The crisis between Russia and the West over the poisoning of former Russia spy Sergei Skripal, daughter, Yulia, and a British police sergeant, Nick Bailey, has now moved to the global stage of the United Nations Security Council. The crisis, so far, has been mostly a war of words, but it is escalating fast.
British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday made her most direct accusation yet against Russia, stating that it had engaged in the unlawful use of force against the United Kingdom, through the use of a military grade nerve agent, developed in secret in the former Soviet Union, to poison the Skripals.
The Russian government and tame media are deepening the practice of “implausible deniability.” Russia’s envoy to the UN Security Council, in an emergency meeting called to debate the Skripal poisoning, went so far as to say that Russia had never developed the “Novichok” nerve agent that was identified as the substance used in the U.K. attack. This despite the fact that his country had jailed for treason the dissident Russia chemist who first leaked details of the Novichok program to the West. The Russian envoy doubled down by suggesting that Britain was engaged in a “false flag” attack designed to harm Russia’s reputation.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. representative to the Security Council, shot back with the clearest denunciation yet from the Trump administration: “The United States believes that Russia is responsible for the attack.” She called on the Security Council to hold Russia accountable in this “defining moment” for the UN.
Canadians may be inclined to see the Skripal poisoning as a “spy noir” event of little direct consequence for us. In that, they would be mistaken. While the Canadian government was initially slow to respond, there has been a recent flurry of activity and ministerial statements of Canadian support for Britain. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weighed in on Thursday, offering full support for the U.K. and backing efforts to hold Russia to account “for this unacceptable and unlawful behaviour.”
Words are good. The U.K., after all, is not only a “close friend and NATO ally,” as Trudeau put it, but is Canada’s oldest security partner and, fundamentally, our first tutor in the world of security and espionage. But beyond words, how might Canada be engaged?
Some of what the Canadian government should consider would replicate the actions announced by Britain on March 14. We should take a hard look at the current roster of known Russian spies at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa and decide whether we send some packing. We should tighten up our own counter-intelligence capacities. We should keep a close watch on illicit Russian financial transactions in and out of Canada, and a close watch on visiting Russians. We now have Magnitsky Act powers to impose sanctions on corrupt and human-rights-abusing Russians. Use them. We should isolate Russia diplomatically and cut off any high-level contacts.
If we currently house any Russian spy defectors, we had better be sure they have the protection and security they need. If this seems fanciful, it is only because we don’t know our own history.
Over the years since the famous 1945 defection in Ottawa of GRU official Igor Gouzenko, we have been responsible for watching over a number of Russian agents who have been settled in Canada. Ottawa became the home after 1992 of a former Russian agent who had worked for the RCMP security service, and spent much of his adult life in jail and banishment in the Soviet Union. The story of this remarkable character, Yevgeni Brik, is told in the valuable memoir by retired security official Don Mahar, Shattered Illusions: KGB Cold War Espionage in Canada. Brik lived openly in Ottawa after his exfiltration from Russia and there were never any real concerns about his safety. But on the other hand, his treason had happened long ago, in the 1950s, and never touched a nerve with ex-KGB official — and current Russian President — Vladimir Putin.
If Canada truly believes in the need to base its foreign policy on support for a rules-based international order, it had better forcefully confront this most egregious flouting of such an order by the Russian state.
This article was first published by the Ottawa Citizen on 15 March 2018.