Jeremy Corbyn has resisted the critics within his party and the recent diplomatic stance towards Russia to urge caution against starting a “new cold war” with Russia, despite the “fervoured atmosphere” of Westminster in the wake of the Salisbury nerve agent attack.
Corbyn has urged the government to err on the side of caution, and warned Theresa May that to harden the UK’s stance against Russia would be to “rush way ahead of the evidence”, rather than allowing for the “painstaking criminal investigation” that such an incident demands.
On 5 March, former British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by a nerve agent in Salisbury. Both survived the attack but remain in critical condition at hospital. Skripal was a former Russian colonel convicted of passing the identities of undercover Russian foreign agents in Europe to MI6 in 2006. He came to the UK as part of a spy swap in in 2010.
A police officer at the scene of the Salisbury attack (Source: PA)
PM Theresa May has labelled Russia as culpable for the attack, a position endorsed by the United States, France and Germany. The incident has been referred to as “an attack on UK sovereignty”, and “the first offensive use of a nerve agent” in Europe since the Second World War. May has expelled 23 Russian diplomats, and the United States has increased sanctions against Russia, accusing it of a cyber attack against its energy grid and other infrastructure, after 13 of its citizens were found to have interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov has denied that the nerve agent identified (Novichok), was of Russian origin. Despite this, UK foreign secretary Boris Jonson has declared the evidence against Russia as “overwhelming”, going so far as to suggest “they want to simultaneously deny it, yet at the same time to glory in it.”
Boris Johnson is adamant that Russia is responsible for the attack (Source: Metro)
Jeremy Corbyn is clearly in the minority in his stance against Russia, and conscious of this, spoke out against the “McCarthyite” nature of the political discourse, which is laden with “intolerance and dissent”. 19 Labour MPs, though, have signed an early day motion putting on the record their full backing for May, in direct contradiction to the stance of their party leader. According to him, the consequence of this will be a lack of opposition to an escalation of tensions between Russia and the UK along with its allies, inevitably leading to “proxy conflicts around the globe” and increased arms spending.
In his defence, Corbyn has offered practical alternatives to the measures announced. He backs May’s decision to expel Russian diplomats in principle, but believes that “measures to tackle the oligarchs and their loot would have a far greater impact on Russia’s elite than limited tit-for-tat expulsions”. The shadow chancellor John McDonnell also supports the adoption of a tougher stance against money laundering by Russian oligarchs in the City of London, but the government has rejected amendments to the sanctions and money laundering bill to include a wider range of figures close to President Putin.
Perhaps more controversially, the Labour leader drew parallels between what he referred to as “[the] flawed intelligence and dodgy dossiers” relied upon as evidence for the “calamity” of the Iraq invasion in 2003, the “overwhelming bipartisan support” for attacking Libya, and the evidence upon which the prime minister seeks to justify her stance on Russia.
The consequences of those conflicts are still unravelling, with millions of people around the globe suffering from those botched foreign interventions. Though the hostilities with Russia have not reached such a drastic place, it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility of armed conflict, an extremely undesirable potential outcome of the current crisis. Corbyn’s policy of hurting the pockets of Russia’s 1% is decisive action, much more than the expulsion of Russian diplomats. This would be an acceptable stance whilst a thorough investigation takes place to determine who is responsible for the Salisbury attack, though such a measured approach is out of touch with the allied indignation towards the Russian regime, both from politicians and the public at large. An Observer poll finds that 39% of people back May to handle the Russia row over 16% for Corbyn, signalling a much tougher stance is more popular than the approach Jeremy Corbyn has adopted.