It was only to be expected that Donald Trump would readily bin what he calls the unconvincing “info” relating to the “bounties” offered by Russia’s GRU military intelligence to Taliban-linked extremists in return for killing American and British troops in Afghanistan.
The covert action by the Kremlin recalls the Salisbury nerve agent poisonings, allegedly materminded by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a couple of years ago. The British and US governments concluded last year that Unit 29155 operatives were responsible for the March 2018 attack in Salisbury on Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer who had defected to Britain, and his daughter.
Although Putin denied any involvement, the evidence was conclusive. The incident prompted western sanctions against Russia. News relating to the “bounties”, as exposed by The New York Times, has caused a flutter in the roost of western governments, besides rendering the waters of Afghanistan murkier still. Ergo, it now devolves on President Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson to clear the air, not to ignore any version that President Putin may yet advance barely five months ahead of America’s Election.
If the Kremlin’s meddling in Hillary Clinton’s electoral prospects had coloured the narrative in 2016, the latest controversy over Russian bounties against Western troops in a fractured swathe of the world might arguably influence the vote in November. Britain and the US are not the only countries to have suffered from apparently systematic attempts by Russia’s President and its shadowy assassins to destabilise the West. It is hard not to wonder whether the strategy is integral to a larger gameplan. Russian methods include fake news, social media campaigns, cyber-attacks, sabotage, subversion, military operations and covert killing.
And now comes the reported offer of “bounties”. One such outrage occurred in Berlin last year, when an anti-Moscow Chechen separatist was murdered in what German prosecutors termed a state-sanctioned assassination. Unit 29155 has also been linked to an attempted coup in Montenegro, the poisoning of a Bulgarian arms manufacturer, and subversion in Moldova. There is considerable concern over the welldocumented clandestine GRU efforts to meddle in foreign elections. The White House, which was first told of the Russian bounty-hunting operation in Afghanistan in March, has thus far taken no action. Trump’s response to the report has by and large been muted. Is it possible that he is hoping to salvage his proposed “peace deal” with the Taliban? He may also be wary of upsetting Putin.
The US President had previously opposed sanctions imposed on Russia over US election meddling. Likewise, claims that Moscow tried to influence the outcome of the Brexit referendum, and that Russian oligarchs have funded the Conservative party, are extremely damaging to British democracy and must be exposed to public scrutiny and debate. The President of the United States of America, the Prime Minister of Britain and the President of Russia all seem to have a lot to hide in terms of Anglo-USRussian relations. The trilateral plot thickens.