The strong demonstration of Western solidarity with the United Kingdom in response to the March 4 poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England, by a nerve agent known as “Novichok,” secretly developed in the Soviet Union, has apparently caught Moscow by surprise. Some 28 countries, together with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), announced they are expelling over 150 Russian diplomats allegedly connected to Moscow’s intelligence services. Four states—Luxemburg, Malta, Portugal and Slovakia—have recalled their ambassadors from Moscow “for consultations,” in solidarity with Britain, without expelling diplomats. Russian officials angrily denounced the mass expulsions. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has promised a “strong response” and accused Western governments of “blindly yielding to a campaign of colossal pressure and blackmail coming from Washington” (Interfax, March 28).
In the early stages of the Skripal crisis the dominant opinion in Moscow was different: the UK was seen as feeble and isolated by Brexit, with a weak government and prime minister. A disunited West was seen as incapable of acting together coherently (Interfax, March 14; see EDM, March 15). The unprecedented act of coordinated expulsions came as a nasty surprise. The biggest disappointment turned out to be President Donald Trump, who, on March 20, had phoned President Vladimir Putin, congratulating him on his reelection, and both leaders agreed to begin work on planning a future summit. This apparently friendly phone call was interpreted in Moscow as effectively undermining British attempts to mobilize a joint Western response to the Skripal poisoning case. Russian diplomats in Washington expressed optimism about the possibility of serious negotiation beginning about strategic security issues, as Putin proposed in his address to parliament on March 1, 2018 (Kommersant, March 28). When it turned out the US was expelling more Russians than any other country—some 60, including delegation members of Russia’s mission to the United Nations—and, furthermore, was closing a Russian consulate in Seattle, the disappointment turned into anger.
According to the pro-Kremlin news site Vzglad, Moscow may, in turn send home more US diplomats, effectively crippling the United States’ embassy and making it almost impossible for Russian citizens to obtain visas to visit the US. Apparently, even more importantly, according to Vzglad, Putin may write off Trump as a person with whom it is impossible to make deals because he does not control his own administration. Trump’s apparent good intentions and his often expressed desire to reach deals with Putin is recognized in Moscow; but his ability to deliver is increasingly in doubt (Vzglad, March 26).
The Russian state propaganda machine has been portraying the Western demonstration of unity in expulsions as halfhearted and incomplete. Austria has been praised for “resisting British pressure” and refusing to expel any Russian diplomats (Interfax, March 28). Germany has announced it will allow Russia to replace the four diplomats it is expelling, which is also interpreted as a positive development (Interfax, March 28). While the expulsions crisis was unfolding, the German authorities issued their final legal authorization, allowing Gazprom to begin building the Nord Stream Two natural gas export pipeline from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine—a project Washington opposes. This development was lauded as “business as usual” despite all the diplomatic fuss. Gazprom is now awaiting final approval by Finland, Sweden and Denmark, and planning to begin laying the pipes underwater already this year (RIA Novosti, March 27).
Sergei Naryshkin, the director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki—SVR), known in Soviet times as the First Main Directorate (PGU) of the KGB, has denounced the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats—many of whom are apparently connected to the SVR—as “a dirty and cynical provocation.” According to Naryshkin, the expulsions are intended to promote “Russophobia.” Moscow will reply “strongly and adequately,” he added (Militarynews.ru, March 28). The foreign ministry, in an official statement, has implied the Brits themselves are responsible for the Skripal poisoning and are most likely involved in the 2006 death, in London, of Alexander Litvinenko from polonium-210 poisoning, further insinuating that the British government may also bear responsibility for other mysterious deaths of Russian émigrés in the UK (Mid.ru, March 28).
Under mounting outside pressure, the Russian authorities are retreating into full siege mentality mode. The state propaganda machine is working at full capacity, portraying a nation under attack by numerous and unscrupulous enemies, led by the United States. This world outlook is not simply a propaganda ploy to be force-fed to the populace—it is today the official basis of Russia’s military and security threat assessment and planning. On March 24, 2018, speaking in Moscow at the annual security conference of the Academy of Military Science (a semi-official defense and security think tank), the chief of the General Staff and first deputy defense minister, Army General Valery Gerasimov (62), outlined Russia’s latest strategic defense outlook and vision of future war-making. According to Gerasimov, the US is the main worldwide threat to international stability. The US is “attempting to continue to maintain at all costs, including military means, its ‘global leadership,’ which is against the interests of different nations, including Russia, which does not accept [US] dictate and supports a just world order.” Because of Washington, international discord is swiftly escalating, according to Gerasimov, spreading from political, economic and information confrontations to engulf international sport and diplomacy, as well as scientific and cultural exchange, de facto becoming total. This total war is carried out at present via non-military means; but the US and its allies threaten to use military force or sometimes actually use it against “undesirable nations,” implied Gerasimov (Militarynews.ru, March 24).
The expulsion of Russian diplomats, the Skripal case, the doping scandals that have beset Russian athletes after the 2014 Sochi Olympics, sanctions imposed on Russia because of Crimea and Ukraine, and allegations of Russian meddling in US and other Western countries’ elections—almost any crisis in today’s world may be interpreted by Gerasimov and the Russian General Staff as one more additional front in the ongoing global total war. Standoffs with Iran, North Korea and other “undesirable nations” are apparently seen as episodes of the total world war between the forces of good allied to Russia and the evil US and its minions. Hopes often expressed in the West that Russia may “help” with North Korea or Iran appear misplaced: The lines of total confrontation seem to have been set otherwise.