Mike Pence, Vladimir Putin.
Ahmed Aboudouh, The Independent
Back in March 2018, the then-foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said that it was “overwhelmingly likely” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal on British soil. Russia denied involvement but members of the country’s military intelligence service (GRU) were accused of the crime.
Fast-forward to this weekend and the New York Times reported that the GRU had offered Taliban-linked fighters a bounty to kill British and American soldiers in Afghanistan. That story, and others, alleged that the Trump administration knew that that US officials believed Russia had sought to target coalition soldiers, but no action was taken.
Both Russia and the Taliban have denied the story, while the White House denied that Trump or Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed on the issue. Although the NYT has reported that the information was included in the president’s daily briefing notes earlier in the year.
The NYT also reported that a briefing was shared with London last week. The MP Tobias Ellwood, chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee is among those seeking answers about the allegations and is calling for the reformation of the Common’s intelligence and security committee, which has not sat since the last parliament.
Downing Street has yet to formally respond to the allegations publically which involve GRU unit 29155, the very same unit accused of poisoning Skripal more than two years ago that Johnson was so forthright about. While the UK has ceased combat operations in Afghanistan, there are still about 1,000 troops stationed in the country.
The UK may be biding its time over a response, but we can’t overlook the fact that Britain is reliant on signing a post-Brexit trade deal with the US - and potentially Trump’s administration if he wins a second election and may be biting its tongue to see how Washington deals with the leaks. Criticism of the Kremlin also seems few and far between, with Johnson also facing calls to publish a long-awaited report on Russian meddling in the UK from the intelligence and security committee.
It is not the first time that the UK has faced difficulties with the US’s stance. In July last year, the US pushed the UK to seize an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar, which resulted in Iran taking a British tanker near the strait of Hormuz. Meanwhile, the US continues to pressure the UK about its 5G infrastructure and the involvement of Chinese company Huawei.
The UK has also refrained from condemning Trump’s handling of the George Floyd crisis and has shown relative indifference towards his abrupt decision to withdraw troops from Germany. I believe the UK has grown more comfortable with its “global Britain” role after Brexit being connected to Washington.
The war led by Johnson’s chief aide, Dominic Cummings on the civil service, replacing Sir Mark Sedwill with special advisor David Frost as national security advisor has echoes of Trump. Filling sensitive posts with political appointees.
Since exiting the EU, the UK has seemingly been reticent in standing up to Trump’s approach — showing not strength but weakness. The more staunch Brexiteer Cummings’s “hard rain” will fall on Whitehall, the more isolated I expect the UK will be. So much for “global Britain”.
As Johnson announces his “new deal” plan for the economy, there appears to be little appetite to react to the allegations out of the US. Labour leader Keir Starmer should be pushing the government for a response, in his first foreign policy test. This is an issue that should not be left alone or be distracted from by other issues.
Accountability – whether that be pushing our own government, or those of our allies or adversaries around the world – is key.
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