It is deeply weird that Jeremy Corbyn will not condemn Russia for carrying out a chemical weapons attack on British soil. Actually, it’s beyond weird. It’s astonishing. Earlier this year, Corbyn saw the same intelligence that convinced everyone else – including his closest comrade John McDonnell – that the Salisbury novichok poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia was carried out by Russian agents and approved at the highest levels within the Kremlin. This same evidence was deemed sufficient grounds by 27 countries to expel more than a 150 Russian diplomats. Yet rather than express outrage and condemn what was clearly a peace-time atrocity, Corbyn obfuscated – “assertions and probability are not the same as certainty” – and pulled punches in a way that seemed at best bizarre. He continues to do so now. Why?
At PMQs this week, after Theresa May named the two Russian agents that British intelligence is certain carried out the attack, Corbyn spoke only of bringing “those responsible” to justice. His sole direct criticism of Russia, in fact, was merely “for its failure to cooperate with this investigation.” It was an extraordinary response.
Realistically, how much more cooperative could Russia have been? President Putin in 2010 – the year double agent Skripal was granted asylum in the UK – said on live television:
“Traitors will kick the bucket, trust me. These people betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those thirty pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.”
The two smirking Russian GRU goons sent to carry out the hit could hardly have made themselves more obvious had they goose-stepped through customs in full Russian military garb. They made no effort to disguise their origin – they flew direct from Moscow to Gatwick, for God’s sake – and likewise made no attempt to conceal their faces from CCTV cameras wherever they went. Naturally, their weapon of choice, novichok, is only made in Russia.
Other than leaving a business card – “V. Putin, Esq” – at the scene of the crime, it’s not easy to see what more the Kremlin could have done to aid investigators. And that’s without considering the ‘previous’ – namely, the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. It’s almost as if Putin wanted the world to know who was behind the hit.
In America, the media is obsessed with trying to prove Putin controls President Trump. When Trump sided with the Russian leader in July over his own intelligence agencies (“he just said it’s not Russia – I don’t see any reason why it would be”) minds were blown. You could hear a hundred million foreheads being slapped from across the Atlantic. But here in the United Kingdom, we don’t seem, with any real conviction, to level the same accusation at Corbyn, despite the sympathies some of his closest advisers are known to have for Russia. I suspect that might soon change. By repeatedly dismissing the findings of the British intelligence agencies as they relate to the Skripal case, Corbyn walks the same dangerous road as Trump.
So far, the media and, crucially, the British public have on the whole indulged Corbyn’s stance on Russia as something approaching the soppy sentimentalism of an ageing Trot. It’s not seen as terribly sinister – not in the same way proven Trump links to Moscow would be seen as sinister. But perhaps it’s time we looked a little harder. It might, of course, just be that Corbyn believes he’s better at solving international crimes than MI6 is. Soon enough, perhaps, he will gather an assortment of world leaders into a room in order, Poirot-style, to conclusively finger the one no one had previously considered. Until then, his sympathetic interventions regarding Russian involvement in the Skripal poisoning must be seen for what they are: extremely weird and not a little sinister.