In her speech to the House of Commons on Wednesday, UK Prime Minister Theresa May outlined a series of responses to the poisoning of the former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal with a nerve agent produced in Russia.
The UK is expelling 23 undeclared Russian intelligence officers – that is the largest expulsion in decades and should considerably degrade Russia’s intelligence capacity in London. It will also cancel some pending high level visits. Other measures – sanctions, asset freezes, greater scrutiny of Russian visitors and their money – are possible in principle, with their exact shape to be decided as and when needed.
This looks like a prudent reaction to a grave, but still confusing crime. One can think of five reasons why it is good.
1. The punishment is linked to the crime
One of the big mistakes that the UK – and the West as a whole – have made in their relations with Russia was the under-reaction to the murder of another fugitive Russian, Alexander Litvinenko, in 2006. It took almost a decade just to bring full clarity to the circumstances of the death: the public enquiry was opened in the summer of 2014 and concluded in 2016.
To Russia, this sent a message that the crime was not important in itself; it was only ‘instrumentalized’ once Russia-West relations had deteriorated because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Such behaviour contributes to Russia’s cynically mercantilist reading of Western rules and values, and may have encouraged the Kremlin’s reckless behaviour on other occasions.
2. The message is strong, but the measures are realistic
To be taken seriously by Moscow, it is usually best to underpromise and overdeliver; to say less and mean it more. Moscow is very good at calling Western countries’ bluff. Had May promised measures that the UK cannot deliver – at all, or without the support of allies – then Moscow would have dismissed that as just another manifestation of the UK’s inflated sense of self-importance, that is amply evident in the context of Brexit.
May did the opposite. The expulsion of 23 agents is a strong measure by the standards of expulsions, but it is not an ‘asymmetric cyber attack’ or other sort of ‘nuclear option.’ At the same time, the UK has raised the issue with NATO, the UN, the Organisation for The Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and with EU leaders. Such coalition building can prepare the ground for any future actions that could well be more ambitious.
3. The UK has avoided self-harm
Before the Prime Minister’s statement there was much discussion about measures the UK could take to punish Russia, but some of them were clearly imprudent. Revoking the operating licence of Russia’s propaganda channel RT, for example, would have inflated RT’s importance far beyond its real clout, while exposing Britain to more painful retaliation.
Many British media channels working in Moscow remain an important source of information and analysis for the Western world, while for the Russian media – even genuine media – London remains a location that they can easily do without. Thus, any reciprocal expulsion of media would have hurt Britain much more than Russia.
4. No lumping together different issues
Another measure that some suggested was to arm Ukraine to punish Russia. The logic behind it is flawed and would once again have sent the wrong message to Moscow. Ukraine is entitled to its sovereignty regardless of how Russia behaves vis-à-vis the UK; and Moscow must not assume that good relations with Western powers will help it gain greater control of Ukraine. In these two conversations – the conversation about Europe’s geopolitical order and Ukraine’s place in it, and the conversation about chemical attack in Salisbury – Russia obviously figures as the common denominator, but even so, it makes sense to keep them reasonably separate for the time being, as otherwise they will become even harder to disentangle and address.
Another recommended measure was to go after Russian money in London. This is a trickier question. On the one hand, getting rid of dirty money (Russian or otherwise) is in London’s own interest and long overdue. But doing it as a punishment might yet again send the wrong message. That said, targeting the wealth of some well-chosen personalities might yet emerge as the next step of punishment. In any case, it does no harm to have it among one’s options.
5. There is room to escalate
Finally, the measures taken and announced leave the UK ample room to escalate. This – in combination with incoming international support – might also give Moscow some incentive to try to de-escalate.
A puzzling crime
One needs to admit that in many ways this attempted murder remains puzzling. While there is no reason to doubt the UK’s assessment that the chemical agent used originates in Russia, is hard to see why the Kremlin would launch such an attack right now.
To do so consciously, with full knowledge of the implications, would amount to a major escalation of the stand-off with the West. This would dramatically limit Putin’s choices and room for manoeuvre at the start of his new and likely final term in the Kremlin.
None of this fits with what we know about Vladimir Putin’s character (he likes to have options, so that he can make decisions at the last minute) or with current Russian foreign policy debates in Moscow (that advocate a shift away from crude disruption towards more complex behaviour).
Thus, one needs to admit that we do not know all there is to be known, so it is wise to leave stronger measures for the time when we know more. Meanwhile, Moscow will have a chance to do what it considers useful to de-escalate – if it so wishes.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.