British Brinkmanship: Salisbury Poisonings and Johnson’s Kyiv Visit

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By Nauman Sadiq for VT Islamabad

Two British citizens, Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin, who went to Ukraine to fight for the now-disbanded “international legion” of foreign mercenaries created by Kyiv in early days of the war and were fighting alongside neo-Nazi Azov militia in Mariupol, were captured by Russian forces and fervently appealed to the British prime minister for their immediate release.

The Britons appeared on Russian state TV on Monday and asked to be exchanged for Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian politician who is the leader of Ukraine’s Opposition Platform and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was charged with “high treason” and “aiding terrorism” by the Zelensky government and was placed under house arrest, from where he escaped and was rearrested last week. He is currently being held at an undisclosed location by the SBU, the fearsome Ukrainian intelligence agency being used as a tool for political persecution by the autocratic regime.

One of the captives wearing a T-shirt bearing the emblem of Ukraine’s infamous Azov battalion, Aiden Aslin, made a direct appeal to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “If Boris Johnson really does care like he says he does about British citizens then he would help pressure Zelensky to do the right thing and return Viktor to his family and return us to our families.”

Asked on Sky News whether a possible swap was something the government would get involved with, Britain’s Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis said on Tuesday: “We’re actually going through the process of sanctioning people who are close to Putin regime, we’re not going to be looking at how we can help Russia.” Reading between the lines, neither would the Boris Johnson government be looking at how to help British citizens.

“We always have responsibility for British citizens, which we take seriously. We’ve got to get the balance right in Ukraine and that’s why I say to anybody: do not travel illegally to Ukraine,” Lewis added while conveniently overlooking the fact British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss publicly acknowledged she supported individuals from the United Kingdom who might want to go to Ukraine to join an international force to fight.

She told the BBC on Feb. 27, days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, it was up to people to “make their own decisions,” but argued it was a “battle for democracy.” She said Ukrainians were fighting for freedom, “not just for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe.” The British government is as criminally culpable for inciting citizens to join NATO’s crusade in Ukraine as gullible volunteers who actually joined the fight in the war zone on the call of the government.

Favoring providing lethal weapons only instead of deploying British mercenaries as cannon fodder in Ukraine’s proxy war, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace took a nuanced approach and said with diplomatic overtones Ukraine would instead be supported to “fight every street with every piece of equipment we can get to them.” In other words, Ukraine would be made an “ordnance depot” of NATO powers on Russia’s western flank.

On April 9, Boris Johnson undertook a clandestine visit to Kyiv amidst much secrecy and tweeted a picture sitting beside Zelensky after the visit. Johnson’s trip came a day after the EU’s top executives, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, publicly visited Kyiv and met with Zelensky.

British media hailed the “daredevil feat” of taking the train journey in the war zone by the prime minister and compared him to the fabled British secret agent, James Bond 007. During the visit, he pledged 120 “armored vehicles” and new “anti-ship missile systems” to Ukraine.

The British government also announced it would be sending £100 million of military equipment, including more Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles, helmets, night-vision devices and body armor. The United Kingdom guaranteed an extra $500 million in World Bank lending to Ukraine, taking the total loan guarantee to up to $1 billion.

In addition to the clandestine visit to Kyiv, Boris Johnson is also credited with another highly provocative incident that happened before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Last June, the British Royal Navy Defender breached Russia’s territorial waters in the Black Sea and as many as 20 Russian aircraft conducted “unsafe maneuvers” merely 500 feet above the warship and Britain also lamented shots were fired in the path of the ship.

“British Prime Minister Boris Johnson would not say whether he had personally approved the Defender’s voyage but suggested the Royal Navy was making a point by taking that route,” a Politico report alleged in June. A Telegraph report noted that former Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had raised concerns about the mission, proposed by defense chiefs, and that Boris Johnson was ultimately called in to settle the dispute.

Among the 50-page Ministry of Defense documents discovered at a bus stop in Kent and passed to BBC were papers showing that ministers knew that sending a Royal Navy warship close to Crimea last June would provoke Russia, and did it anyway, sparking an international incident.

