which.”
And then he raised his tone and with fabulous indignation verging on anger, told him in no uncertain terms how unacceptable it was to violate our security, try to murder someone on British soil, breach a highly important international convention, etc. It was a deliciously delivered dressing down, in response to which the dumb-struck Yakovenko couldn’t say anything, and just left.
Well done, Boris! I felt genuinely proud of him. Perhaps it worked so well because he was not larking about and playing to the gallery – he spoke from the heart and meant what he said. It was a magic moment, which shows that little can beat Boris at his best.
By the end of March 2018 Britain and 28 other countries had expelled a total of 153 Russian diplomats.
False flag operations by GRU agents in Ukraine are likely to be conducted with the same mixture of brutality and incompetence.
There will be an insulting refusal to try to harmonise the different provocations into a coherent narrative. Every attempt will be made to muddy the waters while at the same time seeking to justify the unjustifiable.
So it is important that Johnson, Liz Truss and Ben Wallace, and their equivalents in the United States and other western nations, continue to warn of the likelihood of further violations of Ukrainian sovereignty, and to condemn any violations as soon as they are committed.
Vladimir Putin craves propaganda victories. The West must go on denying him those victories. Last night the Foreign Office issued a statement condemning the latest cyber attacks by the GRU on the Ukrainian banking system:
The UK Government judges that the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) were involved in this week’s distributed denial of service attacks against the financial sector in Ukraine.
The attack showed a continued disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty. This activity is yet another example of Russia’s aggressive acts against Ukraine.
This disruptive behaviour is unacceptable – Russia must stop this activity and respect Ukrainian sovereignty. We are steadfast in our support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.
Patience will be needed, but a clear principle is at stake. Russia has no right to violate Ukrainian sovereignty, and other sovereign nations must not cease to point this out.