CAIRO - 14 March 2018: During an address in the House of Commons on Wednesday, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has called for 23 Russian diplomats – “undeclared intelligence officers” – to be removed from the United Kingdom. They have been told they have one week to leave, in what is the single biggest expulsion for 30 years.
In addition, May has said that the government will freeze Russian state assets in the UK, cancel high-level bilateral meetings and will cancel UK government and Royal Family trips to the World Cup in Russia this summer.
"We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of U.K. nationals or residents," May said.
May condemned the “unlawful use of force” against the United Kingdom, and said that “it is now time that we come together with our allies.”
Theresa May gave Russia 24 hours to provide sufficient evidence that the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal was conducted by a rogue agent who gained control of the Russian-produced “military grade” nerve agent without state knowledge, and conducted the attempted assassination independent from the state.
It is highly unlikely that a rogue agent managed to smuggle the nerve agent under attentive Russian observation, and even less likely that the Kremlin would admit to this if it was the case. The Kremlin failed to meet the deadline put forth by Theresa May, and the only response thus far has been one of contempt.
“[Russia’s] response has demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events,” said Theresa May, who argued on Wednesday that there was no conclusion other than that Russia was responsible for the attack.
“To those who seek to do us harm… you are not welcome here,” she continued.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, has criticized the “baseless accusations which are not backed up by any evidence,” and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has accused the UK of staging a “political performance” over the attack.
What other options are available for Theresa May?
Other diplomatic, economic and military responses are possible but it is likely that May will test Russia’s reaction before extending retaliatory measures. The ability for May to exert pressure over Moscow will rely on the U.K.’s EU and NATO allies. A unilateral isolation of Russia will do little to worry Moscow; however a U.K.-led multi-state approach is more likely to succeed in isolating the state and those close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The U.K. may refuse to allow officials to travel to Russia as part of its 2018 World Cup delegation. It is highly unlikely that players would be part of the boycott, but a coordinated EU wide approach for sports officials to not to attend the World Cup would be a blow for the Kremlin.
Russia Today (RT), may have its U.K. broadcasting license revoked. The state-run news network is argued to propagate so-called “fake news,” and has been the source of much debate throughout Europe. The revocation of its broadcasting license would damage Putin’s attempts to counter the dominant western media rhetoric.
Extensive economic sanctions and asset freezes against those close to the President may be successful in pressuring Putin to fix relationships with the U.K., and avert from the path he has set the country down. Freezing the assets of Russian oligarchs within the U.K. and extending EU sanctions all amongst the economic options available.
An increase in the number of military forces in Eastern Europe, close to the Russian border, amongst NATO members would be a risky military retaliation. While it is unlikely that the U.K. will instigate Article 5 in response to the attempted assassination, many see a military response as vital if the U.K. wants to maintain its position as a major military power.
NATO could also increase strategic pressure on Moscow through Ukraine. Agreeing a membership action plan (MAP) with Kiev would give the state provisional membership to the collective defense organization, and anger those in Moscow. This move would be incredibly provocative, and could possibly lead to a major war in the border country.
Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were exposed to an "unknown substance" while out in Salisbury on March 6. They were found unconscious on a bench in the Maltings shopping centre after being exposed to an unknown substance; Skripal and his daughter have been kept in intensive care ever since. Theresa May has subsequently identified the nerve agent used in the attack as a “Novichok”; meaning “newcomer”, the name refers to a group of nerve agents developed in the 1970s and 1980s by the Soviet Union. The substance used is known to be many times more lethal than VX, the deadly nerve agent used to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in Malaysia last year.
As the military and chemical warfare specialists swept the area looks for traces of the lethal substance, the small medieval cathedral city was in shock. Both the Mill pub and Zizis restaurant were closed, and a public health warning urged all those who visited the locations to wash their clothes and possessions, and to make note of their health. A number of emergency services personnel, in addition to those in a close proximity, were taken into care following contact with Sergei and Yulia. 38 people were seen by medical staff following the attack, and 34 were soon discharged.
Russian state television has warned “traitors” not to relocate and settle in England, in what can only be interpreted as a threat to critics of Putin and the Kremlin.
“Don’t choose England as a place to live. Whatever the reasons, whether you’re a professional traitor to the motherland or you just hate your country in your spare time, I repeat, no matter, don’t move to England,” Kirill Kleymenov said during a news report on state-run Channel One.
Theresa May addressed the House of Commons on March 12, and said that it is “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. Russia has dismissed May’s claims as a “circus show,” however she warned that her government will not tolerate such a “brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.”
British foreign secretary Boris Johnson spoke to former-U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and the latter told reporters that the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal “clearly came from Russia,” and that there would be consequences. Just hours after Johnson heralded the U.K.’s allies for their “strength of support,” Trump tweeted that Tillerson was to be sacked, and replaced with Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA. The sacking may not be linked to Tillerson’s comments on Russia.
The British home secretary has launched an official inquiry into the deaths of 14 other individuals, suspecting there is a possibility that Russian involvement may be behind a number of the deaths. The investigation will take place with the support of the police and the domestic security services, MI5.
Who is Sergei Skripal?
Sergei Skripal was a Russian former military intelligence colonel who has worked as a double agent alongside the U.K.'s Secret Intelligence Service – MI6 – since the 1990s. He was arrested near his home in Moscow in 2004, and in 2006 was sentenced to thirteen years in a high security detention facility in Russia, and stripped of his military rank and decorations. Moscow's military court convicted him for passing information to the U.K.’s intelligence services, and thus "high treason in the form of espionage.” However, in July 2010, Skripal was pardoned by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Alongside three other spies he was exchanged for 10 deep cover “sleeper” agents, who had been arrested by the FBI in the United States, in what was the largest spy swap since the end of the Cold War. Skripal was subsequently flown to the U.K. alongside another spy released as part of the agreement.
Officers in protective suits work near the bench in Salisbury where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found. Photograph - REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Russia has a record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, and this latest unashamed violation of British sovereignty, in order to assassinate a pardoned enemy of the Russia state, has dampened U.K.-Russian relations to levels experienced during the Cold War. The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal is not the first time a Russian dissident has been targeted in the U.K. In 2006, former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was killed by radioactive polonium-210, which was believed to have been administered in a cup of tea. Litvinenko became a fierce critic of the Kremlin after he fled to Britain, and was paid by the U.K.'s Secret Intelligence Service.