The poisoning of former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia has exacerbated the already tense relationship between the United Kingdom and Russia. As a result, British Prime Minister Theresa May said her government was reviewing a range of diplomatic, financial and economic responses to the likely Russia-backed poisoning, which took place in her country. And the United Kingdom requested that the Kremlin hand over materials and samples of its military grade nerve agent, Novichok, by the end of the day on March 13. Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry has denied receiving the request and in turn has asked for full access to the investigation and samples of the nerve agent, since Yulia is still a Russian citizen.
The United Kingdom’s relationship with Russia has long been tenuous. Unlike countries such as Italy and Germany, the United Kingdom has fairly limited economic ties with Russia outside of energy deals and the financial system. Each country accounts for approximately 2 percent of the other’s trade turnover. During the Cold War, the United Kingdom was a stalwart ally to the United States’ containment policy, and Moscow still views London's foreign policy as an extension of Washington’s. Multiple spy scandals have not helped.
Right now, The United Kingdom, Russia, the United States and the European Union all have a wide range of options for how they will respond to the poisoning.
In the early to mid-2000s, the United Kingdom was the top refuge location for Russian dissidents fleeing Vladimir Putin’s regime, and Moscow repeatedly requested the extradition of anti-Kremlin oligarch Boris Berezovsky and Chechen separatist Akhmed Zakayev. As a leading voice on human rights abuses in Russia, London refused. It has also followed the lead of the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which freezes the travel and assets of Russian officials related to the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The fatal 2006 poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London further spiked tensions between the two countries. The United Kingdom kicked out four Russian Embassy officials, tightened visa controls on diplomatic staff and limited cooperation with Russian security services. It also requested the extradition of alleged former intelligence officer and assassination suspect Andrei Lugovoi. The Kremlin refused to comply, citing Russia’s law against extradition, and the overall effect was a prolonged freeze in relations between the two countries.
The recent poisoning harkens back to the Litvinenko assassination, but the two cases are distinctly different. For one thing, broader relations between Russia and the West have steadily declined since 2014, following the annexation of Crimea, the conflict in Ukraine and the downing of a Malaysian airliner. In that time, the United Kingdom has signed onto primary sanctions by the United States and European Union against Russian individuals and strategic sectors. Moreover, the suspected nerve agent used in the Skripal poisoning, Novichok, is classified internationally as a military-grade chemical weapon and barred by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, of which Moscow is a signatory. Because of this, the United Kingdom and other global players could have reason to further escalate their diplomatic moves against Russia.
Right now, The United Kingdom, Russia, the United States and the European Union all have a wide range of options for how they will respond to the poisoning. Below, we outline those possible reactions:
What Will the United Kingdom Do?
The United Kingdom is expected to make its first diplomatic response to the incident on March 14, and it may do one of several things. First, London could slap another round of sanctions on Russia, kicking out a new string of diplomats, freezing the Russian Embassy’s account and enacting travel bans. It could enact harsher sanctions on the Russian state, Duma, Foreign Ministry and defense companies involved with the production of nerve agents. Many British parliamentarians have also raised the possibility of barring RT and Sputnik — the juggernauts of Russian state media propaganda — from the United Kingdom. Moscow has vowed that it would respond by shutting down all British media, including the BBC and the Guardian, within its borders.
There are more extreme reactions that the United Kingdom could have as well. Many of the world’s richest Russians hold residences in the country; for example, prominent Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich has long been a London resident, and his metals company, Evraz, is even headquartered in the British capital. The United Kingdom could leverage these facts by targeting the Russian elites within its borders, which would tremor back into the overall Russian elite structure, their firms, and the Russian regions many of their firms are responsible for financially and politically.
The United Kingdom has also been a conduit through which Russians can transfer dark money. According to former Russian Central Bank chief Sergei Ignatiev, possibly 20 percent of the tens of billions a year moving out of Russia pass through the country. And though the financial downturn of the last few years has led to an exodus of Russian firms from the London Stock Exchange, the companies still involved are powerful, with Gazprom and Megafon among the names on the list. If London cracks down on Russia’s monetary flow or freezes the activities of Russian firms, it could wreak havoc on Russian economic stability.
Finally, several British politicians have proposed a more sociopolitical response, demanding that the United Kingdom not participate in the upcoming soccer World Cup tournament in Russia. The leader of the United Kingdom’s Liberal Democrat party, Vince Cable, has even called for an EU-wide boycott, but this unlikely.
How Much Can London Use the European Union?
In addition to considering sanctions on Russia, the United Kingdom will have to decide how much support to request from its main allies. The country is already in contact with the United States, Germany and France, all of which have expressed their support. On March 13, a member of May’s Cabinet said that although the United Kingdom could seek a coordinated NATO response based on Article 5 of the alliance, it would not. The move is easier said than done, since the European Union has already applied sanctions against Russia because of the situation in Ukraine. These sanctions are controversial within the bloc, and though the union is likely to condemn the Kremlin’s actions and express political support for London, there may not be unanimous support for new economic measures.
Will the United States Jump In?
The U.S. response to the incident will be just as critical to watch. President Donald Trump has already said his country would stand by its ally, and any day now, Washington is expected to expand both limited sanctions on Russia and the list of Russian oligarchs and elites submitted to Congress for possible further sanctions.
But the United States has been increasingly vocal over the issue of chemical weapons, and their use in the Skripal case means Washington may well escalate its actions in response. After all, the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on its own people has long been one of the reasons for U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. (As part of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991, the U.S. government is, in fact, required to sanction countries found to have used chemical weapons.) And U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has repeatedly slammed Russia for failing to curb the Syrian government’s use of those weapons. If the United States determines that Russia itself used chemical weapons, it may well need to expand its range of sanctions.
How Will Russia Respond?
Russia is so far responding to the poisoning incident in its typical way: denying and waiting. Over the past three years, Russia has settled into the reality that it will remain under Western-led sanctions regimes for the near future, and it has worked to insulate much of its country from the repercussions. It has thus felt emboldened in recent years to continue acting out abroad.
Already, the Kremlin has stated it will counter any movement against its country, and it often responds in kind to travel bans and the ousting of diplomats. More effective sanctions, such as cutting off Russia’s financial flows or targeting the elites, would require a much more serious response from Moscow, and could heat up the Cold War dynamics.