Spies in Salisbury, Murderers in Moscow, And a London Full of Liars: The Poisoning of Sergei Skripal And its Impact on International Relations
By Injae Lee
Salisbury is not the kind of place one would expect to become the epicenter of a new Cold War. A quiet but bustling city/village in the southwestern English countryside, it is known for its towering cathedral and busy markets—not the kind of town the next 007 movie would be set in. But, on March 4, 2018, when spy-turned-defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found near death by police on a bench near the city square, Salisbury—and Russia’s already-fraught tensions with the free world—were thrown into turmoil. Nothing was more surprising than the United Kingdom’s robust response. After all, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s mandate to rule had been crippled by the stunning snap election results last June. So, when May accused Russia of the act and set forth a list of demands—and punishments—on the floor of Parliament, the world was shocked. More eye-opening still was that the West, long victims of Putin’s bullying and manipulation, took a firm, unified response to the Skripal case. With dozens of Russian diplomats from Seattle to Madrid packing their bags and going home, the Kremlin’s response has been one of anger and ballast, but also undeniably of surprise. Whatever his goal may have been, Putin’s future ones will certainly be impeded by a unified West, and it will do him well to take this as a lesson moving into his third term in office.
To better understand this diplomatic énigme, one must first look at the man who is at the center of it. Sergei Skripal was a colonel in Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU. Well respected and successful, most were surprised when Skripal was arrested in 2004 by the FSB, Russia’s security agency. The FSB alleged that in 1995, Skripal had exchanged classified Russian information to Britain’s MI6 agency in exchange for payment. After pleading guilty and confessing, Skripal was sentenced to thirteen years in prison, pardoned in 2010 by President Dmitry Medvedev, and then released as part of a spy exchange with the United States. He and his wife moved to Britain and kept a low profile, living in Salisbury. Nothing worth noting happened until last month, when Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who visiting from Moscow, were found poisoned. Now, they remain hospitalized in critical condition, while their case has sparked the current diplomatic conundrum.
Britain responded with defiance. For the past few years, from the invasions of Crimea and Georgia to Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. and French elections, Putin had bullied and challenged the United States and its allies across the world. Emboldened by the West’s weak response, Putin continued to undermine the liberal world order, culminating in the poisoning of Mr. Skripal a month ago. Then, the unexpected happened: Mr. Putin finally met resistance, and from an unlikely source too. For much of her term so far in 10 Downing, Theresa May had been seen as a weak Prime Minister, particularly after her devastating losses in the snap election last June. Leading a divided party and consumed by Brexit, May’s strong response in the House of Commons surprised observers across the globe. When Russia failed to meet Britain’s demand to provide an explanation to the poisoning, May went even further, expelling 23 Russian diplomats from London and vowing to crack down on Russian spies and assets in the U.K. A furious Kremlin quickly responded in kind, expelling an equal amount of diplomats, but the motion had been set in place. Soon, over 100 Russian diplomats had been expelled from all over the world, from France to Australia, who each accused many of the expelled of being spies in disguise. Perhaps the most head-turning response to Russia’s aggression, however, came from the United States. President Donald Trump, accused of collusion with Russia in the 2016 election, shockingly ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and closed the consulate in Seattle. While Moscow has quickly reacted in kind to these expulsions across the globe, just recently announcing the removal of a further 50 British diplomats, it is clear that Russia has finally crossed the line. With the Kremlin reeling from the devastation of its foreign intelligence network, and the heightened tensions with a re-invigorated West, the Skripal episode has turned into an unlikely victory for the West. But the fact of the matter is, it isn’t over yet. The solidarity and unity of the free world is an impressive feat, particularly in the midst of Brexit. But as the countries of the Western world return to their disputes and squabbles, and as Britain continues to struggle with a post-Brexit world, it remains to be seen whether London and her allies will sustain the initiative, or whether Russia will seize it once again.
Perhaps the most poignant way to end this article is with an update on the Skripals themselves. Sergei and his daughter Yulia remain hospitalized, and while Yulia has fully recovered, Mr. Skripal remains in critical condition. If he does survive, there is a good chance he will be an invalid for life. The tragedy of the Skripals is a lesson—and a mirror—of the fraught world of diplomacy and espionage, and it shows the price one may pay for choosing to engage in such a game.
