UK’s non-existent response to Russia’s Salisbury poisoning
Nearly 12 months ago, the English cathedral city of Salisbury witnessed one of the most brazen attempted political assassinations by any foreign power in Britain. On March 4, Russian agents from its GRU military intelligence service tried to kill former agent Sergei Skripal using a Novichok nerve agent.
In what was a ham-fisted, amateur hour operation, Skripal and his daughter survived, whilst the British authorities were able to publish detailed footage of the two GRU agents. A third GRU agent has now been identified as having been present in the UK at the time.
The city in the heart of the English countryside has barely recovered. It is estimated that the military-grade Novichok nerve agent could have threatened the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people. Its reputation was tarnished so it has undergone a great rebranding exercise to attract tourists back to the city. The number of visitors has fallen by 12 percent since the poisoning.
The only rival to this extraordinary act was the successful assassination, also in Britain, of Alexander Litvinenko using radioactive polonium in 2006. Both toxins are among the most dangerous known to mankind.
Last year, the British government, with Theresa May at the helm, was all fire and brimstone, threatening the full gamut of punitive consequences to Moscow. UK-Russian relations appeared to drop to sub-Siberian temperatures. A total of 23 Russian “diplomats” were expelled. The US also expelled Russian officials. In all, 26 British allies expelled 143 Russian intelligence officers in the wake of the attack — an impressive diplomatic success. In the summer of 2018, the British Parliament passed a sanctions act that included a Magnitsky amendment that would allow action to be taken against human rights offenders.
But is there much sting in the British tail? This sanctions law has lain dormant; remarkably, the British authorities have yet to sanction one single Russian. Across the Atlantic, the US has put 150 names on its Magnitsky list. Bizarrely, therefore, it is the US that passed sanctions legislation, whereas Britain has yet to do so. Chemical weapons were used in Britain, yet it is the US that took punitive action. Notably, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all with much at stake when provoking the great bear of Russia, had the courage to adopt Magnitsky acts and implement sanctions. Cynics point out that much of the £90 billion ($116 billion) laundered through the UK every year emanates from the deep pockets of Russian oligarchs, but Britain is one of the few countries not to have opened a money laundering investigation or make use of “unexplained wealth orders.”
Instead of the robust action some demand, on the sidelines of the Munich security conference on Saturday, junior foreign ministers from the UK and Russia met — the first meeting of its kind since December 2017. A slight thaw perhaps, but no sign that Russia has backed off.
Last year, the British government was all fire and brimstone, threatening the full gamut of punitive consequences to Moscow
Why the apparent weakness? It is not as if Britain and Russia are on friendly terms. Some might argue that the distraction of Brexit has had an impact, weakening British resolve. Others would argue that the extraordinary amount of rubles laundered through London, where Russian oligarchs and kleptocrats all have houses and often send their children to private schools, might be the key.
Russian agents are extremely active in the EU. A German television station reported claims that the EU was warned there were “about 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies” operating in Brussels alone.
Britain also hosts many people working for Russian interests. Certain members of the House of Lords are in the pay of Russia, according to evidence given last week to Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee by Bill Browder, the head of Hermitage Capital and a campaigner against Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy. Amongst other things, such parties are working to block the enforcement of new powers enabling the UK to sanction people who commit gross human rights violations. Browder said that one member of the House of Lords is being openly paid by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to lobby against any sanctions being imposed on him. Giving evidence to the committee, Browder said: “We are not talking about a lot of people here — we are talking about thousands. They are solicitors who work for some of the top law firms. They are public relations executives who work for some of the largest and some boutique public relations firms.”
Anyone in any doubt about the threat to EU states should check out the news from Belgium. Last week, a senior Belgian counter-intelligence officer was put under house arrest amidst allegations that he spied for Russia. Belgian allies, including in NATO and the EU, will be nervous. Russia also successfully hacked the Danish Ministry of Defense, accessing emails throughout 2015 and 2016.
Will these limited measures cause Putin to think twice in future? Nobody is betting on it. The dramatic nature of the toxin used in Salisbury reinforced his key message that opponents, dissidents and traitors can be hunted and dealt with anywhere. The Skripals and others lying low in Britain will not be able to sleep easy yet. Wiser heads in Moscow might realize that perhaps it was a loss, which was damaging to Russia’s reputation and caused economic damage and harm to opportunities of warmer ties with the West.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech