Britain’s Response to the Salisbury Attack: A Net Assessment

The Russian embassy in Ottawa. Canada joined Britain and other allies in expelling Russian diplomats in response to the Salisbury attack. Photo: Getty Images.
The Russian embassy in Ottawa. Canada joined Britain and other allies in expelling Russian diplomats in response to the Salisbury attack. Photo: Getty Images.

Soon after the Salisbury nerve gas attack on Sergei and Yuliya Skripal, James Nixey and I set out principles that should govern the UK’s response, and assessed potential actions against them. We argued that Britain should:

  • impose measures that are not merely symbolic, but impose costs to deter future unacceptable actions;
  • target key Russian interests, not the wider population; and
  • accept that an effective response will impose costs on some UK interests.

The UK response set out by Theresa May on 14 March comprises three sets of measures:

  1. Diplomatic sanctions: high-level bilateral contacts have been frozen, and no ministers or members of the royal family will attend the World Cup. But the England team will play: a domestically divisive but ineffective boycott has wisely been avoided.Twenty-three undeclared intelligence officers working at the Russian embassy have been declared persona non grata, the biggest such expulsion since the end of the Cold War. This will degrade Russia’s ability to conduct future hostile actions on UK soil, but will not eliminate it.‘Illegal’ operatives, not under diplomatic cover, will remain active in the UK, and may be supported by operatives making short visits (as with the Litvinenko case, and probably the Skripal case too).
  2. Broader powers to tackle espionage and other hostile state activity, and a more vigorous use of existing powers to carry out checks of visitors and cargo.
  3. Financial actions: freezing of Russian state assets that ‘may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents’; and new sanctions against human rights violations like those in the Magnitsky Act adopted by the United States and others.

Following Russia’s retaliation to these measures – a tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsion, and the closure of the St Petersburg consulate and the British Council in Russia – Britain has signalled it will not escalate for now.

How effective is the UK response? Its goal is to ‘deter by denial’ by making it harder for Russia to succeed in another hostile action of this kind. It does little to ‘deter by punishment’ through imposing or threatening significant costs should Russia attempt this.

The financial measures, in particular, are limited. Any assets, not only those of the Russian state, that ‘threaten life or property’ should be frozen as a matter of course. New sanctions will apply only to human rights abuses, and not – as with the more comprehensive American version of the Magnitsky Act – severe corruption too. The ability of key figures and networks around Putin to protect and legitimize their activities and assets in the UK has not been impaired. As a result, Britain’s financial and legal services industry, a major beneficiary of the bilateral commercial relationship with Russia, will not be adversely affected.

Two final points should be made. First, Theresa May referred to other measures ‘that cannot be shared publicly for reasons of national security’. Her mention of ‘a range of tools from across the full breadth of our national security apparatus’ suggests they may include cyber measures.

Finally, the most significant aspect of Britain’s response may be its success in rallying international support. Despite Brexit tensions and recent strains in the transatlantic community, NATO and the EU have publicly and strongly backed Britain’s position on the Salisbury attack. The European Council’s instruction to recall the head of the EU delegation to Moscow, Markus Ederer, for consultations caps an impressive demonstration of unity. The coordinated expulsion of over 100 Russian intelligence operatives across North America and Europe is likewise an unprecedented display of solidarity.

Russia’s diplomacy, by contrast, has been as inept as Britain’s has been skillful. Its many explanations for the poisoning of the Skripals – including the suggestion, during a UN Security Council debate, that Britain had used nerve gas on itself – are believed by no one. A subtler messaging might have attracted some doubters. As it is, Russian is isolated. If anything, it exerts negative soft power: its claims are inherently unlikely to be believed.

This moment of Western unity is likely to fix a harder view of Russia as a security threat, not a misunderstood great power, and make any early easing of current sanctions less likely. These, rather than Britain’s bilateral measures, will be the major costs to Russia of its Salisbury misadventure, and might give pause to Russia in contemplating another action like it.

Dr Nigel Gould-Davies, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.

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