Britain and Russia in diplomatic brinkmanship following Skripal poisoning

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Anglo-Russian relations have rarely been worse. In 2006, a fugitive Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko was killed by radioactive poison on British soil. President Vladimir Putin “probably approved his assassination” according to British authorities.

Twelve years later, on March 4th, former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned and unconscious in sleepy Salisbury, a medieval cathedral city in southern England. After investigation, the poison was identified as nerve agent called Novichok which belongs to a group of chemical weapons developed by the Soviet Union towards the end of the Cold War. Yulia Skripal was found seizing, vomiting, Sergei Skripal, rigid and immobile. Both remain in hospital in a critical condition.

The British reaction

The reaction from the UK government was predictably one of outrage with varying levels of measure. Prime Minister Theresa May’s “toothless tough talk” was cool, calm and cautious, while Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s response was less fire and fury and more playground tantrum in telling the Russians to “go away and shut up”, before Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson waded in to outright accuse Putin himself.

The collective joint statement Mrs May then engineered from US, French and German leaders was a reiteration of rhetorical predictability. If the perceived “assault on UK sovereignty” in the poisoning of Mr Skripal and his daughter was indeed a probe to test the West directed by the Russian state, as alluded to by Mr Johnson and the UK leadership, then what better a host nation in which prod the stability of Europe and the US than Britain, the poster-boy for political volatility and diplomatic vulnerability in 2018.

Swapping the expulsion of 23 diplomats, the single largest in 30 years from the UK, and the closure of the British Council in Moscow, a cultural hub, could be the beginning of a battle in which Russia holds more cards than it did back in 2006.

Putin Russia novichok nerve agent
Russian president Vladmir Putin was elected for the fourth time on Sunday. Photo Credit: Kremlin.ru

The rhetorical solidarity of Britain’s allies is unlikely to worry Russia. The recent Italian elections point to a Europe that is weak and divided. The two largest parties in terms of vote share are both openly sympathetic to Russia. Marine Le Pen may have disappeared but the swathes of voters she convinced backed her in 2017 either because or in spite of an overtly pro-Putin campaign. Merkel has rarely been weaker and Germany’s reliance on Russian energy is no secret. Overall, 37% of European gas demand was met with Russian-sourced gas in 2017, according to energy analysts Wood Mackenzie, though the UK itself receives most of its gas from Norway.

Another previously inextricable ally across the Atlantic is now far from permanently reliable. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was among the most significant Russia-sceptics in the Trump administration. He was sacked in a tweet hours after he called the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal a “really egregious act” on Tuesday. Britain can count on one hand its genuinely reliable allies if it were to freeze state-linked oligarchs’ assets in London, one of the only measures that would really hurt the Russian state.

The “Londongrad” connection

In any case Russia is too important to the capital for the UK to impose stringent sanctions: “London is the de-facto capital of the post-Soviet mafia state,” writes Politico. The city is where its oligarchic elite invest in property, cheer on Premier League hobbies, and dress themselves in luxury. There is an entire economy of British lawyers, consultants, bankers and accountants who thrive from protecting Russian interests in Europe.

Lyubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Putin minister, made a £161,000 donation to the Conservative Party in June 2014 in exchange for a tennis match with David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Britain’s political and economic proximity with post-Soviet Russia is apparent.

Theresa May’s reticent response highlights the limitations she has without full international support. True, the Prime Minister has left “room to ramp it up,” as tweeted by Tory MP Johnny Mercer immediately after May’s statement to the House of Commons. She will chair an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Wednesday to attempt to garner more international support.

Some commentators argue that the Kremlin would love nothing more than another Cold War, “with its escalations and détentes, its grand summits and disarmament treaty-signing ceremonies.” A cynic might well note the timing of the attack as immediately before Russia went to the polls for the inevitable landslide re-election of Vladimir Putin.

It is difficult to precisely measure a poisoning of a former double agent in Europe on a domestic level but nevertheless Putin’s campaign chairman cited the event as key in getting Russians to turnout to elect Putin for a fourth time.

“Right now the turnout numbers are higher than we expected. We need to thank Great Britain for that because once again they did not consider the Russian mentality … Once again we were subject to pressure at just the moment when we needed to mobilise.”

Russia’s struggling economy

Some commentators have pointed out the weakness of the Russian economic situation. The population is in decline and sanctions have “sucked the momentum out of the Russian economy over the past couple of years.” Putin’s future is far from secure but as noted John Thornhill in the Financial Times, it is his weakness that must be feared.

The Salisbury attack could be seen above all as symbolic. An attack on British soil in an explicitly public setting affecting citizens that is provoking rare nationalistic unity and common media hyperbole is a test for the weary, Brexit-embattled British state.

The intrinsically Russian nature of the Novichok agent and choice of setting, timing and nation is “almost as though the Russians are sending a message to the West that they can reach anywhere, whenever they like,” according to Jean Pascal Zanders in Chemical & Engineering News, formerly a senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies.

Russia was supposed to have destroyed its 39,967 metric tons of chemical weapons by September 2017, according to the supranational Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The British Prime Minister has demanded that Moscow release information about the Novichok program.

It is worth noting that there is no concrete evidence that the Russian state, its security service or Mr Putin was behind the poisoning. Moscow has denied all allegations and even blamed a British-based lab for its resurfacing.

Much like Litvinenko, the attack is shrouded in mystery. Back then, British outrage slowly subsided. Without a united and coordinated response from its allies, there is little more Britain can do on a diplomatic level. Salisbury serves as a symbol of the rapidly changing global power dynamic, and above all highlights the precariousness of the British position within a mutating world order.

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