Looking at these highly escalatory moves by the British government, it would appear Boris Johnson is perhaps motivated by “humanitarian concerns” for the suffering of Ukrainian masses, which is farthest from truth. In fact, he has a personal score to settle with the Russian leader and, being a vindictive and opportunistic politician, he is taking advantage of Russia’s vulnerability to exact revenge.

It’s pertinent to recall that on February 7, 2018, US B-52 bombers and Apache helicopters struck a contingent of Syrian government troops and allied forces in Deir al-Zor province of eastern Syria that reportedly killed and wounded scores of Russian military contractors working for the Russian private security firm, the Wagner Group.

The survivors described the bombing as an absolute massacre, and Moscow lost more Russian nationals in one day than it had lost during its entire military campaign in support of the Syrian government since September 2015.

Washington’s objective in striking Russian contractors was that the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – which are mainly comprised of Kurdish YPG militias – had reportedly handed over the control of some areas east of the Euphrates River to Deir al-Zor Military Council (DMC), which was the Arab-led component of SDF, and had relocated several battalions of Kurdish YPG militias to Afrin and along Syria’s northern border with Turkey in order to defend the Kurdish-held areas against the onslaught of the Turkish armed forces and allied Syrian militant proxies during Ankara’s “Operation Olive Branch” in Syria’s northwest that lasted from January to March 2018.

Syrian forces with the backing of Russian contractors took advantage of the opportunity and crossed the Euphrates River to capture an oil refinery located to the east of the Euphrates River in the Kurdish-held area of Deir al-Zor.

The US Air Force responded with full force, knowing well the ragtag Arab component of SDF – mainly comprised of local Arab tribesmen and mercenaries to make the Kurdish-led SDF appear more representative and inclusive in outlook – was simply not a match for the superior training and arms of the Syrian troops and Russian military contractors, consequently causing a carnage in which scores of Russian nationals lost their lives.

A month after the massacre of Russian military contractors in Syria, on March 4, 2018, Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent working for the British foreign intelligence service, and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a public bench outside a shopping center in Salisbury. A few months later, in July 2018, a British woman, Dawn Sturgess, died after touching the container of the nerve agent that allegedly poisoned the Skripals.

In the case of the Skripals, Theresa May, then the prime minister of the United Kingdom, promptly accused Russia of attempted assassinations and the British government concluded that Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Moscow-made, military-grade nerve agent, novichok.

Sergei Skripal was recruited by the British MI6 in 1995, and before his arrest in Russia in December 2004, he was alleged to have blown the cover of scores of Russian secret agents. He was released in a spy swap deal in 2010 and was allowed to settle in Salisbury. Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter have since recovered and were discharged from hospital in May 2018.

In the aftermath of the Salisbury poisonings in March 2018, the US, UK and several European nations expelled scores of Russian diplomats and Washington ordered the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle. In a retaliatory move, Russia also expelled a similar number of American, British and European diplomats, and ordered the closure of American consulate in Saint Petersburg.

The number of American diplomatic personnel stationed in Russia drastically dropped from 1,200 before the escalation to 120, and the relations between Moscow and Western powers reached their lowest ebb since the break-up of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in December 1991.

Boris Johnson was the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in the Theresa May cabinet and held a grudge against Russian President Putin for treating “Great Britain,” boasting the imperial legacy, like a “banana republic.”

On Sunday, Russia announced banning Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and ten other British politicians from entering Russia over the United Kingdom’s hostile stance on the war in Ukraine. Included in the list is the name of Theresa May, even though she is not a member of the Boris Johnson cabinet.

Besides Britain, Germany has taken the lead in escalating NATO’s conflict with Russia. On April 15, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced plans to spend an additional €2 billion ($2.16 billion) on military needs, most of which is aimed at providing weapons to Ukraine.

Approximately €400 million ($432.5 million) of the cash is being allocated to the European Peace Facility, a funding mechanism through which military aid is being procured for Ukraine. The remaining part of the additional funds will be deployed directly towards supplies for Kyiv, among other needs.

