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May 16, 2021
EDITORIAL

UK: Between Brexit and ‘Cold War 2.0’

UK’s position in the dossier concerning the poisoning – with a banned gas – of a Russian secret agent that had become a British citizen following a spy swap between the two states has exploded in extremely complex circumstances. Less than two weeks have passed since the speech that Russian leader V. Putin gave, through which he basically announced the start of a new Cold War (which analysts have already dubbed ‘Cold War 2.0’), informing about the new types of strategic weapons in Russia’s possession, which basically sounds like a call to re-discuss the global strategic balance with the U.S. Less than two months have passed since fundamental U.S. security documents (the defence strategy) have named two other global powers as being America’s enemies (China and Russia), hence inaugurating an official line of adversity / systemic competition that is specific to a cold war. Likewise, several weeks have passed since British Premier Theresa May called for the conclusion of a defence treaty with the European Union, against the backdrop of the Brexit negotiations, emphasising that London sees itself as a part of Europe from the strategic standpoint, even though it is leaving the European integration organisation. These days, President Trump is outlining, via repeated tweets, a somewhat global economic war in which the participants will be on one hand the U.S. and, on the other hand, Canada, the European Union, or China; etc. The exemplification of this recent complexity in developments, which reflects the accelerated dynamic of a worrisome systemic evolution, could continue. But I believe it is sufficient to show why this ‘Skripal scandal’ has diverse reasons, probably just as many as the explanatory theories launched in the analysts’ camp.

For instance, Lawrence Freedman, writing immediately after the statements that Theresa May made in this case (March 13), which included an ultimatum for Russia, which attracted a strong retort from a Kremlin visibly irritated by it, specified the fact that Moscow is once again taking on an aggressive attitude toward the West. It is allegedly motivated by the presidential elections of March 18, in which V. Putin is once again, for the fourth time, a candidate, and his action to ‘punish’ Skripal a sign of bravado in the face of the marked uncertainty of the Russian leader and of his country. Outlining that President Putin’s recent speech on March 1, deemed as launching a new Cold War, shows that we have entered ‘Cold War 2.0,’ a period that deserves great attention because, showing similarities to ‘Cold War 1.0,’ which ended in 1989, it can now rapidly turn into a ‘hot war’ at any time: “In some respects it is already quite warm, given the number of active measures recently taken by Russia against the West. As a reminder of the most dreaded aspect of Cold War 1.0, Putin started this month introducing a collection of new nuclear weapons, including a cruise missile that could ‘reach anywhere in the world’ and bypass all forms of defence. Meanwhile, in tones reminiscent of the early 1980s, Nato generals have been describing the extent of the recent Russian build-up of conventional forces facing the Baltic states and the struggle the alliance would face when responding to a quick offensive, even if over time (if there was time) its superior strength would win out.” Freedman lists a series of differences between the two periods of Cold War after 1947-1948, including the fact that, while the first one was global, its second variant is rather local, because of Russia’s weakness compared to the USSR, Syria being its epicentre. More important among these differences would be that, while Cold War 1.0 saw a minimal global economic interlink, the two systems basically evolving separately, today globalisation has resulted in extended economic connections. Freedman concludes that, in the current stage, in order to avoid a generalised hot war, it is necessary to maintain communication channels open between the two ‘Cold War 2.0’ camps.

Another thesis is forwarded by French strategist Francois Heisbourg, who justifiably notes in a tweet: “As I listen to question time at the Commons, it is reassuring to see that the Mother of Democracies is still alive+kicking in the face of Moscow’s use of a Russia-specific chemical agent in a country judged to be weak+inconsistent. Brexit is Brexit, but must not be more than that.” In other words, even though the UK leaving the EU and the perception of weakness demonstrated by the Brexit negotiations hangs over London, the UK must enjoy the support of its allies even more so. Something that did happen, the main Western powers (U.S., France, Germany) underscoring in a joint statement their position as UK’s allies in this affair. Especially since Russia’s nuclear status – undoubtedly superior – was mentioned in Moscow’s response to London’s demands for explanations, as an implicit threat, demands followed by the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, undercover secret agents.

Back in Britain, it is worth mentioning that Labour leader J. Corbyn, positioned against the backdrop of the crisis of Theresa May’s conservative government – seriously shaken as a result of the progress of Brexit negotiations with the EU – as a contender with great chances to become Britain’s Premier, had a nuanced attitude in this dossier. He pointed out that the evidence of Russia’s involvement must be searched for “because this was a chemical weapons attack, carried out on British soil,” which seemed to reiterate a part of the justification delivered by the Russian response to London’s accusations. Moreover, Corbyn referred to the alternative possibility – also evoked by T. May – that the Russian state could have failed to control its own chemical weapons arsenal. “In relation to the second alternative explanation, in other words the loss of control of military-grade nerve agent, we highlighted today and we have done repeatedly, the dangers of mafia-like groups and oligarchic interests in London, and their links with elements within the Russian state, and that we need to take more firm action on that.” This stance prompted a fierce clash between the Opposition and the ruling power in British politics, but also within Labour. The conservatives ended up incriminating the fact that Corbyn is adopting the Russian position in this affair, and his presence as Premier would jeopardise UK’s independence, as well as its alliances. The opinion expressed by ‘The Financial Times’ the following day outlines this extreme position toward the potential future Premier, but also a marked fear about this possibility: “The Labour leader’s response would be worrying even if it only reflected a failure of judgment. But it is worse than that. Mr Corbyn’s entire political career and worldview have been shaped by a deep suspicion of the west in general and the US in particular. Decades of leading marches and addressing “peace” rallies underpin his rejection of the western orthodoxy — he has called for Nato to be disbanded, for example. By contrast, Mr Corbyn has been all too willing to call for understanding of unsavoury groups or regimes — inviting Irish Republicans to the House of Commons soon after the Brighton bombing, describing Hamas and Hizbollah as ‘friends’ and lauding Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela.” Hence, almost irreconcilable positions between the main leaders of the UK toward this scandal.

Finally, a podcast featuring the opinions of G. Rachman (from the ‘Financial Times’) must be mentioned. He considers it wise that this London-Moscow conflict did not go as far as the breaking of dialogue between the two sides or adopting measures toward wealthy British residents of Russian origin, pointing out the fact that the UK undeniably still has ammunition in this dossier, as well as the gain obtained by having the allies expressing their solidarity with Theresa May’s position. Because, the analyst deems, even in the case in which dialogue is maintained, the situation between the two states can no longer be like it was before this Skripal case.

At any rate, the consolidation of the ‘Cold War 2.0’ period is continuing along the lines opened in the last three months. And Freedman’s warning – the possibility of this new cold war becoming a hot war is considerable and calls for the whole attention of the leaders involved – must be taken into account.

 

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