Two days before President George W. Bush gave the go-ahead for the U.S.-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — a ‘shock and awe’ assault that would topple the Iraqi autocrat — U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice called the Kremlin.
Russian government officials raised objections, offering eleventh-hour arguments against the invasion. “But even though we disapproved, we didn’t leak what Rice told us, or what was planned,” a Kremlin insider recalled.
He cited the conversation to illustrate how perilous relations are now in the wake of the British allegations that the Kremlin approved the nerve agent poisoning on British soil of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, saying Russian leader Vladimir Putin now believes there’s a permanent fracture between Russia and the West, which can’t be repaired.
“Back then in 2003 even though relations between us were strained there remained a level of trust. There is none now — there is zero trust between Russia and the West,” he said. He flatly rejects British allegations of the Kremlin sanctioning a nerve-agent attack, saying “Putin is rational and had no reason to approve such a thing.”
The insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, occupied a senior position in Boris Yeltsin’s government and went on to become a core member of Vladimir Putin’s team. He remains connected but no longer fills an official position. His assessment of future relations between Russia and the West is bleak and reflects Putin’s own appraisal, auguring badly for any reset bid during Putin’s next term in office.
“He doesn’t think it is possible and he has given up trying.” The Kremlin insider pointed to the expansion of NATO eastwards to take in the former Communist Baltic states as a key moment in the fraying of relations.
Another flashpoint he said came with Western objections to Russia “establishing closer ties” with its former Soviet republics, which triggered a screaming argument face-to-face between Putin and Rice during a meeting in Sochi, in which the then U.S. Secretary of State insisted the former Soviet republics were now independent states and should determine their own future without what she saw as Russian intimidation.
The final blow came with the 2013-14 Maidan unrest that led to the ouster of a Putin ally, Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych. The Kremlin remains adamant that the Maidan protests were Western-fomented and not a popular uprising. “Now what? The Ukraine problem won’t be solved for a century, the conflict in the Donbas region will remain frozen and Crimea [the Ukrainian peninsula annexed four years ago by Moscow] will remain Russian. And so are we going to remain hostile to each other — two nuclear-armed nations with their missiles pointed at each other? That is very dangerous,” said the Kremlin insider.
The blaming of the West for the return of Cold War-like enmity, and the sense of pessimism, illustrates how difficult it will be to bridge a rift that’s widening rapidly and suggests relations with the United States and Europe are likely to remain sharply antagonistic as the Kremlin reacts unpredictably to what it perceives as a U.S.-led conspiracy to curb its influence, which has seen Russia re-emerge as a power broker in the Middle East.
Writing in Britain’s Daily Telegraph Tuesday about the Skripal poisoning British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson accused Russia of “resorting to its usual strategy of trying to conceal the needle of truth in a haystack of lies,” placing the nerve-agent attack on Sergei Skripal in the English town of Salisbury in a long line of hostile Russian acts towards the West.
“When I met my European counterparts in Brussels yesterday, what struck me most is that no one is fooled,” he wrote.”Just about every country represented around the table had been affected by malign or disruptive behavior.” On Monday, at the meeting referenced by Johnson, European Union foreign ministers expressed “unqualified solidarity” with Britain over the nerve-gas attack and called on Russia to provide urgent answers to questions raised by London. The ministers stopped short of endorsing Britain’s assessment that Moscow was responsible for the attack, but said they took the British conclusion “extremely seriously.”
Among other aggressive behavior, say Western officials, is meddling in Western elections and politics, notably the 2016 U.S. presidential race, and the funding and encouragement of disruptive far-right and far-left populist parties and mounting of social media campaigns as part of an effort to destabilize the European Union.
On March 15, the Trump administration blamed Russia for carrying out a series of cyberattacks targeting U.S. and European nuclear power plants and other utility infrastructure, including water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors. A security warning issued by the Department of Homeland Security and FBI characterized the cyber-attacks as a “multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber actors who targeted small commercial facilities’ networks where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing, and gained remote access into energy sector networks.”
On Monday, the head of NATO warned Russia is increasingly prepared to use nuclear weapons, urging the alliance to strengthen its defensive capabilities and willingness to act in the face of what he argued was Moscow’s aggressiveness and unpredictable actions. Jens Stoltenberg said the Russian military was giving more weight again to nuclear weapons in its doctrines and exercises to accompany its development of hybrid warfare, such as the use of non-uniformed troops such as in Ukraine’s region of the Donbas.
The Kremlin insider, though, argues the escalating tension is coming deliberately from the West, and he warns both sides are becoming locked in confrontation. “Maybe all that can be done is to do smaller things together to try to re-create trust,” he says. “If we can’t do that maybe we will wake up one day and someone will have launched nuclear missiles,” he added.
Analysts and officials here also see little chance of a sharp reversal in the unfolding confrontation, arguing Kremlin officials see no trusted Western interlocutor to help de-escalate tensions. “It can’t be [German Chancellor] Merkel,” said a Russian official. “Putin and Merkel set each other’s teeth on edge,” he added. Some officials point to French President Emmanuel Macron as the most likely interlocutor.
The French president was the only Western leader to call Putin to congratulate him on his presidential election win Sunday and despite what both Russian and French officials characterized as “tough talk” between the two leaders over the Skripal affair, Macron escaped denunciation by the Kremlin for urging Putin in the words of French officials “to clarify the circumstances of the unacceptable attack in Salisbury.”