It is extremely worrying. A few days ago Novaya gazeta, relying on the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, reported the attempted assassination of the former Russian GRU (military intelligence) officer Sergei Skripal’ through the administration of some kind of nerve agent. It appears that Skripal’ moved under diplomatic cover to the Foreign Ministry in the late 1990s, having already been recruited in Spain by MI6 – an officer named as Pablo Miller – for a great deal of money; and that from there he exposed to the British the names of agents under deep cover. It is significant that in exchanging Skripal’ for Russian agents exposed as deep cover agents in the United States, it was then President Medvedev who pardoned him, not President Putin, who, as Prime Minister, could not have agreed with what was done for a man identified as having committed such serious treachery, which Kommersant compared to that of Colonel Oleg Pen’kovsky in the early 1960s.
But, having exchanged him, it is extraordinary that revenge should then be exacted by attempting to kill him in Britain with a deadly nerve agent. What this means is that no deal for the exchange of secret intelligence officers is worth anything, as the Russians feel free to exact their revenge regardless and in a manner that causes maximum affront to the receiving country. It should be understood that these exchanges were the hall-mark of the cold war. Along with understandings about thermonuclear early warning systems and the establishment of special lines of communication between the military of both sides in zones of conflict where they could come into collision, this form of adversarial understanding used to be taken for granted. Now, apparently, nothing can be taken for granted. This is a situation that is unsustainable and, given human nature, will doubtless bring further damage to both sides.