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Red Square

Australia is right to push back against desperate and dangerous Russia

By Peter Jennings

The key point about the Russian assassination attempt on double-agent Sergei Skripol in Britain earlier this month is that Vladimir Putin wanted it known that Russia was responsible.

By using a so-called Novichok nerve agent the Russians were putting an unmistakable marker at the scene that could only be traced to Moscow. This is a weapons grade chemical toxin developed in the 1990s. The lead Russian scientist behind Novichok’s development defected and is living in the US. From him Western defence and intelligence agencies have built a detailed understanding about the weapons.

Had they wanted discretion the assassins could have shot Skripol or run him over. As it was, the hit could not be more obviously Russian if the killers had worn Cossack boots and carried balalaikas.

There are two reasons why Putin would want to draw attention to himself. First, it plays well with many Russian voters who share Putin’s view that the west wants to harm Russia. However outrageous to western sensibilities, Putin’s muscle flexing is admired domestically.

Second, as a former KGB Lieutenant Colonel with 16 years active duty, including as an agent in East Germany, Putin is not beyond wanting to put the fear of God into Russia’s enemies abroad. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, known as the SVR – the modern KGB – has a long memory for agents that ‘turned’ to become spies for the west.

British chemical analysis will have proven to an absolute certainty which Russian weapons laboratory the Novichok agent came from. The delay since the March 5 assassination attempt would have been the result of corralling the US, Australia and many European countries into an unprecedented coordinated expulsion of Russian intelligence agents from over 20 countries.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade lists 16 Russian diplomats based in Canberra and a further 6 at a Sydney Consulate. By our standards that is a large diplomatic footprint, not explained by the tiny two-way trade relationship worth less than $800 million.

It’s common for Russia to deploy intelligence agents to Australia under the cover of a diplomatic passport. Being a ‘diplomat’ automatically means that these people will have contact with officials, politicians and others of intelligence interest.

Its likely that there will be more than two undeclared intelligence agents but keeping known agents in place is useful to our own intelligence community, hence the sensible enough decision to limit Australia’s expulsion to two individuals.

New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern decided not to expel any Russians because it was thought there were no undeclared intelligence agents among the 17 Russian diplomats in Wellington. Ardern told local radio yesterday ‘We ran a check, we don't have those in New Zealand but if we did we would expel them.’

This follows New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters’ delusional comments in early March that there was no evidence Russia was involved in shooting down the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.

Oh dear! Is New Zealand that far gone from its previous connection to the Western democracies? The key test for serious democracies here is that they take a public stand against illegal Russian behaviour. As it is, Ardern’s remarks serve only to highlight the incapacities of her security agencies.

The UK, Australia and other countries deserve credit for drawing a necessary red line against Russia’s use of a chemical warfare agent which could so easily have seen hundreds of people killed. But Putin is likely to continue this high-stakes game of asserting Russian power, breaking international laws and pandering to the worst nationalist instincts of his domestic audience.

Putin’s Russia is more desperate, less disciplined and more dangerous than the old Soviet Union. More than spy games, we should worry that such risky international behaviour is pushing the world closer to serious military conflict.

Originally published by: The Australian on 28 Mar 2018