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In Demonizing Russia, the UK and US Are Living in the Past

Oh, we won’t give in, / Let’s go living in the past Once I used to join in, / Every boy and girl was my friend Now there’s revolution, but they don’t know what they’re fighting

--Ian Anderson,“Living in the Past,” 1972

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Much has been written in recent days about the U.K. government’s breaking of legal and ethical protocols with respect to the alleged poisoning of double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on 4 March 2018 in the town of Salisbury, Wiltshire (England). Myriad questions are being asked, but their answers remain shrouded in mystery.

It has been remarked more than once that the event took place less than two weeks before Russia’s presidential elections on 18 March, and during the final arrangements for Russia’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup in various cities from 14 June to 15 July 2018. British Prime Minister Theresa May assured the world that Russia and especially Pres. Vladimir Putin are responsible for the attack of nerve gas on “the life of British citizens.”i

The hysteria, extreme prejudice, and self-assured arrogance with which the Prime Minister made her accusations, long before an investigation was even launched, raise corollary questions that are important for an understanding of the politics in play here. The U.K.’s government is living in the past, disconnected from the modern-day reality of its lacking a viable vision for the well-being of its people, from its weak international position in light of its messy Brexit process, and from its failure to secure major trading partners for itself. It is adrift and clinging to the U.S. as its ally and patron.

Thus, cui bono? Whose interests are served by ushering in yet another fruitless wave of Russophobia by staging an attack on an aging ex-spy pardoned by Russia and no longer of any real use for international espionage? Motives matter. In a serious investigation Russia would be last in the line of suspects for such a pointless act. By contrast, the U.K. and U.S. would stand to profit if the world community were to believe their accusations.

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The U.K. would profit by using this scandal to shore up an unpopular and ineffective government, as well as mount an attack on and potentially discredit any opposing forces, such as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party (which has argued for adhering to proper protocols before rushing to blame a specific country for the alleged poisoning). U.S. neoconservatives would profit by grafting this new Russia-bashing event onto their political infighting with their opponents, and by expanding the image of Russia—already negative in the minds of an uninformed American public—into the very epitome of evil.

They have shown their inability to create a playbook for the U.S.’s position in the world that deviates from the Wolfowitz doctrine’s unending wars to promote unity [sic] among the American people. The parallels between the U.K.’s current machinations and the U.S.’s political infighting are actually striking: Both governments use Russia as a scapegoat for the purposes of gaining political ground and frightening their constituents, with the help of a compliant media, so that their military budgets will continue to increase.

Several other countries also may profit by demonizing Russia in response to past offenses, some more real within the landscape of specific historical contexts, and some imagined. Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries come to mind. All of these countries possess governments that are Russophobic, and which stand to lose money, prestige, and resources if the Nord Stream 2 pipeline running under the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany is made fully operational. Thus these countries, either working alone or in tandem with others, have sufficient motive for the staging of a rather amateurish attempt on the life of a man and his daughter, and blaming it on Russia.

They, too, are living in the past.

However, the two primary countries continuing to drive the Russia-is-guilty narrative are the U.K. and the U.S., which could have co-staged this sensationalist event. The U.K.’s provocations exist in the form of pronouncements and ultimatums by PM May (noted above), Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. The childish remark by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson that “Frankly, Russia should go away, it should shut up,”ii is almost beyond commenting on. He implies that Russia is somehow one step below the British and not worth treating as an equal. Williamson’s words show a contempt for Russia’s legitimate requests to cooperate in the investigation. A self-respecting government would have immediately fired someone who made such a reckless remark. Moreover, the comparison by Boris Johnson of the 2018 World Cup in Russia to the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany is just plain mean-spirited and pathetic.

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A more lackluster and shrill cohort can hardly be imagined. The official media’s attempts to rally the British people around the May government are backfiring, as the country’s citizens increasingly realize that this suspicious event seeks to deflect attention away from their government’s failure to attend to the needs of its people. The British populace is well aware of the similarities between this event and former PM Tony Blair’s deceptive campaign to convince his constituents that invading Iraq was ethically warranted.

