On Russia, Theresa May’s options are limited and ineffective at best

On Russia, Theresa May’s options are limited and ineffective at best

Theresa May’s demands for an explanation of the nerve gas incident are almost certain to be ignored by the Kremlin, but the real risks would lie in pursuing an escalation.

In fairness to the Prime Minister, taking a hard line on the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury was basically her only option. The apparent use of a military-grade nerve agent – Novichok – on British soil could clearly not be allowed to pass without action by the government, but it was also a matter of personal credibility for Theresa May.

The comparisons with the death of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 – and criticism of May’s inaction at the time – quickly started to roll in. On the backdrop of a messy Brexit, the PM could not afford any further erosion of her “strong and stable” image. The result was an ultimatum to the Kremlin: provide an explanation within 24 hours, or the incident will be labelled as an “unlawful use of force” by Russia against the UK.

But Putin does not respond well to ultimatums at the best of times. The chances are even slimmer now, with the presidential elections just around the corner on 18 March. Catering to such strident accusations from the UK would look weak – the last thing Putin wants to project going into the vote. Any Russia-watcher could easily have advised PM May that this would be the case. It seems highly unlikely that she would have been unaware that her demands would fall on deaf ears (if she was, there is clearly an urgent need for more Russia experts in the Foreign Office).

Under the circumstances, the 24-hour play was both brave and rash. It certainly looks and sounds decisive. But it also risks leaving Britain seeming powerless and insignificant when the inevitable happens – or rather, doesn’t happen – in terms of the Kremlin’s response.

Indeed, the Russians have already turned to mockery. The first public acknowledgment of May’s statement came within two hours of the Downing Street tweet, from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Twitter account. It speaks for itself:

It’s almost certain that the Kremlin’s Twitter-bots have since been in overdrive propagating the #HighlyLikelyRussia hashtag. This right here was our best indicator that Russia would be denying any responsibility. And sure enough, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov today made no concessions.

“We see that such a tragic situation happened, but we don’t have information about what could be the cause, what this person did.”

Dmitry Peskov

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov followed suit, and requested that Russia be given access to the substance alleged to have caused the poisoning.

“Russia is not guilty. Russia is ready to cooperate according to the Chemical Weapons Convention, if Britain takes the trouble and condescends to carry out its international obligations according to the same document.”

Sergei Lavrov

So on Wednesday, Theresa May is going to have to save face.

She has given herself no choice but to pursue punitive measures, and serious ones at that, given that she has essentially accused Russia of an act of war.

The UK’s possible options have been widely discussed in the media. However, four important and under-reported factors need to be taken into account with regards to any potential retaliation.

First, if the goal is to change Russia’s behaviour and prevent future incidents, then this is extremely unlikely. Such killings, in Britain and elsewhere for that matter, are never intended to be subtle – they are meant to send a message, loud and clear, about what happens to people who are disloyal to the regime. (In that sense, it’s interesting to speculate that the timing, so close to Putin’s anticipated re-election, may not be coincidental.) By making a big deal out of the poisoning, the British authorities are, if anything, playing right into the Russians’ desired narrative. Short of measures that would directly cause the downfall of the current political-business elite, fundamentally, the Kremlin simply does not care how the UK reacts.

Second, on counter-measures that require collective action to be effective – such as sanctions, exclusion from SWIFT, or a ramped-up Nato presence in eastern Europe – the British government risks standing alone. The EU has been sharply divided on further sanctions, the French president has called additional US sanctions on Russia illegal, Angela Merkel is busy fire-fighting internal political strife and Trump’s trade wars, and nobody is in the mood to humour Brexiteer Britain. On the other side of the Atlantic, despite Rex Tillerson’s seeming expression of support, his sudden dismissal by Trump means it’s not clear in the immediate term what position America’s new Secretary of State will take.

Third, there is a need to think through to the logical conclusions of some of the higher-impact forms of retaliation. For instance, a cyber counter-attack has been floated as a possibility. Setting aside the question of whether such an attack would in itself constitute an unlawful intervention, in a cyberwar with Russia, the UK is very likely to come out the loser. Russia has repeatedly applied and tested its cyber capabilities – in Ukraine, in the Baltics, even allegedly during the war with Georgia. In a worst-case scenario, if Russia were to take out government IT systems or even concrete critical infrastructure, the UK would be in a position of having to escalate its own response, leading into a spiral that could culminate, however absurd it might seem, in an outright declaration of war. Increasing the Nato build-up on Russia’s borders could have a similar escalatory effect, given that Russia tends to interpret this as an act of aggression.

Finally, there is the reality that Putin is almost certainly going to be president of Russia for the next 6 years. Regardless of how palatable the Putin regime might be, six years is a long time to be on bad terms with a major global economy.

Realistically, the UK’s options are in the realm of diplomatic tit-for-tat, unilateral sanctions, asset freezes, legislation along the lines of the Magnitsky Bill, and stronger anti-propaganda measures (perhaps including state broadcaster Russia Today) – although none of these is likely to have a major impact. Calling the poisoning an “unlawful use of force” could also pave the way for responsible individuals to be more easily held criminally liable under international law, if the culprits are found. Another sensible outcome is the UK Ministry of Defense reportedly planning to put more spending into CBRN defense, which is probably wise given increasing risks.

Any attempt to go beyond such practical responses will put the UK up against the near-impossible conundrum of trying to discipline a nuclear superpower. This is not to say that the approach to Russia should be one of appeasement – particularly if there were evidence of an (even) more belligerent stance towards its neighbours – but that it’s important to pick one’s battles, and sorties, carefully in order to avoid unintended outcomes.


Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

GRI Editor-in-Chief, Alisa Lockwood

Alisa has more than 13 years of experience in political risk. Alisa began her career at a political risk start-up, Exclusive Analysis, and most recently spent five years Head of Europe/CIS Country Risk at IHS Global, where she advised major corporate and government clients on political and security risks in the region. She also led the development of IHS’ counterparty risk assessment product and oversaw global investigations. Alisa’s commentary has frequently appeared in the media, including Bloomberg, CNBC and Sky News. She has lived in Canada, France, the UK, and Russia, where she worked at the European External Action Service in Moscow.