Letter from London: Is London Now a High-Value Target (HVT)?

Headquarters of MI-6, London. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

‘Is it possible there will be no Big Ben, Saint Basil’s, or Notre Dame, and that neutron foam will gush over our final steps?’ wrote late Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Like most of us pinned down by gravity to this hurtling globe, I have galaxy-sized gaps of knowledge. I have been lucky enough to read a diversity of poets since my early teens — I am reading Robert Hayden today — but remain weak on the sciences, certainly outside of the digital space. On matters military, I am more instinctive — through mild exposure — than trained. On medicine, minimal practical experience and no instruction, apart from a few intensive First Aid courses.

What I am most lucky in having is a broad range of friends and contacts whose talents I marvel at and whose perceptions and largesse I benefit from regularly. Often I will not know the answer to something but will know someone who does. Which is why I wish that what some of them have been saying of late would go away. Not just their creeping fatalism or poison ivy of negative thinking, which is impossible at times not to share. Not just their thoughts on the cost of living crisis, paralysis from strikes, impacts of inflation on real wages, strains on the NHS and other public services.

I am talking about the potential for Russian retaliation on UK soil. A retribution triggered by overt support for Ukraine. A potential attack in the heart of London: ‘Is it possible there’ll be no Big Ben?’ Like most people, I want the metaphorical Great Bell to chime forever and anon. I don’t want visits from people claiming to love Salisbury Cathedral because it is ‘famous for its 123-metre spire,’ as Skripal poisoning suspect Ruslan Boshirov remarked, anywhere near Big Ben’s iconic 96-meter tower. We already know of Russian mapping of key sites for possible sabotage in the North Sea. Or, even worse, could there ever be targeting of the capital from the air? Stranger things have happened. Look at pock-charred Moscow recently.

While many here complain about the national smartphone alert that took place on April 23 not working, some conspiracy theorists believe it was in reality a contingency measure in the event of an imminent attack. I have real doubts about this but would anyone tell us if this was the case? We know last week from The Telegraph there was a covert government team — in tandem with social media companies — trying to stunt talk on questionable lockdown policies during the pandemic. On another matter, a former cabinet minister has complained about government lawyers ‘weaponising’ controversial legislation in order to cover up some stories — so we are not exactly smelling of English roses when it comes to openness or transparency. As I have said here before, the conflict itself has never been truly debated.

Danish theologian, philosopher and poet Søren Kierkegaard had that line: ‘It happened that a fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to inform the public and they all thought it was a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning and they shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid the general applause from all the wits who believe that it is a joke,’ he wrote. Kierkegaard aside, deep down how real is the threat and how much conspiracy theory? My mind slides from port to starboard and back again on this one. I know I have always been interested in human restlessness and they do say it is only narcissism that ultimately sends people to the ouija board and has them believe the dead really care about them. Is it just narcissism at play here, too, when in fact nobody may be interested in the UK at all?

I was thinking about Peter Bogdanovich’s deliberately understated psychiatrist’s psychiatrist in ‘The Sopranos’ when he describes Tony Soprano circuitously as ‘unpracticed in not getting what he wants’. Putin is seen as someone unpracticed in not getting what he wants. But hang on, didn’t he want to take Ukraine in three days? He didn’t get what he wanted. Didn’t former Labour defence secretary George Robertson, who led Nato between 1999 and 2003, say Putin made it clear he wanted to join Nato? He didn’t get what he wanted. (Europe’s decision to remain aligned with the United States made sure of that — in fact, French President Macron has said only a few days ago, ‘we cannot leave our collective security issues to the choice of American voters in the coming years’.)

One genuine cause for concern is the increase in neatly prepared anti-UK statements coming out of Russia right now. While the UK will be wary of being ‘played’ here, it is worth remembering the statement that was ignored by the West prior to the 2022 invasion. This was the eight-point draft treaty which Putin warned would lead to a ‘military response’ if it was disregarded. Again, Putin didn’t get what he wanted and we all know what happened next. Russian infantry and tanks headed for Kyiv via Belarus (he didn’t get what he wanted), a southern move began from Crimea, a south-eastern one from Donbas, and another from Russia heading for Sumy and Kharkiv.

What happens when people don’t get what they wanted? Only last week, Andrei Klein, the Russian ambassador to the UK, introduced a further dimension by warning BBC’s Laura Kuennsberg that Russia has ‘enormous resources and we haven’t just started yet to act very seriously’. It was a very worrying interview, with the Russian ambassador sounding more puerile than he is, and no less serious.

A recent statement from Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev has said any UK official is a legitimate target for assassination, and that the country is ‘de facto at war with Russia’. Brits were even described as their ‘eternal enemy’, which of course does not quite compute given that the UK did fight with the Russians against the Nazis, and Churchill was castigated in his own parliament for seeming to passively accept Soviet domination of Poland and Eastern Europe.

Russia’s present foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, whose step-daughter is sometimes rumoured to be living it up in London, has said the West was ‘playing with fire’ by agreeing to give Ukraine F-16 fighter jets, describing it as an attempt to ‘weaken Russia’ by ‘Washington, London and their satellites in the EU’. Putin’s spokesperson Dmitri Peskov, whose daughter was educated in France, said of UK involvement last week: ‘We take an extremely negative view of this. Britain is trying to be one of the leading countries which keeps pumping weapons into Ukraine.’ In the face of which, outgoing RAF head Sir Mike Wigston has told the UK press that Vladimir Putin will be ‘vindictive’ if the war against Kyiv fails, and that this will pose a direct threat to the UK.

And what meanwhile of the vast build-up of Nato troops right along the Russian frontier, including over 1,500 British troops training alongside other Nato personnel in Estonia? These aren’t ducks in a row but highly trained troops bristling with weaponry. And what of the rumours from Poland of gathering support for an armed uprising against Lukashenko in Belarus? And now, with Moldova saying it is ready to provide territory to Ukraine for military operations, how swiftly unrecognisable is the conflict about to become? (One smart American I know from the American south believes the entire campaign an utter disaster and that it will end in Russian victory especially as he reckons sanctions don’t work and never will.)

What of the truly big beasts of tactical nuclear weapons, which some say are not necessary in Ukraine as Russia will use hypersonic missiles with conventional warheads if they really want to neutralise the country? As world leaders already in strategic nuclear arms, presumably it is more towards Nato that Russia will be aiming both these and their tactical nuclear weapons.

‘In Russia all tyrants believe poets to be their worst enemies,’ also said Russian poet Yevtushenko. ‘To err is human,’ said English poet of the Enlightenment Alexander Pope. Let us hope right now there are no grave errors either side. I feel sure the majority of the British public don’t want a war with Russia. Just as I feel sure the majority of the Russian public don’t want a war with Blighty.

Which begs one last question. Who does?

Peter Bach lives in London.