This article is part of a two-part series examining Russian diplomacy and foreign policy following the recent Russian presidential election and inauguration.
On 4 March 2018, a Novichok nerve agent was released in the UK, in the first offensive use of a chemical weapon since the Second World War. The victims, father and daughter Sergei and Yulia Skripal, were found slumped on a bench outside a shopping centre in Salisbury. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, had been jailed by Russia in 2006 following a conviction for passing the identities of Russian intelligence agents working in Europe to the UK’s MI6. In 2016, Skripal settled in Salisbury following a prisoner swap between the UK and Russia.
International condemnation led by the UK government was was swift. More than 100 suspected undeclared Russian intelligence officers, posted with diplomatic accreditation across Europe, North America and Australasia were named personae non grata and expelled to Russia. The unified condemnation of the Russian government by the EU and its member states was remarkable, as the joint outcry took place at a time when UK-EU relations are fracturing in the wake of current Brexit negotiations. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, noted that additional measures were not to be excluded -- a clear sign that the UK and the EU are concerned with minimising global Russia’s abuse of power. The attack is the latest in a series of espionage efforts by the Russian Federation in recent years, most notably including reported Russian influence and hacking in the 2016 US presidential election.
The co-operation shown by both the UK and the EU in the days following the attack harks back to the pre-Brexit relationship between the region’s governments. In addition, the decision by non-EU yet UK allied nations to expel suspected undeclared Russian intelligence officers in solidarity clearly positions these countries and their governments in opposition to the alleged actions of the Russian Federation.
Notably, non-European countries including Canada, Australia and the US also expelled Russians holding diplomatic accreditation. As the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Australia noted in a joint statement, the expulsion “reflects the shocking nature of the attack…involving a highly lethal substance in a populated area… the substance used on 4 March was a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. Such an attack cannot be tolerated by any sovereign nation. We strongly support the call on Russia to disclose the full extent of its chemical weapons program in accordance with international law.”
This is not a return to a Cold War footing and foreign policy outlook by these Western nations, but the expulsions have sent a clear message to the Kremlin that continued aggression by the Russian Federation will no longer be tolerated. Russia has not been the subject of such widespread condemnation since the occupation and unilateral annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and the subsequent downing of MH17 on 17 July of the same year.
In Russia’s eyes, the continued existence of a traitor like Sergei Skripal, would have been unjustifiable to the Kremlin. As UK Prime Minister Theresa May noted on 27 March, Russia has a history of “conducting state-sponsored assassinations” against known defectors. The parallels between the Salisbury attack and the case of Alexander Litvinenko are notable, whose death by acute radiation poisoning in 2006 was attributed to a secret operation by the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service). Litvinenko was also a former Russian operative who had defected to the UK in 2000 and subsequently worked with British intelligence agencies.
It is important to note that the Kremlin has denied any involvement or prior knowledge of the attack in Salisbury; if only in the sense that it is, on a practical level, impossible that such an action would have been taken without consultation and consent from the Kremlin. Whether President Putin had been made aware of the attack in advance remains to be discovered, but given the presumed provenance of the nerve agent, to be confirmed by an Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigation, Russian government officials were involved in the planning and execution of this attack on British soil.
So where do we go from here? British and OPCW investigations into the attack will continue but it is unlikely that economic sanctions will be placed on the nation. Iceland has announced that its ministers will not attend the Football World Cup to be held in Russia later this year, but it is unlikely that more severe restrictions will be imposed beyond the initial expulsions.
Russia has done this before and has ensured it has sufficient domestic support for its international actions that the Kremlin can continue to act without fear of losing domestic support.
Alexander Blackwell is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.