Corbyn Calls for Evidence in Escalating Poison Row
For requesting evidence of Russian culpability in the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, UK Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has been denounced by PM Theresa May and even members of his own party. We discuss the case with Stephen F. Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies at New York University and Princeton
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Ties between Russia and the West are at their lowest point since The Cold War, and a new spat over a poisoning in Britain has sunk them even lower. The British government is blaming Russia for the poisoning of former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the British town of Salisbury.
The two remain in critical condition after ingesting what the British government says is a military-grade nerve agent made by Russia. The British government demanded that Russia offer an explanation, but then rejected a Russian request to share a sample of the nerve agent that was used in the poisoning. Speaking today in parliament, British Prime Minister Theresa May said Russia’s response so far proves their culpability.
THERESA MAY: There is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr. Skripal and his daughter. And for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey. This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom. And as I set out on Monday, it has taken place against the backdrop of a well established pattern of Russian state aggression across Europe and beyond. It must therefore, be met with a full and robust response, beyond the actions we have already taken since the murder of Mr. Litvinenko and to counter this pattern of Russian aggression elsewhere.
AARON MATÉ: As part of the measures against Russia, May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, the single biggest such expulsion in three decades. That drew a response from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who pressed May to hand over evidence.
JEREMY CORBYN: Our response must be both decisive and proportionate, and based on clear evidence. If the government believes that it is still a possibility that Russia negligently lost control of a military grade nerve agent, what action is being taken through the OPCW with our allies? I welcome the fact the police are working with the OPCW, and has the prime minister taken the necessary steps under the Chemical Weapons Convention to make a formal request for evidence from the Russian government under Article 9.2? How has she responded to the Russian government’s request for a sample of the agent used in the Salisbury attack to run its own tests? Has high resolution trace analysis been run on a sample of the nerve agent? And has that revealed any evidence as to the location of its production or the identity of its perpetrators?
AARON MATÉ: The dispute over the poisoning has gotten so serious, that there has been speculation of NATO invoking Article 5, which bounds member states to defend others in the event of an attack. So far, Downing Street has tamped down talk of Article 5, but Theresa May has been summoning support from key allies, including the US
Joining me is professor Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University and Princeton. Welcome, Professor Cohen.
You have been warning for a long time that we are in the midst of a new Cold War. What are your thoughts today as you see now tensions escalating between Britain and Russia, with now Britain ordering the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats following the expulsions that have happened in the US to Russian diplomats as a result of the Russiagate controversy?
STEPHEN COHEN: My first reaction having listened to the clip you played by Jeremy Corbyn is that’s one very courageous man. It’s not clear even his own Labour Party supports what he said. In the essence of what he said is Theresa May has no evidence, and yet she’s prepared to ratchet up already a bad relationship with Russia based on this. They haven’t produced any evidence. Let’s put it like that. This alarms me because, I’ve said this before on your broadcast, but it’s almost never said in the mainstream and it’s hard to get an American discussion of it, is that whether we call our relationship with Russia a new cold war or not, it certainly is. The point is it’s so much more dangerous than the preceding Cold War. I could even argue that the situation today is in some ways more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis.
So, I kind of quarrel with your opening sentence that relations are as bad as they’ve been since the end of the Cold War. I say, no they’re worse than they were during the Cold War. I jotted down just a few reasons. Let me just rattle them off and then we’ll get to this, any other event you want to talk about. The reason this new Cold War is more dangerous is we already have three fronts that are fraught with hot war. That’s where the NATO buildup in the North Baltic and the Black Sea, Ukraine, and Syria. Remember in Syria, it appears to be the case that American proxies have already killed Russian citizens. So, we don’t know what’s going to come next.
Secondly, two of these fronts are directly on Russia’s borders, not in Berlin as was the case during the preceding Cold War, right on Russia’s borders in the Baltic region and in Ukraine. Thirdly, there has been such demonization of the Kremlin leader, Putin, unlike anything that was the case during the old Cold War with Kremlin communist leaders, and along with it a kind of a Russophobic attack on Russia itself the old Cold War was about communism. This one seems to be about Russia just in general. And then you get this lightning speed of news as with this nerve agent, with people weighing in without any authority or any knowledge, very very quickly, and it’s spreading before anybody has a time has time to reflect, and think, an actual expert opinion come to the fore.
AARON MATÉ: One person who has been pillared in the media today is Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader who we heard from before. And I wanna play more of his speech of his comments today, to the British parliament.
JEREMY CORBYN: And while suspending planned high level contact, does the prime minister agree that it is essential to maintain a robust dialogue with Russia in the interest of our own and wider international security?
AARON MATÉ: That’s Jeremy Corbyn speaking today, calling today for. “a robust dialogue with Russia.” So, Professor Cohen, for saying that, Corbyn was widely mocked, including by members of his own party. I’m wondering if you can comment on that, the import of that, not just for this specific case, but overall, this attitude towards having dialogue, calling for dialogue with Russia being somehow worthy of scorn and contempt.
STEPHEN COHEN: One person of high political rank in the United States who has been calling for robust dialogue with Russia, with the possible exception of Donald Trump, insofar as we can understand what it is he does say, take a little time, Aaron. Think about it.
AARON MATÉ: Is there one person in the US who’s been calling?
STEPHEN COHEN: In the Senate, in the Congress, in the State Department, somebody of influence who called for a robust dialogue with Russia in the recent months or years?
AARON MATÉ: Oh well, there was Barack Obama, before he backed, at least, when he was running against Mitt Romney, but I assume you’re thinking of somebody else.
STEPHEN COHEN: No. There is no one. I can’t think of anyone. It’s a trick question, and the answer is, “no.”
AARON MATÉ: Oh, okay.
STEPHEN COHEN: But I’ve heard some of these people saying privately that we need this, but I don’t hear them saying it publicly. Look, I did live in England and get educated there partly many, many years ago, and I followed British politics. So, I don’t have great authority, but two things come to mind. Theresa May is, perhaps, among the weakest prime ministers in modern history. She’s holding on for dear life. Jeremy Corbyn is an extraordinary figure. His party, his Labour Party, which is not very good on Russia related issues either, didn’t approve of what he said. But he said the right thing. He said, “There’s no evidence. While we search for evidence, we need to continue a robust dialogue with Russia.” That’s exactly right.
And whether he’ll prevail or not, I don’t know, but it is interesting, isn’t it, that unlike in the United States, the leader of the opposition, which is what Corbyn is, and potentially a prime minister, is setting himself against this reckless Cold War behavior on the part of the British government. All I can say is I wish we had such a person in American high politics.
AARON MATÉ: Well, that’s a good segue to the next part of our discussion where we’re gonna talk more about the role right now of Russiagate in US politics. Professor Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, thank you.
And thank you for joining us on The Real News.