The poisoning of a former Russian double-agent (a Russian military intelligence operative recruited by MI6) and his daughter in the southern England town of Salisbury on March 4, generated shock waves in Russia-West relations, whose turbulence has not abated.
Sergei Skripal, who was arrested in Russia in 2006, was part of a Russia-UK spy swap – 4 in Russian custody sent to UK, in return for 10 in British custody – in 2010 and has been living in England since. Within days of the incident, UK PM May announced in Parliament that Skripal had been poisoned by a class of nerve-agent that had been developed in Russia. Shortly thereafter, she fixed responsibility on Russia and announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from UK as a retaliation.
There was an extraordinary show of solidarity with UK from the United States, EU, and NATO/G7 countries. The leaders of the United States, UK, France and Germany issued a joint statement on March 15, drawing attention to the use of a military-grade nerve agent, “of a type" developed by Russia, accepting UK’s briefing that Russian responsibility was “highly likely” and its assessment that “there is no plausible alternative explanation”. The European Council on March 22 also pronounced Russia guilty of the attempted assassination on the same grounds. On March 26, the United States declared 60 Russian diplomats personae non grata, including 48 from Russian missions/posts, but also 12 from Russia’s mission to the UN (ignoring the legal position that they are accredited to the UN, not to the US).
The Russian Consulate General in Seattle was ordered to be closed. In quick succession thereafter, Germany, Canada, Poland and France expelled four Russian diplomats each; Lithuania, Moldova and the Czech Republic three each; Australia, Albania, Denmark, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands two each; Belgium, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Macedonia, Norway, Romania, Finland, Croatia, Sweden and Estonia one each. Ukraine expelled 13 Russian diplomats and NATO ordered the reduction in staffing of Russia’s mission to NATO from 30 to 20.
Russia vehemently denied any responsibility for the crime, rejecting the evidence produced by UK as circumstantial and inaccurate. FM Lavrov said that the fact that neither did the UK bother to provide any proof, nor did its allies demand any, showed that it was a political conspiracy, rather than a rigorous enquiry process. Russia highlighted the UK Labour Party’s demand for proof and the variation between assertions of UK’s PM and Foreign Secretary and the statement of the UK Government’s defence laboratory that it could not establish the nerve agent as originating from Russia. Russia also asserted that there was a body of open source literature in NATO countries, revealing that toxic agents of the Novichok class had been developed in research laboratories in UK, the United States, Sweden and the Czech Republic, and hence the use of such an agent does not automatically incriminate Russia. There were a number of pertinent questions, including: (a) even if it did want to avenge the perfidy of a double agent, why should Russia wait 8 years after his release to do so? (b) would it not have found a more inconspicuous way to eliminate him without incriminating itself? (c) why would Russia do it just before its Presidential elections and in the runup to the FIFA World Cup, to which it is trying to attract a glittering international presence?
Russia said the UK refused to share any information with it about the incident or the nerve agent used. Instead, according to FM Lavrov, UK PM May issued an ultimatum, demanding that Russia should confirm, within 24 hours, either that the Russian leadership had ordered the poisoning of the Skripals, or that its chemical arsenal had gone out of its control – in effect, offering a choice of the crime to which it should plead guilty.
Russia’s protestations of innocence cut no ice with Western countries. The only consolation was that 9 EU countries and one NATO country (Turkey) did not join the expulsion bandwagon.
In its turn, Russia expelled 23 British diplomats from Russia, demanded the closure of the British Consulate General in St Petersburg and ordered the termination of the activities of the British Council in Russia. 60 US diplomats were expelled and the US was asked to close its Consulate General in St Petersburg. Similar retaliation was promised for expulsions from other capitals.
Even while pointing to the total absence of Russian motive for the staging and timing of this incident, Russia (through FM Lavrov) offered multiple possible motives to support its suspicion that British agents had themselves organized it. One among them was that UK was in a difficult spot in the Brexit negotiations and was losing popularity at home, since it could not wrest from the EU the concessions it has promised its people. Hence it needed a diversion.
Whatever the truth of the allegations and counter-allegations, the Skripal incident has had a dramatic impact on Russia-West relations. The US response jolted the Russians out of their belief that there is some daylight between President Trump’s policy inclinations and the actions of his Administration vis a vis Russia. President Trump telephoned President Putin on March 20 (after the Skripal incident and after his joint statement with the French, German and UK leaders) to congratulate him on his re-election and (according to the White House press note) the two leaders “resolved to continue dialogue about mutual national security priorities and challenges”. However, the Russian satisfaction with this call was short-lived. President Trump subsequently spoke on telephone with European leaders about Russia’s “chemical weapon attack”, and the US decision on the expulsions was announced by the White House. There can be little doubt that the wave of Russian expulsions from European countries owes more to American pressure than to solidarity with the British. At a time when a number of European countries were pushing to “normalize” relations with Russia, the Skripal incident has succeeded in hardening the collective European attitude towards Russia. It has strengthened transatlantic relations, thereby strengthening US leverage in its various confrontations with Russia. It has revived calls in the US to implement more rigorously the sanctions against Russia enacted by the US Congress in 2017, which provide for their extra-territorial application against companies anywhere in the world, which engage with Russian entities or in sectors covered by the sanctions. Indeed, if Russia was really involved in the Skripal incident, it would be nothing short of a spectacular own goal in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup, scheduled in June-July 2018.
The durability of the Western solidarity with UK and against Russia will be tested in the coming months. The contentious issues in the UK-EU negotiations on Brexit, which were overshadowed by the European Council’s deliberations on Skripal, will still need to be addressed. Separately, France and Germany have shown some keenness to re-engage with Russia and Ukraine in the Normandy format, reclaiming some of the ground lost to the US Special Envoy for Ukraine. The four countries issued a joint statement on March 29, reiterating their commitment to implementing all aspects of the Minsk Agreements, “including security, political, humanitarian and economic issues”. Though UK has suspended all bilateral contacts with Russia, France confirmed on March 29 that President Macron’s visit to Russia in May would go ahead as planned. Germany plans to press ahead with the Nordstream 2 project for a Russia-Germany undersea gas pipeline, in which French, Dutch and Austrian companies will also be participating, and to which the US and a number of European countries, including UK, Denmark, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic Republics, are opposed. Ten EU countries are slated to participate in the Russia-hosted 2018 FIFA World Cup, the quadrennial pinnacle of global football competition; this may dull their appetite to sustain an overly hostile stance against Russia. The US, on the other hand, is not involved in the World Cup, has a relatively small trade and investment exposure to Russia (about one-tenth of that of Europe) and can gain both politically and economically by ratcheting up the pressure on Russia – though at the long-term geopolitical expense of strengthening China.
March 31, 2018