The tip-off came from the British government itself that Downing Street had no stomach for a fight over Ukraine and Russia’s takeover of Crimea.
Four years ago when the European Union and the United States were bracing themselves to punish Russia and were debating what sanctions to impose, a British official allowed a note detailing the government’s position to peek out from his briefcase.
“Not support, for now, trade sanctions … or close London’s financial center to Russians,” read the document snapped by a freelance photographer.
That was the government of David Cameron, Theresa May’s predecessor, who wanted to exempt London banks and finance houses from any financial sanctions the West decided to impose on Russia for the annexation of Crimea.
Will May be less reluctant to take a stand now that she is prime minister?
Pressure to respond
Pressure is growing on her government to be tough in response to an assassination attempt on British soil that British officials have little doubt Russian President Vladimir Putin approved. They say the attempted assassination Sunday of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who spied for the British, and his 33-year-old daughter involved a nerve agent likely developed at the Yasenevo laboratory near Moscow run by Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB.
Russia has denied involvement in Skripal’s poisoning and has offered to assist in the investigation.
Chemical-weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British army bio-warfare commander, says the poison used was more likely Sarin and probably sprayed.
“This is not the stuff you can knock up in your garden shed,” he said.
Two years ago May was Britain’s interior minister when a public inquiry concluded there was a “strong probability” that the Russian security service, the FSB, was behind the fatal poisoning in 2006 of Alexander Litvinenko, a dissident and Russian KGB officer-turned-British intelligence agent. He died agonizingly slowly after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210. He wasted away before his family and friends.
Critics of May say the Litvinenko case proves her bark is worse than her bite. She described the assassination as a “blatant and unacceptable breach of international law.” The Russian ambassador was summoned for a telling-off by Britain’s foreign minister and the British government froze the assets of the two main suspects.
Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, criticized the British government for not doing more.
Putin critic Garry Kasparov, the onetime World chess champion and now a political activist, tweeted earlier this week: “Not yet confirmed he (Skripal) was murdered, but after the U.K.’s pathetic response to Litvinenko’s assassination with polonium in London, why wouldn’t Putin do it again?”
In a midweek interview with BBC radio, Marina Litvinenko said: “It’s like deja vu, (like) what happened to me 11 years ago.” She told other reporters: “The British government should, perhaps, think less about the money these people are bringing in and more about the safety of people in this country.”
What can Britain do?
The country’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson on Wednesday, after Britain’s Metropolitan Police said Skripal and his daughter had been exposed deliberately to a nerve agent, said: “If this does turn out to be in any way hostile activity by another government or led by another government then the people of this country can be absolutely sure the U.K. will respond robustly.”
But what can Britain do, and what would be effective? Some analysts are pessimistic about what options are available to May, warning Britain would not win a showdown with Putin. He is prepared to sacrifice while the British fear the economic consequences. The pessimists say that economic sanctions have not deterred Putin from military adventurism in Ukraine, nor did they stop Russia meddling in the U.S. elections.
Would a break in diplomatic relations or an expulsion of spies make the Russian leader think again? British Conservative lawmaker Nick Boles tweeted Wednesday: “I do not see how we can maintain diplomatic relations with a country that tries to murder people on British soil.”
Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, weren’t the only ones affected by the nerve agent used in the attack, British officials said. A British policeman who attended the stricken pair when they were found slumped on a bench in the quintessential British town of Salisbury is also in intensive care.
If he dies, then comparisons will likely be drawn with how the government of Margaret Thatcher acted in 1984 when a young British policewoman was fatally wounded by a shot fired from the Libyan embassy in London by an unknown gunman. Thatcher broke off diplomatic relations with Libya.
Interior Minister Amber Rudd made a statement in the House of Commons Thursday amid parliamentary rumors she might announce the expulsion of the Russian ambassador. In the event she didn’t and pressed the need for cool heads and not jumping to conclusions about who was responsible for the poisoning. She labeled the incident a “brazen and reckless act,” but urged that the police be allowed to investigate free of speculation.
Edward Lucas, author of the book The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, believes the British government will have no choice but to break off diplomatic relations with Russia, if evidence mounts that the Kremlin had a hand in the poisoning.
“It’s an entirely new game if they’re doing this … this is an absolutely brazen, full-on challenge to Britain,” he said, which the May government will have no alternative but to respond to strongly. “If Russia is behind it, they are taking it to a whole level, this is in effect a declaration of war,” he told the BBC.
But others say Russia is not Libya, and they fear the Kremlin will turn Western anger to electoral effect for Putin in the presidential elections March 18, claiming innocence, he would argue, they say, that the West is trying to harm and humiliate Russia, a narrative that has worked well for him in Russia in the past.
Tough action, harsh rhetoric plays into Putin’s hands, some British officials argued at a British parliamentary committee hearing on Russia last year. Adam Thomson, a former British diplomat, said he was concerned about the muscular rhetoric aimed at Moscow.
“We need to engage with Russia,” he argued.
Mark Galeotti, an analyst at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, says whatever Britain decides to do, it must try new methods. He advocated on Twitter that Britain “needs to think beyond usual responses (rhetoric, expulsions) & think what new + ‘asymmetric’ options would punish Moscow.”
Former British minister John Whittingdale is calling for sanctions targeted much more against individuals associated with President Putin, his inner circle and others close to the Russian leader, saying sanctions in the past have failed to deter Russia. Other lawmakers are arguing that Britain should start immediately sanctioning Russians found to have abused human rights.
Whether the government will go down that path is unclear. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s talk of robust action earlier this week in the event a Russian hand is discerned in the poisoning was undercut when he told lawmakers that the government would have to consider whether British representation in July’s football World Cup tournament in Russia would be appropriate. His aides immediately backpedaled the remark to underline that he didn’t mean the English football team itself would be pulled out — just that some British officials would not attend.