On Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made an unusual suggestion during his debut appearance at the House of Commons as a representative of the government. 'I would certainly like to see demonstrations outside the Russian embassy', he said, in agreement with a Labour Party MP who had raised the idea in a debate on Aleppo. This remark (though a small part of his overall message on Syria, on which he has struck an increasingly robust tone) was roundly scorned.
It was in some respects a puerile gesture, indicative of Britain’s limited options in Syria. Former MI6 chief Sir John Sawers went further, arguing that it was insensitive to the way in which demonstrations have in the past, and might in the future, put British missions abroad at risk. Britain’s culture of public protest is different to that of many countries, such as Iran or Pakistan, where the state has used or manipulated mobs as coercive instruments in foreign policy disputes. Indeed, the British embassy in Tehran, ransacked in 2011 over the issue of Western sanctions on Iran, has only recently re-opened. By contrast, although foreign diplomats in Britain have come to harm, I can think of no instance where the government has borne any responsibility. Nevertheless, foreign secretaries must be particularly attuned to how their words may be used against them in other settings.
More broadly, however, Johnson’s remarks need to be understood with two pieces of context in mind. The first is that his speech was in part a response to the increasingly grotesque hypocrisy of Britain’s fringe left, now in control at the top of the Labour Party. Johnson rightly singled out the Stop the War Coalition (STW), once chaired by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. STW habitually defends and even extols Russian, Iranian, and Islamic fundamentalist wars while criticizing and distorting the record of the US and allies. In 2003, Corbyn himself attended a conference on behalf of STW that called for 'military struggle' against coalition (including British troops) in Iraq. The next year, STW reiterated its demand for an 'end to occupation' and the' legitimacy of the struggle of Iraqis, by whatever means they find necessary, to secure such ends'. In 2014, STW pronounced that it was 'time to go to war with Israel', last year praised the 'internationalism and solidarity' of Isis, and has singularly falsified the outsized role of Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus in generating Syria’s humanitarian crisis. STW is, at root, a pro-war organization masquerading as the opposite.
On Wednesday, Corbyn’s spokesman Seumas Milne, who has his own illustrious record of glorifying tyrants and echoing Russian propaganda, responded to Johnson’s remarks with the suggestion that protests outside the American embassy would be equally valid. Nothing better illustrates the capture of Labour’s commanding heights by a morally bankrupt and factually unhinged political sect; part of a broader trend we see with Wikileaks, the Trump campaign, and other fringe political movements and organisations. Johnson’s intervention was therefore an understandable reflection of widespread disgust at this strain of foreign policy thinking; a cri de coeur against the legions of useful idiots.
The second piece of context is Moscow’s disgraceful record on protecting foreign diplomats within its own borders. Russia is an autocracy where journalists and political opponents routinely die in suspicious circumstances, sensitive information is censored to insulate foreign policy from criticism, and public demonstrations are kept under tight control. It is therefore no surprise that Russia’s treatment of foreign diplomats from unfriendly countries is, to put it mildly, appalling.
During the Cold War, Moscow was an extremely difficult posting for US diplomats. In the early 1950s, US Ambassador George Kennan was so concerned by the animosity between Moscow and Washington that he worried about the prospect of 'interment, torture, and the compromise of state secrets', according to the excellent biography by John Lewis Gaddis. Kennan went as far as to procure cyanide pills for use in the event of war. 'They [Russia] tried to screw up every ambassador there the best they could one way or another', wrote another US diplomat who served in Moscow. In the 1960s and 70s, Russia bombarded the US embassy in Moscow with microwaves, in an attempt to jam monitoring devices, causing widespread fears for the health of American staff.
More recently, as the US-Russia relationship has worsened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, Moscow has shown its displeasure by targeting US diplomats once more with a large-scale campaign of harassment. In 2013, the by State Department's Inspector General said 'employees face intensified pressure by the Russian security services at a level not seen since the days of the Cold War', former US Ambassador Michael McFaul was 'accosted by crews from state-controlled television channels', and two diplomats were allegedly drugged while attending a UN conference in St Petersburg. In June, the Washington Post published a remarkable story documenting further instances of harassment, including breaking and entering into diplomats’ homes, defecation on carpets, the killing of the US defence attaché’s dog, and the actual (rather than hypothetical) harassment of staff by Kremlin-linked protesters.
Keep this in mind when you hear Russia calling Boris Johnson’s suggestion of protests 'shameful'. There is no evidence that the British government uses paid-for demonstrators to push its foreign policy or harass foreign diplomats. There is ample evidence that the Russian state (which crushes genuine, independent protest of the sort that is routine elsewhere in Europe) both pays for state-friendly demonstrations and 'troll factories' to conduct information warfare online. None of this is to suggest that Britain or its allies are beyond reproach on either of these two issues, Syria or treatment of diplomats. But Moscow, aided by its 'unwitting agents' in the West (and some more witting ones), has elevated hypocrisy into a strategic art. We should stop taking it lying down.
Photo: Getty Images/Drew Angerer