By Injae Lee
When the Washington Post published an article reporting how the Trump administration had barred seven words and phrases, such as “diversity,” “fetus,” and “science-based,” from usage by the CDC, the condemnation was quick and relentless. Protesters projected the banned words on to Trump International Hotel’s front entrance, LGBTQ+ and many other activist and civil rights groups criticized the decision, and late night host Seth Rogen suggested that “Donald Trump” be added to that list. Rogen’s joke was sharp and his sentiment shared by many -- if not the majority --of Americans, but this controversy only helps shed light on several flaws of President Trump and his administration. The Trump presidency has proven to be one of incompetence and unreason, often butting heads with the press and its own party and having little regard for science and the will of millions of Americans. President Trump’s move to shun scientific knowledge and reason is an embarrassment and affront to the American people and the globe, and many hope that his regress can be reversed.
Embarrassing and outrageous as it is, the Trump administration’s decision is not wholly surprising. Even before President Trump became President, and long before he chose to run, he has abandoned fact and science for falsehood and slander. In the early years of predecessor Barack Obama’s presidency, Trump claimed that Obama was not born in the United States, implying that thus, he was unfit to inhabit the Oval Office. The incumbent President also claimed that man-made global warming is greatly exaggerated and a hoax spun up by China, even though 68% of Americans and nearly 100% of scientists believe that the human race has contributed to a rise in global temperatures. Trump’s track record has not been much better since he has entered the Oval Office, either. He claimed that his presidential inauguration crowd was significantly larger than President Obama’s in 2009, despite photos to the contrary. He has claimed many successes, such as the growing economy and several diplomatic and budget victories, despite the fact that they were planned during the Obama administration. He is waging war on the nation’s established and well-respected journals of record, the New York Times and the Washington Post, along with dozens more news sources, for keeping the American populace well-informed. His hatred of the media goes so far, in fact, that the President has actually barred certain news outlets - such as the Times, Post, and the Hill - from daily press briefings. This war on knowledge unsurprisingly has extended to include science. Trump has cancelled useful and widely supported scientific research and studies, such as a coal mining study in West Virginia, and many have noted that the number of executive research grants to scientists containing the words “climate change” have decreased. So while the Trump administration’s choice to censor science and progress in the C.D.C. is disappointing and unacceptable, it is not unprecedented, nor surprising.
Some may wonder why the President’s inadequacies and his controversial beliefs are so troubling and a problem that the people need to confront. The answer: Donald Trump holds the presidency, an office with a history of reason and knowledge. The White House has always had a role in innovation and progress. Washington established the two-term precedent and showed that power can be limited. Andrew Jackson’s firebrand populism invigorated the common man. Lincoln emancipated the slaves. F.D.R’s decade in office saw the U.S. rise from economic ruin to become the global hegemon, with access to the awesome and terrible power of the atom. Truman desegregated the Armed Forces. Kennedy showed that nuclear war was not an inevitability, and Johnson enshrined the principle that any and every body can and should exercise the right to vote. These presidents, and dozens more, have done much to advance our nation forward, and try to steady the tide of progress, whether through a televised address or legislation in Congress. Not Trump - he has shown that through his calling global warming a hoax, through his ad hominem attacks on the Fourth Estate, and through his decision to censor the EPA, that in these days, progress and democracy can no longer be trusted in the hands of the President - that this power must come back to whence it came, the people.
By Injae Lee
In the past year, the free world has stoically endured several elections and their unexpected results. Controversial and widely unpopular Donald Trump and his Republicans seized control of the U.S. presidency and Congress. Impeached South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s Liberty and Justice Party in Korea crumbled as Moon Jae-in and his opposition Democrats rode a wave of popular fury to securely capture the presidency and the National Assembly. Firebrand opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and his moribund Labour party, reinvigorated by Prime Minister Theresa May’s missteps, gave the Right Honourable and her Conservatives a bloody nose in the British snap election. Political novice Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche! movement seized the National Assembly and the executive office by landslide margins. All of these elections, and several more in the past year, rode on the waves of populism - on both left and right - that has rocked the globe. Perhaps weary of such instability, many hoped that the German election would provide a return to stability. In some ways, their hopes were fulfilled. The German election was a relatively quiet affair, and die Deutschen gave Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats both the largest share in the Bundestag and her mandate to rule once more. However, the promise of stability ends there. With a weakened presence in Parliament and the return of the far-right over seven decades after the fall of the Nazis, Germany, once a beacon of progress, sees its future clouded by uncertainty and fear.
