License article

May wants revenge but hitting Russia where it hurts will be tough

Show comments

London: The UK and Russia have entered new, troubling territory.

The usually cautious, measured words of diplomacy are being laced with frank hostility. The UK has accused Russia of an act of deliberate aggression. Russia has, most likely, committed it – and if it didn’t, it has been given just 24 hours to provide credible proof.

Up Next

Thousands protest across Brazil after councilwoman killed

Video duration

More World News Videos

'Highly likely' Russia responsible for nerve agent death

The British Foreign Minister will summon the Russian ambassador to explain whether the poisoning was a 'direct act' or if the Russian government lost control of the nerve agent, Prime Minister Theresa May says.

Relations were already in the deep freeze. Last year the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson cancelled two planned trips to Russia then finally arrived in December for a sour encounter with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

“It’s no secret that our relations are at a low point,” Lavrov said, blaming the UK.

Johnson pointedly laid flowers at a memorial to murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

And now the attempted murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, with a military-grade nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union, has turned this bickering match deadly earnest.


Prime Minister Theresa May, in a speech to Parliament on Monday, called the attack “not just a crime against the Skripals [but] an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom”.

The Novichok toxin left a police officer with serious injuries. Patrons of the bar and restaurant the Skripals had visited on the day of the attack were warned to wash their clothes as a precaution.

This was a chemical weapons attack on British soil.

While there is yet no smoking gun, it is hard to see how anyone but the Kremlin, or a group very close to it, had motive and opportunity.

There may be a grey area: perhaps corrupt private interests, perhaps former Russian security officers, seeking to carry out the perceived wishes of Putin.

But it is unlikely Russia would admit to even this, especially just a week before its presidential election. It is more likely to reopen its MH17 playbook: deploying misinformation, false-flag conspiracy theories and mock-outrage denials through official channels, compliant media and the web of social media bots, blogs, trolls and sympathisers that spread confusion and division online.

Perhaps anticipating this, May told Russia to deliver a response by end of Tuesday. On Wednesday her government will consider that response. And if she finds it not credible, “we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the UK” and take action.

After Alexander Litvinenko’s killing in 2006, with a radioactive poison that left a trail across hotel rooms, streets and plane seats, Britain expelled diplomats and Russian secret service officers from the UK.

They clearly had little deterrence value. May has promised “much more extensive measures” this time.

Assuming Russia - or circumstances - don’t convince her to reconsider, what are her options?

One is “same again, but more”. More diplomats, more expulsions, a more rigorous gutting of intelligence agencies FSB and GRU's operations on British soil, perhaps withdrawing the broadcasting licence of the propaganda-heavy Russian channel RT.

But given the level of May’s rhetoric, and the anger inside and outside Westminster, this would likely be seen as an anticlimax.

Then there is NATO. May’s language in Parliament was carefully worded and does not quite mirror the treaty, which talks of an “armed attack”. However her words do invoke the United Nations charter on self defence, and Britain would naturally turn to its allies to implement this. In her speech, May mentioned the alliance, the UK’s “commitment to collective defence and security through NATO” and its military presence in Estonia near Russia’s borders.

NATO could respond more aggressively towards Russian provocations such as incursions in European airspace or cyber attacks on European institutions – a policy which could encourage a more aggressive Russian response and allowing Putin to stoke nationalistic pride and fear at home.

And it is not even clear if NATO's big dog, the United States, would support this. In its initial response to May’s speech the White House declined to blame Russia for the attack, saying “right now, we are standing with our UK allies” – hardly a reassuring line.

Then there are sanctions.

Coincidentally, the EU on Monday renewed asset freezes and travel restrictions imposed in 2014 in response to Russia’s military involvement in Eastern Ukraine.

But any further sanctions would require unanimous agreement of all EU member states.

There are obvious Putin sympathisers at the head of some European countries: Hungary’s Viktor Orban the most prominent. And elsewhere, Germany’s Angela Merkel hopes to repair relations with Russia, and France’s Emmanuel Macron also favours engagement over confrontation. The new Italian government will likely include pro-Russian elements.

It will be a tough sell. The EU isn't exactly overflowing with love for Britain right now.

Which leaves the UK with unilateral financial and visa weapons.

There are 450 Russian millionaires in London, a significant number of them beneficiaries of Russia’s kleptocratic recent history.

Transparency International says the UK has “routinely been the choice destination for Russians with suspicious wealth to move”: almost half a billion pounds worth of Russian money was spent on UK property in 2017 alone, much of it in London’s ritziest inner postcodes.

A bill before Parliament right now would enable officials to refuse entry to the UK to anyone known to have been involved in human rights abuses. The government has opposed it until now: it may change its mind, if it could be put to anti-Russian use.

And in January ‘Unexplained Wealth Orders’ came into force – a new investigative power that allows the seizure of suspected corrupt assets.

Transparency International wants police to slap an UWO on flats 138A and 138B, 4 Whitehall Court, London – estimated value £11.44 million ($20m).

The owner of this luxury address: the First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Igor Shuvalov.

There’s nothing like hitting politicians in their hip pocket to make them pay attention.