As Shakespeare tells us: “when sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” And, if not exactly in battalions, at least in fours, that being the apparent number of Polish diplomats expelled from Russia for “activity incompatible with their status” the old euphemism for spying. A spokesman for the Russian Foreign ministry said that the expulsion was in response to Poland’s “unfriendly and completely unfounded step” of expelling a diplomat from the Russian embassy in Warsaw last week.
Of course, unfriendly and unfounded steps are completely unknown to Russia – witness the recent international acts of friendship such as the sending aid convoys to eastern Ukraine – so it must be frustrating when these gestures of brotherly concern are so misunderstood. Nevertheless, according to the Polish ministry of defence, the person in question – who was posing as a diplomat but was really a member of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service – had been under surveillance for some time and had had extensive contact with one Colonel Zbigniew J. (the law requires the full name to be withheld), a Polish army officer who was one of two Polish citizens arrested on suspicion of spying. The second was a lawyer with joint Russian and Polish citizenship, arrested in connection with a separate matter. Also, last month, at the request of the internal security agency the Polish authorities withdrew accreditation from a Russian journalist working in Warsaw.
There is something rather re-assuring, that in this age of Big Brother total surveillance (ironically much of it submitted too voluntarily via social media) Colonel Zbigniew and the Russian agent apparently met in Soviet Russian war cemeteries in Poland to exchange information. You simply can’t better tradition. Of the expulsions themselves, the decision by Russia to expel Polish diplomats “was a symmetrical response, and for us the case is closed,” said Grzegorz Schetyna, Poland’s foreign minister
But does this herald a new cold war? Certainly the temperature has dropped and, notwithstanding the heat and sunshine, no amount of Koala hugging could disguise the chill in the atmosphere at last weekend’s G20 meeting in Brisbane. Indeed, brother Putin even left early to be fully rested for his return to the office yesterday, no doubt worn out by the criticism of his Ukrainian escapades.
Since the fall of Soviet communism relations between Russia and Poland have been tense but had appeared to be improving, which improvement was brought to an abrupt halt by Russia’s intervention Ukraine of which Polish politicians have been particularly critical, notably former foreign minister Radek Sikorski. There has, apparently, been increased Russian espionage activity against Poland and other CEE states on the frontier of the EU and NATO in recent years, and the overflying of UK air space by Russian military aircraft is back to levels not seen since the Cold War.
The difficulty is that nobody seems to know – apart from President Putin, presumably – what to do next. It appears that Chancellor Merkel’s long tête-à-têtes have had little effect and that mutti is losing her patience. Rationally, war is not the answer. But here we assume that our view of what is rational is the same as Putin’s. Not only that, but why should our politicians expect a rational response from him when, domestically at least, they seem increasingly to take decisions which defy common sense and the wishes of the electorate, let alone rational explanation?
Be that as it may, there’s something else. Recalling the chorus of the popular, late nineteenth century music hall song:
We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too,
then if “we” is now NATO, while the first line remains true, the second increasingly doesn’t. Not only that, but we have amply demonstrated our lack of will effectively to defend those that we claim to be our values. President Putin, and others, understand this and are ever more tempted to call our bluff. The challenge, therefore, is to find something more effective than sanctions which doesn’t actually bring about the next war.
Perhaps we should simply remember the words of another Russian leader, Lenin, because Putin clearly does: “Probe with a bayonet: if you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.”