The British people also recall how, in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris and several other French cities in November of 2015, the government of Pres. Hollande used the attacks as a pretext for militarizing the French police, instead of addressing the real root of the terrorism—France’s participation in the U.S. coalition’s invasions of countries of the Middle East during these years. PM May clearly desires to shore up her power base and project an image of strength—as if the U.K. were still a world empire that could dictate to its real or imagined colonies how they should conduct themselves. Living in the past.

The U.S.’s role in this fiasco aims to heap guilt onto Russia without any evidence. Its statements amount to support for PM May’s contention that Russia is guilty until proven innocent, such as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley’s utterance, “The United States believes that Russia is responsible for the attack on two people in the United Kingdom using a military-grade nerve agent.”iii It does not matter that the preliminary accounts coming out of the UK are contradictory or that a proper investigation has not begun. Or that Russia officially destroyed its chemical weapons stocks in 2017, but that when the Soviet Union’s chemical stocks in Uzbekistan were destroyed some years ago, it was the Americans who dismantled the equipment and stocks (and could presumably have transported various items back to the U.S.).iv

Haley’s high-handed behavior supports the U.S.’s current feud with Russia that concerns more than a poisoning incident: It is the clash of world orders, specifically of the post-World War II order in which the U.S. rose to prominence and subsequently squandered its good will. The U.S. is living in the past and in denial of enormous changes that have taken place in the world, changes spearheaded by Russia, China, the BRICS countries, and the countries of the Middle East. The unipolar order will not be restored, no matter how much the U.S. cajoles, bullies, and outright threatens the other countries of the world.

What is driving the U.K. and the U.S. to their breaking points diplomatically is that Russia refuses to be flustered and rise to the provocations and bait. It enrages the Russophobes that Russia is not obsessed with them (as they are with her) and not subject to their control. Even the E.U. has offered only lukewarm support for PM May’s position on the alleged poisoning attempt. Russia is not living in the past; to the contrary, Russia is managing its national budget in such a way as to advance the country’s sustainability and security. Russia is planning carefully for its future, building reliable trading partnerships and modernizing a domestic infrastructure that badly needs attention. Despite what the Western mainstream media trumpets, Russia is not in an empire-building mode and will do everything in its power to avoid war.

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It remains troubling that the country on whose territory the Skripal incident took place seems adamant about withholding as many relevant details as possible from the public, and that its government’s exceptionalist behavior concerning the following of proper procedures has not been challenged more vocally by the international community. Where are the politicians of real courage and moral fiber? The U.K.’s attitude of being “above the law” is reminiscent of the U.S.’s violation of international law by the closing and appropriation of Russia’s embassy properties in New York, Washington, and San Francisco in 2017.

The British people are among the finest I have ever met. They do not deserve an irresponsible government that humiliates Russia with impunity, as Noam Chomsky’s book title puts it, Because We Say So (2015). But the questions remain: Do the British have a genuine say concerning which persons are elected as their public servants? Where do such people as Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Gavin Williamson come from?

Armenian poet Gevorg Emin provides an answer in the first and last lines of his poem “Listening to a Toast” (published in Russian in 1979 in Vladimir Soloukhin’s translation; my English translation follows). The poem has two voices:

I’m a very good person, You’re a very good person, He’s a very good person.

So please tell me, Where do bad people come from And why do bad things happen?

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I’m a very good son, You’re a very good son. He’s a very good son.

The poem proceeds to list or imply various forms of harm that humans inflict on each other. It ends with the words:

Maybe in this world There are different kinds of guilt, But no guilty ones? Or—who knows?— Maybe these things are done by people Who have come here from Mars?

Valeria Z. Nollan is a regular contributor to Russia Insider. She is professor emerita of Russian studies at Rhodes College. She was born in Hamburg, West Germany; she and her parents were Russian refugees displaced by World War II.

Her books and articles on Russian literature, religion, and nationalism have made her an internationally-recognized authority on topics relating to modern Russia. She recently completed a new biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

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