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Skripal-case: from the spy story to the tug of war between Moscow and Western Countries

The attempted poisoning of the ex-Russian intelligence officer and his daughter Yulia has triggered a rapidly-escalating political clash. London, EU countries and the United States are expelling 140 Russian diplomats and agents, Putin responds with dozens of expulsions. The details of a story from another era that is sliding into the times of the "cold war"

L'arresto di Skripal da parte di agenti russi nel 2004

As has always been the case when spies and diplomacies are involved, the outlines of news reports become blurred and controversial, and not always are the sources verifiable or credible … Thus, in the case of the attempted poisoning of former Russian double-agent Sergej Skripal and his daughter Yulia, the only clear piece of evidence is the expulsion of ambassadors and the related political fallout signalling a new “cold war”, fortunately non-violent, between the West and Russia. United States and Europe close ranks against Moscow, NATO joins in, even London and the other 27 EU countries, strongly divided by Brexit and by the English Channel, find unity of action against the common “enemy” Vladimir Putin.

What we know so far. The facts, above all – albeit yet to be ascertained. On the afternoon of March 4 Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious , in the afternoon, on a bench in the English city of Salisbury, not far from the capital.

His daughter had recently arrived in Great Britain to visit her father. She was carrying a gift: a bottle of perfume in remembrance of her deceased mother.

Investigators now believe that Russian secret services planted the nerve agent that poisoned Sergej Skripal in the perfume bottle or in his daughter’s suitcase before she left Moscow. What we know for sure is that after lunch they went for a walk and were found slumped unconscious on a bench, catatonic. They were immediately brought to hospital where they are still in critical conditions. Other 21 people were taken to hospital a few hours later. We have no other information. Medical reports are secreted by ongoing investigations that Scotland Yard has entrusted to a large number of intelligence officers, in addition to the 007 agents of the Queen’s secret services.

The spy that came from the East. The figure of Skripal is rather controversial. He allegedly “sold” to the West several ex-KGB spies, starting in the year 2000, that led to their conviction or put them out of service. Moreover, over the past 15 years English crime news reported many persons missing, died in mysterious circumstances, suicides, all reportedly linked to the activity of secret services. Owing to his role as double-agent, in 2006 Skripal was found guilty and sentenced to 13 years in prison in Russia;

He was one of the four convicts released by Moscow in 2010 in exchange for the release of ten Russian spies that had been arrested by the FBI.

He was thus considered a person of interest for the US and Great Britain, to extent of residing, for some time already, in a building once used by the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (M16) for dubious activity, including the interrogation of foreign agents.

 

May and EU allies. An international political confrontation broke out immediately after the incident, fuelled by British premier Theresa May who without mincing her words accused the Kremlin of having schemed the attack using “chemical weapons on British soil”, the first case, added the Prime Minister, since the Second World War.

May, currently experiencing difficulties at national and international level owing to her management of the Brexit, recovered Party unity as well as the unanimous consensus of her Country

And the support of the EU whose European Council of March 22-23 concertedly decided to recall the Ambassador in Moscow. In the following days, 16 Member Countries – Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, The Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Sweden Hungary, Croatia, Czech Republic and Spain – called for the expulsion of Russian diplomats. Similar decisions were taken by the United States that on March 26 enacted a measure that involved some sixty Russians. Other Countries, including Canada and Ukraine, uphold the same stance. Over 100 have been expelled so far.

“Hysterical propaganda.” Russia’s reaction followed suit. Its Foreign Minister decided to expel 23 “personae non grata” employed by Moscow’s British Embassy. The entourage of President Vladimir Putin underlined that

Western governments are only making “hysterical propaganda”, marked by a “biased, charged and hypocritical position.”

The expulsion of Russian representatives from USA and GB is considered an “unfriendly, impertinent” step. “The allies of Great Britain also lack objective and conclusive data in the Skripal case and they blindly follow the principle of the Euro-Atlantic unity to the detriment of common sense, the norms of civilized inter-state dialogue and the principles of international law”, declared the Russian Foreign Minister on March 26.

NATO’s reaction. On March 27 similar measures were taken by NATO, voiced by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: “I have today withdrawn the accreditation of seven staff of the Russian mission to NATO. I will also deny the pending accreditation request for three others and reduce the maximum number of diplomats accredited to NATO from 30 to 20. This sends a clear message to Russia that there are costs and consequences for its unacceptable and dangerous pattern of behaviour.”

Stoltenberg pointed out: “NATO’s decision follows Russia’s lack of constructive response to what happened in Salisbury.”

These actions “reflect the serious security concerns expressed by all Allies.” He gave the figures: so far the consultations “resulted in the expulsion of over 140 Russian officials by over 25 NATO Allies and partners.”

Each has its own good reasons. The main parties involved have every interest in raising the level of political confrontation. May sees in the Skripal affair an opportunity to appear strong and credible in a Country that is starting to realize the serious problems related to the Brexit. Trump must divert attention from the Russiagate and the alleged sexual scandals that are escalating in Washington. Putin, just re-elected President with a sweeping majority, has no intention of disappointing his fellow citizens. The Kremlin insists on an international conspiracy and on Trump’s pressures to unite his European allies.

Sergei Lavrov, Head of the Russian diplomacy declared after the expulsions: “many Countries have apologized.”

London reversed the claim and swore that retaliations against secret agents and Russian diplomats on English soil has already led to the exposure of a network of spies stationed in the Country. In the meantime British Minister Boris Johnson put himself on the safe side: the UK will not renounce participation in the World Cup in Russia that will open next June 14. Football first! The initial impression remains: a glimpse of credible truth is hard to detect amidst 007 agents and foreign diplomats.

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