Following the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the southern English town of Salisbury on Sunday 4 March, the British government has finally reached the limits of its patience with Russia.
Prime Minister Theresa May issued an ultimatum on Monday, giving Russia until midnight on Tuesday to explain how the nerve agent identified by British experts as a Russian military weapon came to be used for what is still, at this stage, attempted murder. She justified her stance by saying that: “There is no other conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable.”
In response to her comments Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denied all knowledge of or involvement in the incident, and demanded to have access to the material identified by scientists at Britain’s Porton Down research establishment.
A series of tweets from the Russian embassy in London prior to and after the deadline made it plain that Russia did not accept the ultimatum or intend to provide any evidence to explain the incident.
Mixed bag of measures
Following a briefing by senior intelligence officials on Wednesday morning Mrs May announced a series of measures to retaliate against Russia, most notably the expulsion of 23 diplomats identified as “undeclared intelligence officers”. Although this will be the largest number of Russian diplomats expelled from the UK for almost 30 years, and will be almost half of the diplomatic staff at the Russian embassy in London, it is really a symbolic gesture.
Despite her statement that the expulsion will “fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come” and that any attempts to rebuild it will be prevented, it seems unlikely that a country with large military and intelligence budgets facilitating its belligerent intentions will be crippled by such a move. Particularly given its now infamous ability to infiltrate supposedly secure government IT systems, using its own experts or proxy organisations with a licence to act on its behalf.
Other measures which could, potentially, have some teeth (my italics) included:
The freezing of Russian assets where there is evidence they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents
Plans to consider new laws to increase defences against “hostile state activity”.
The rest, such as cutting all planned high level bi-lateral contacts between the UK and Russia, or not sending ministers or members of the Royal Family to the FIFA World Cup in Russia this year, will not have Mr Putin reaching for his sleeping tablets.
Seriousness and solidarity
Although most of the planned retaliatory action is unlikely to inflict much damage , new legislation and some ifs and buts pending, this is a step up from the ineffective and weak response in 2006 when former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London. In 2007 just four Russian diplomats were expelled when Russia refused to extradite those the UK believed responsible for the murder.
Against this background it was important to respond strongly to the Salisbury incident but the UK will need the support of its allies to really hurt or worry Russia. Initial warm words of support were supplemented by a joint statement from France, Germany, the US and the UK, declaring that:
“We, the leaders of France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom, abhor the attack that took place against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, UK, on 4 March 2018.”
And went on to firmly lay the blame at Russia’s door, stating:
“The United Kingdom briefed thoroughly its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack. We share the UK assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation, and note that Russia´s failure to address the legitimate request by the UK government further underlines its responsibility.”
NATO also confirmed its support for the British position, calling on Russia to provide full disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Money matters most
Condemnation is all very well but hitting Russia where it hurts would mean focusing on the activity of the numerous wealthy Russians in London, and their links to the Russian state. Which would mean potentially upsetting some of the lawyers and bankers in the City of London who apparently have a Russia VIP section, and do a lot of work for many of these wealthy individuals.
The UK is internationally recognised as having a very relaxed attitude to questionable sources of wealth, or a pragmatic one if you want to take a more forgiving view. Changing this approach and taking a hard look at where money comes from, who it is linked to and whether it should be allowed to be “cleaned” in the UK would be more damaging to Russia and its overseas associates than kicking out some spies.
London has become known as Londongrad due to the high numbers of Russians, both dissidents and allies of Putin, who have homes there and take advantage of its accommodating business culture. If the UK government is really serious about hitting back at Russia this will be the first test: is it prepared to put national security and its own reputation before keeping the well-oiled wheels of see no evil commerce turning?
Making sense of mystery and motives in Spyland
If the Russian government is behind the Salisbury attack, and as has been highlighted by UK Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, this is still an if for some people, the mystery is what could be gained from such an attack. Scaring those considering betraying Russia is an obvious motive but surely a push down the stairs would have been easier and less obviously Russian than choosing a known Russian nerve agent. On the other hand, the sloppy murder of Alexander Litvinenko had Russian fingerprints all over it, so either both cases display a lack of professionalism or they were intended as warnings to past and potential traitors, with no concerns about a possible reaction from “soft touch Britain”.
Showing the long reach and long memory of the state might certainly appeal to an old KGB hand like Putin, who has publicly mourned the passing of the Soviet Union. But as the list of assassinations and suspicious deaths grows, and the big shows of force like annexing Crimea, fighting proxy wars in eastern Ukraine and propping up Assad in Syria continue to aggravate the international community, there has to come a point when growing isolation outweighs the benefits of muscle-flexing for a domestic audience.
Perhaps Putin has misjudged this latest excursion into Le Carre land, or more worryingly perhaps the outraged protestations of innocence emanating from the Kremlin are genuine. A BBC Newsnight report on Friday featured an interview with Russian dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in which he suggested that President Putin may no longer be in absolute control of the country or its security services. He suggested that either he gave approval for the Salisbury operation, or the secret service is out of control and feels able to operate without his consent.
As the UK government digests Russia’s expected retaliatory expulsion of 23 UK diplomats events have taken on an increasingly surreal and spy novel feel, with the announcement by the Metropolitan Police that the death of 68-year-old Russian Nickolay Grushkov in London on 12 March is being treated as murder. Grushkov was wanted in Russia for fraud but the UK had refused extradition.
Although his death is not being linked to the Salisbury attack it could be significant that he was a friend of Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, who moved to the UK in 1999 after falling out with Putin. In 2013 Berezovsky was found hanged in his bathroom but Mr Gruskov had said he did not believe his friend committed suicide.
With all predictions suggesting Putin will win the forthcoming election it seems that Western solidarity in the face of wild west justice from the east will become increasingly important, as will finding out who is controlling whom in the upper echelons of the Russian state.