For Angela Merkel, the election is her most impressive victory and her greatest defeat. The refugee crisis of 2016 almost tanked her political career, yet she survived, and Germany slowly began to accept and assimilate refugees. As the refugee crisis wound down, a more serious threat to Merkel’s chancellery rose-the Social Democrats (SPD). Merkel’s Christian Democrat (CDU) party had controlled the government in the Bundestag only through a grand coalition with the second-largest party, the SPD. However, the Social Democrats, tired of constantly coming in second to their senior CDU partners, rebelled. Party members unanimously chose Martin Schulz, the charismatic former president of the EU’s Parliament, as their candidate for chancellor. Early polls showed Schulz and his SPD having a slight edge over Merkel and her CDU, and it seemed that the man could cause another tremor in the politics of the free world. Yet, as election day neared, the Social Democrats fizzled, faced with the awkwardness of criticizing the policies of the very coalition of which it is kingmaker. Schulz’s lackluster performance in his televised debate with Merkel did not help him either in securing control of the Bundestag, and when the polls opened on September 24th, the results were clear. Schulz and his Social Democrats suffered their worst result since the Second World War, garnering only 20% of the vote. However, Merkel and her Christian Democrats fared little better, winning only 32.5% of the vote, a drop of 8% since the previous election and the worst result for the CDU since 1949. While Merkel has achieved an unprecedented fourth term as chancellor, cementing her legacy, the challenges she faces has left both her supporters and critics wondering what exactly that legacy will entail.
Merkel faces a tough term moving forward. The grand coalition that had handed her a majority has dissolved, with Schulz and his SPD now going into opposition. To further complicate matters, Merkel now faces an enemy thought to have been vanquished in Germany long ago--the far right. The Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), a far-right, anti-immigrant party, has entered the Bundestag as the third party, with 12.6% of the vote. While their influence is small, the very presence of the AfD is ominous - a party many have called “neo-Nazi”, riding the waves of anti-immigration and anti-globalization, has the power to topple yet another government. While all parties have openly ruled out working with the AfD, their presence could undermine Merkel’s agenda. Trapped between the SPD’s opposition and the AfD’s extremism, Merkel has but one option. The Chancellor has been forced into seeking what is known as a “Jamaica Coalition,” a coalition government between her Christian Democrats, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), who have returned to the Bundestag after some time out of power, and the progressive Green party. The Jamaica Coalition is known as such because the colors of the three parties - black for the CDU, yellow for the FDP, and green for, well, the Greens - comprise the flag of the Caribbean island nation. However, while Jamaica is known for being cheerful and sunny, Merkel’s political future seems anything but. She may have weathered the populist storm better than the political establishment in fellow democracies, but as she moves ahead into a cloudy future, all eyes are on the infallible Chancellor to hold the tide, stay the course, and keep north.
By Injae Lee
Seeing as Oriol Junqueras is a politician, one would not be surprised that he is a skilled orator. However, in an interview with the International Business Times on June 29, Junqueras, a senior member of the pro-independence Catalan autonomous regional government, used his hands more than his voice to explain the centuries-old Spanish-Catalan conflict: Spain, literally on one hand, had its own history, ambitions, and priorities; Catalonia, on the other hand, diverged from the rest of Spain. If Junqueras and his government has their way, on October 1, the Catalan people will go to the polls, and the future of their homeland—and all of Spain—will be squarely in their hands.
The history of Catalonia begins far back in the classical age. Six hundred years before the birth of Christ, Catalonia and southern neighbor Valencia were colonized by the Carthaginian empire, only to be conquered by the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War. For the next six centuries, Catalonia became part of the Roman province of Hispania Citerior, prospering and progressing under Roman rule. Following the Fall of Rome, Catalonia underwent waves of conquest, warfare and instability spurred by conflicts with the Visigoths, Arabs and Franks, until finally emerging from the ashes of the Spanish March as the independent County of Barcelona. Catalonia’s history becomes intertwined with Spain at this point, becoming unified under royal rule with the neighboring kingdom of Aragon. When King Ferdinand married Queen Isabella of Castile, Catalonia became part of the new Spain, unified for the first time in centuries. However, Catalonia mostly stayed autonomous until the 1700s, when the new Bourbon dynasty introduced new reforms to unify and preserve the Spanish Empire. Although the reforms were successful at first, Imperial authority was shook in the nineteenth century by war, civil unrest and disorder; at the same time, Catalan identity was renewed, with a revival of the dying Catalan language, a new cultural movement advocating for Catalan art and literature, and push for more autonomy for the region, if not outright separatism.