Scholz has pledged €100 billion ($112.7 billion) of the 2022 budget for the armed forces and committed to reaching the target of 2% of GDP spending on defense that is requested by NATO. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Berlin initially provided Ukraine with 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 anti-aircraft Stinger missiles. In mid-March, Germany said that due to security risks it would not disclose further information about supplies of weapons to Ukraine.

The European Union decided last week to massively increase financial support for Ukraine’s military to €1.5 billion. Most of that support, which is also supposed to allow Kyiv to buy weapons, is financed by Germany. The newly announced financial support would allow Kyiv to directly buy tanks from German defense companies like Rheinmetall.

Germany was specifically considering sending “Marder” light tanks, armored vehicles equipped with anti-tank missiles, to Ukraine. The German defense company Rheinmetall had signaled it could provide 100 such tanks, which were standing on the firm’s grounds, German officials told Politico.

Politicians were also discussing whether Berlin could similarly supply its heavy-combat “Leopard” tanks to Ukraine. Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, told Deutschlandfunk radio on Thursday that Kyiv was “expecting” Berlin to deliver Marder and Leopard tanks, as well as the anti-aircraft “Gepard” tank.

One agreed shipment authorized by the German government includes 56 Czechoslovak-made infantry fighting vehicles that used to be operated by East Germany. Berlin passed the IFVs on to Sweden at the end of the 1990s, which later sold them to a Czech company that now aims to sell them to Kyiv, according to German Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

Despite being an industrial powerhouse of Europe, Germany might have been a sovereign state at liberty to pursue independent foreign policy during the reign of the Third Reich but, since the defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War, it has become a virtual colony of the imperial United States, much like Japan and South Korea in the Far East where 45,000 and 28,500 US troops have been deployed, respectively.

In Europe, 400,000 US forces were deployed at the height of the Cold War in the sixties, though the number has since been brought down after European powers developed their own military capacity following the devastation of the Second World War.

The number of American troops deployed in Europe now stands at 50,000 in Germany, 15,000 in Italy, 10,000 in the United Kingdom, and not to mention tens of thousands of additional US troops that have recently been deployed in Eastern Europe since the escalation of hostilities with Russia.

Historically, the NATO military alliance, at least ostensibly, was conceived as a defensive alliance in 1949 during the Cold War in order to offset conventional warfare superiority of the former Soviet Union. The US forged collective defense pact with the West European nations after the Soviet Union reached the threshold to build its first atomic bomb in 1949 and achieved nuclear parity with the US.

But the trans-Atlantic military alliance has outlived its purpose following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and is now being used as an aggressive and expansionist military alliance meant to browbeat and coerce the former Soviet allies, the East European states, to join NATO and its auxiliary economic alliance, the European Union, or risk international economic isolation, like Russia.

All the militaries of the NATO member states operate under the integrated military command led by the Pentagon. Before being elected president, General Dwight Eisenhower was the first commander of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE).

The commander of Allied Command Operations has been given the title Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), and is always a US four-star general officer or flag officer who also serves as the Commander US European Command, and is answerable to the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Among the European powers, only France has adopted a relatively flexible stance to the Ukraine conflict and that, too, because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine happened on the eve of presidential elections in France, in which President Macron is in a tight race against far-right candidate Marie Le Pen, with a run-off scheduled to take place on April 24.

Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that his dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin had stalled after alleged mass killings were discovered in Ukraine: “Since the massacres we have discovered in Bucha and in other towns, the war has taken a different turn, so I did not speak to him again directly since, but I don’t rule out doing so in the future.”

It comes as a surprise, though, hearing from the mouth of a Frenchman, whose forebears were responsible for the massacre of millions of Algerians during the Algerian War lasting from 1954 to 1962, that he has abandoned peace dialogue with the Russian president as a protest over alleged “mass killings” in Ukraine.

About the author:

Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based geopolitical and national security analyst focused on geo-strategic affairs and hybrid warfare in the Middle East and Eurasia regions. His domains of expertise include neocolonialism, military-industrial complex and petro-imperialism. He is a regular contributor of diligently researched investigative reports to VT.

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