Commentary Magazine

A Russia Peacenik’s Lament

AP Photo/Frank Augstein

It was hard to come away from British Prime Minister Theresa May’s address to the House of Commons on Monday without the distinct impression that she had accused Russia of committing an act of war.

May declared that Sergei Scripal and his daughter Yulia, who remain hospitalized in critical condition, had been exposed along with perhaps hundreds of others to a sophisticated nerve agent on March 4. Skripal’s son and brother had already died under mysterious circumstances and many thought that he, a former Russian spy, had been targeted by Moscow for assassination. May confirmed those suspicions.

With grave portent, the prime minister announced that her government had concluded that it was “highly likely” that the Kremlin was “responsible” for that attack. “There are only two plausible explanations,” she continued. “Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.” Either of these two conclusions amounts to an act of war, albeit with varying degrees of disregard for British sovereignty.

May left Moscow with just over 24 hours to provide London with a satisfactory response to her accusations. “Should there be no credible response,” the prime minister concluded, “we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”

This is ominous and sobering talk. Rational adults, to say nothing of the men and women in government, should respond to these claims with the judiciousness they deserve. Of course, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is neither judicious nor rational.

Corbyn took the opportunity to respond to May’s contention that the U.K. had been subject to an attack by a foreign power. He rose only to contend that Conservative MPs, too, had been the collective recipients of Russian cash, which he implied was indicative of their conflict of interest on the issue of Russian sanctions. “The actions the government takes once the facts are clear needs to be both decisive and proportionate, and focused on reducing conflicts and tensions rather than increasing them,” Corbyn concluded over the din of his colleague’s jeers and boos.

The Labour leader’s toadying obsequiousness in the face of an attack by a foreign power prompted a series of rebukes, and not just from conservatives. “When our country is under attack,” said Labour MP Chris Leslie of Corbyn’s political point-scoring, “it is not appropriate.” Labour MP John Woodcock agreed. “It would put our national security at significant risk if we were led by anyone who did not understand the gravity of the threat Russia poses to this nation,” he added. Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party—no bastion of conservatism there—insisted that a “firm response” was in order. “Russia simply cannot be allowed to launch attacks on our streets with impunity,” she wrote.

You can forgive a center-left peacenik for getting a bit of whiplash. Jeremy Corbyn’s blinkered pacifism was once rather boilerplate leftist Russophilia. The U.K.’s Labour Party leader has devoted his career to the cause of “peace,” a prerequisite for which seems to be the sacrifice of Western values, to say nothing of its self-respect.

Late last year, Corbyn received an international peace prize for his work on behalf of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—a group that demands the dissolution of the British nuclear stockpile, the closure of its nuclear power facilities, and its withdrawal from the NATO alliance. He has thrown in his lot with the Chavistas in Venezuela and heaped praise upon the Castro family in Cuba—two socialist basket cases with virtually no respect for human rights or global stability. He played host to those he called “our friends” from terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. He seems utterly unmoved by the influence wielded by Kremlin-funded disinformation outlets like RT (formerly Russia Today) network.  He has bucked the consensus shared by his colleagues in Labour to defend the right of these groups to broadcast on Russian soil. Russian automated social media accounts have, in turn, supported Corbyn.

Here, too, kind of feckless and self-loathing response to direct aggression used to be standard liberal fare. The United States was to blame for Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, culminating in the dismantling of that nation. You see, the West recognized the independence of Kosovo, bombed Serbia amid accusations of ongoing genocide, and endorsed the desire of some Soviet Republics to ascend into NATO. Ten years after that enlargement process effectively halted, it and America were still to blame when Putin invaded and carved up neighboring Ukraine. If there is now a “second Cold War” between the West and a revanchist Russia, the party to blame for that condition is the West and its aggressive allies.

It is no small miracle that this is now a minority sentiment on the liberal left. It’s quite likely that partisanship is the happy force of nature responsible for the left’s transformation into a party of hawks when it comes to Russia. Moscow dashed Barack Obama’s hopes of engineering a peaceful resolution of his own “red line” in Syria, humiliated him in Ukraine, and backed him into a corner on Iran. Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 elections in Donald Trump’s favor and Trump’s refusal to criticize Putin have created a powerful set of incentives for the Western left to abandon their traditional fealty to their old allies in the Kremlin. The effort to absolve Russia of its sins and erect elaborate and exculpatory moral equivalencies between the Kremlin’s conduct and America’s is one of many liberal impulses shared by ostensibly Republican President Donald Trump.

And yet, the left’s tough talk on Russia was a cost-free proposition until now. For years, the Russian Federation has played a reckless game. A declining power with a narrow window in which to act to preserve its global authority, Russia has heedlessly abetted human rights abuses and attacks on Western civilian targets. This latest in Britain is only the most brazen. Those on the left and the right who hope to prevent disaster must now unite in a good-faith effort to present Russia with a set of consequences for future aggressive actions that are sufficient to deter Moscow’s provocateurs. If they shirk this responsibility, the next miscalculation could demand a more forceful response than a speech before Parliament.

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