The roots of the modern democratic Catalonia are most clearly visible in the Second Spanish Republic. Under the benevolent Republican rule, Catalonia had near-complete autonomy, basic freedoms and rights, and Catalan culture flourished. However, in 1936, right-wing military generals resentful of the monarchy’s removal launched an uprising against the left-wing Republican government, and Spain was soon plunged into civil war. Although Barcelona and the region quickly became a bastion for the Republic, holding off the Nationalists for most of the war, factionalism between the Communist and Anarchist groups led to the Republican collapse, and in the closing months of the war, Catalonia was conquered by Franco and his fascists. Under Franco’s tyrannical rule, the Catalan culture was suppressed, Catalan autonomy revoked, Catalan nationalism silenced and Catalan language oppressed. During this dark period, resentment and resistance against the central government in Madrid began to brew, and the core of today’s modern separatist movement can be linked to the Nationalist repression.
Following Franco’s death in 1975, Juan Carlos I became king of Spain, and instead of preserving the autocratic, fascist government that had lasted for nearly 40 years, the King modernized and democratized Spain, returning broad autonomy to provinces such as Catalonia and the Basque Country, and holding the first free elections in Spain since the Republic had fallen. Catalonian culture underwent a kind of renaissance during this time, with the Catalan language being taught in schools again, and individual culture once again being revived and even encouraged. However, the financial crisis of 2008 greatly damaged the bonds that democratization had largely succeeded in healing. During the recession, Catalonia’s unemployment rate went up to 19% (just below the national average of 21%), and resentment has brewed among Catalans who feel that their province—the wealthiest in Spain—contributes more to the central economy than the others and that the central government has started to underfund services to help ailing southern regions. With this combination of lingering resentment from Franco’s rule, a weakened economy and a neglectant central government, the perfect formula for separatism began to emerge yet again.
Despite all this resentment and controversy, whether Catalonia will leave Spain is still up in the air, rocked by instability and terrorism attacks in the region. On June 9, the New York Times reported that Catalan president Carles Puigdemont announced an independence referendum on October 1. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the central government in Madrid has responded furiously to the referendum, vowing to block efforts to hold it, with the support of the courts, and to maintain Spanish unity no matter the cost. As the date of the referendum nears, uncertainty and instability have grown. It will be very difficult to hold a binding referendum in the first place. The central authority can invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to personally take control of the regional government—although this would be a drastic and unprecedented step for Madrid. Even without the invocation of Article 155, the courts would most likely declare the referendum illegal and non-binding, as they did with one in November 2014. Although that referendum did go in favor of independence by over 80 percent, only 2.3 million of Catalonia’s eligible 5.4 million voters participated. With another referendum—this one possibly binding, due to increased political interest—coming closer, polls show that those opposed to Catalan independence are slowly increasing and those in favor dropping steadily. Although the result of the referendum is still uncertain, the vote has most certainly split Catalonia in two. According to the Guardian, the separatist campaign is splitting apart, with a minister in the regional government sacked for suggesting the referendum will fail, and three more members—including the police chief—stepping down. Instability and terror have also wracked Catalonia in recent weeks, with a terror attack in Barcelona killing 16 people and injuring dozens. With instability and uncertainty taking their toll on the province, on October 1, when the people of Catalonia go to the polls, they will take matters, as Junqueras would say, into their own hands—with the fate of Spain squarely in their palms.
By: Injae Lee
In the weeks leading to the snap general election that she had called for, Prime Minister Theresa May of the Conservative Party promised that she would bring “strong and stable” leadership to Great Britain. The United Kingdom, having been rocked by two turbulent referendums in the last few years, seemed anything but united and was in sore need of the leadership that May promised. However, as the election neared, liberal newspapers oriented to the opposition Labour Party mocked May’s slogan and her party’s platform, and “strong and steady” became the meme that stole the election (along with a caped individual wearing a bucket who ran in May’s constituency). Then, the people went to the polls on June 8 and delivered a rejection of the Prime Minister and her campaign. In the stunning election result, the Conservatives lost 13 seats - and their solid majority - with Labour gaining an unforeseen 30 seats. The shocking election resulted in a hung Parliament - a parliament where no party controls the majority of seats and thus cannot form a majority government. With May’s “strong and stable” leadership more likely to now be “weak and wobbly,” the future of Britain, its government, and its status as a leading world power are more uncertain than ever before.
