While the Skripal case is still shrouded in mystery, its aftermath has rallied Britain behind the prime minister Theresa May, whose mandate has been rocky and controversial ever since Brexit took off in 2016. Although the scandal might lead to more pro-EU politics in the country, leaving PM with wider maneuvering space in domestic political arena, it is also setting up a new trap for troubled British leader, exposing the UK’s diplomatic weakness on the international scene.
On March 4th, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury. After preliminary investigation, Prime Minister Theresa May declared that Mr. Skripal, who had been a member of the Russian secret service before cooperating with the British MI6 a couple of years prior, had “most likely” fallen victim to Russian activity.
These allegations were based on the finding that Mr. Skripal and his daughter seem to have been poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent that had been produced in the Soviet Union, which warranted the official statement that Russia was “culpable”.
Further details of the investigation are not known at this stage, but they seem to warrant reasonable certainty, as the foreign ministers of the European Union expressed their unqualified solidarity with the UK, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “We take this assessment of the British government seriously…”, as well as “all the information we have suggests there is no alternative plausible explanation”.
Political commentators now speculate widely about the possible reasons and motivations for this action, as well as what the consequences will be. It seems self-evident that Russia is to blame for an attack that was carried out using a nerve agent designed in Russia. Mrs. May argued that Russia was either directly responsible or had lost control over its arsenal of chemical weapons.
The Kremlin failed to respond to an ultimatum set by Mrs. May to provide an explanation as to why this military poison was used on UK soil. This further provocation, as it was interpreted, has now seemingly confirmed the assumption that Russia is behind this attack and furthered the escalation of diplomatic tensions between the two countries.
This is a peculiar case, for many reasons. As Mr. Maas said, there is little doubt that Russian operatives were behind the hit on Skripal and his daughter, but the motivation behind it remains confusing nevertheless. Russian foreign policy seems to mostly follow the goals of obfuscation, division, irritation and intimidation.
The apparent attempts to influence the US general election in 2016, as well as continuous hacking attacks and support for radical elements within Western political systems seem to serve the purpose of creating division and internal quarrels within the perceived political opponents of the Kremlin and to weaken them in the process. But provoking the UK in such a public and obvious manner was sure to stir up anti-Russian sentiment in Europe, which would likely help unify the UK, as well as the rest of the continent.
Might this action have then been motivated by domestic politics? It could be argued that this was part of Putin’s electoral strategy, as the killing of a traitor, in the Russian opinion, might have reinforced patriotism, reminding the people what can happen to dissidents just before the Russian elections this past weekend.
Further, it is at least conceivable that Russian operatives intended for UK investigators to conclude that Russia had to be the guilty party, in order to create a small diplomatic crisis and form anti-Russian sentiments in Europe, which could have further helped Russians rally behind Putin as they felt under attack. This would certainly not be the first time Mr. Putin used aggressive foreign policy tools to distract his people from the poor performance of the Russian economy.
As a result of the decision to leave the European Union, the UK has found itself increasingly isolated internationally. This was partly by design, at least by the Leave campaigners, who argued that freedom from the supposed shackles of the EU would enable the UK to renegotiate trade deals with countries outside of the EU, as well as unilaterally change its laws in order to incentivize investment within the country. The economic argument for Brexit was always related to the fantasy of being able to create the UK’s own economic policies without any interference by the European Commission.
The Skripal crisis shows that the UK’s diplomatic freedom is severely limited due to the new necessities arising from Brexit. Although Mrs. May is absolutely convinced that Russian operatives have attacked a British citizen on British soil using a military-grade nerve agent that seriously endangered other citizens, her reaction has been effectively timid. Mrs. May, as well as Boris Johnson, have boasted loud rhetoric, but failed to act in any meaningful manner up to this point.
A few Russian diplomats were told to leave the UK, but so far no further action has been suggested. It is clear that the UK is capable of hitting the Russian elite where it would hurt, through the use of rigorous economic sanctions, freezing of assets and other such related actions. However, having already alienated the EU, the UK is simply not interested in serious economic sanctions against another trading partner, albeit a much less important one.
In the reaction to the assumed affront, Mrs. May has not gone after Russian assets in the UK, such as the substantial investment of Russian money in UK real estate. Mrs. May cannot credibly threaten the seizure of Russian assets in the UK. The only reason that there is so much international money from diverse sources parked in the UK is British due process and the unwillingness to let politics get in the way of business.
Hence, if the UK wants to seriously exist outside of the EU and present itself as a haven for international money and an attractive investment destination, it seems obvious that the UK’s hands are tied when it comes to imposing serious economic sanctions. The UK simply does not have the economic freedom to alienate investors, which evidently seriously constrains its political maneuverability, when the credible threat of serious economic sanctions is an integral part of diplomacy.
Most likely because Mrs. May is all too aware of these constraints, she has worked hard to make this into a European issue. Mr. Johnson, too, stressed that there were no countries in the EU that had not experienced similar provocations from Russia, invoking unity against the outside threat. And on Monday, March 19, the European foreign ministers stressed that they were standing behind the UK government. On the same day, there seemed to have been a breakthrough in the Brexit negotiations, and the UK and EU settled on an agreement that will supposedly deter a British hard exit from the Union.
Possibly, this crisis will constitute a turning point in which both the EU and UK realize the intangible benefits of remaining in closer cooperation on an economic level. Thus, in effect, the attack of Salisbury is likely to rally people around the flag of Europe and to espouse nationalist, but European-oriented sentiments among people in Britain. Closer cooperation with the EU will thus be easier when the outside threat of Russia looms larger.
It remains bewildering what Russia expected to gain from this foreign policy move. The self-isolated Britain was very likely to find its way back to Europe when clearly confronted with its own boundaries outside of Europe. The economic dependencies and political imperatives resulting from Brexit have become apparent through this crisis.
It is to be expected, then, that Britain will attempt to find ways to remain very closely linked to the EU and will likely point to the Skripal case to argue that this is in the best interest of UK citizens. This incident will likely warm the British people to a closer future relationship with the EU, as outside enemies make it easier to forget about internal disagreements.