The most immediate question still unanswered by the election is the future of the British government. When the Prime Minister called for a snap election in 2017, the Conservatives were in power with a solid 330-out-of-650-seats majority, May enjoyed high approval ratings among the people, and Labour, the opposition party, seemed to be all but finished. The Labour Party, which had opposed Brexit, had lost much of its working-class voter base (which supported Leave) and was slumping in the polls, while its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was widely regarded as incapable of leading his party to victory. All that changed after the election. May and the Conservatives remain in power but only in a severely weakened minority government. On the other hand, with 30 new seats, Corbyn and Labour have been completely revitalized, with the Leader of the Opposition growing in power and solidifying his position within the party. There have even been rumors that yet another general election may be called for, most likely as an attempt to form a new majority government - resulting in Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. To solidify her weak hold in Parliament, May has been forced to resort to dramatic measures. In late June, the Prime Minister announced that she had reached a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to form a de facto coalition government. Although the ten seats of the DUP will give her the majority in the Commons, May’s new coalition has proved highly controversial. The devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales have taken offense that the government promised an additional £1 billion (approximately $1.3 billion) to the Northern Irish government as part of the agreement and are now demanding that Parliament promise more funds to these countries as well. Many more are also outraged that the Conservatives have made a deal with the DUP, which is considered far-right and has adopted controversial stances, such as an anti-LGBTQ agenda. There are also rumors that factions in the Conservative Party, outraged by her handling of the election and her deal with the DUP, are considering ousting May from office. May’s removal would trigger a leadership contest and result in not only in a new leader, but a new Prime Minister. With the ongoing turmoil in the House of Commons, May and the Conservatives are on shaky ground, and another change of government will not surprise many in Britain.
The United Kingdom’s so-called “Brexit” negotiations have also been thrown into uncertainty by the general election. Theresa May’s stance on Brexit since her ascension to the office has been that “Brexit means Brexit.” This policy means that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union, as it voted to last summer, with no second referendum and with as little delay as possible. While both the Conservatives and the opposition Labour party follow this policy, their stances diverge on the type of Brexit that they advocate for: hard Brexit or soft Brexit. The Conservatives are working for a hard Brexit, where the United Kingdom would completely withdraw from the customs union and from the open-border European Single Market in order to have full control over its borders. Labour advocates for a soft Brexit, one in which the United Kingdom leaves the E.U. and its single market, but maintains some form of access to the market and continues to have important trading links in the E.U. - an arrangement with the Union similar to that of Norway’s (Norway has no say in E.U. affairs, but maintains access to the market). There are many people who support neither option, while the third-largest party in the U.K., the Liberal Democrats, simply want to stay in the E.U and cancel Brexit. Thus, it is unlikely that the United Kingdom will manage to pull off a complete, hard Brexit. May’s fragile alliance with the DUP and her minority government means that she will have to assume a more moderate stance on many policies regarding Brexit to appease the opposition. However, the opposition itself hasn’t made things any easier for May. When she invited them in July to engage in two-party talks to create policies for Brexit, Labour quickly rebuffed her offer, leading to wide ridicule of May in the press and a further slip in her approval ratings. The government’s weakened stance and its faltering momentum also has not gone unnoticed in the European Union. As talks commence in Brussels, former Foreign Office diplomat and chief of staff for the European Trade Commissioner Simon Fraser has stated that May’s negotiations are failing to work in her favor and that Brussels holds most of the cards on the table. Unless May has an ace up her sleeve - which seems ever more unlikely - it seems that the United Kingdom’s Brexit negotiations will hardly go in the direction desired by the Britons who had voted Leave in the first place.
Theresa May may have campaigned for a “strong and stable” government, but if anything, the British government seems more “weak and wobbly” than ever. With the United Kingdom’s government in gridlock, its negotiations with the European Union faltering and its leader in a precarious situation, it seems that the future of Great Britain is anything but great.