Earlier today U.K Prime Minister Theresa May announced that her government had concluded it was “highly likely” that the Russian government was behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy who had also spied for the United Kingdom.
Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were both poisoned by a nerve agent which had been developed by the Soviet Union, called Novichok. This poison was developed by the Soviets toward the end of the Cold War.
Before he was fired as U.S. Secretary of State on Tuesday, Rex Tillerson called Skripal’s poisoning “a really egregious act” that “clearly came from Russia. But the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to blame the Russian government and Trump hasn’t tweeted about it either.
Prime Minister May has given Russia the deadline of midnight Tuesday to explain why Novichok was used in the U.K. to poison a former Russian citizen.
If Russia does not respond (and it is probable that they won’t) May has several options for her to use as retaliation for what many people think is a clear act of Russian aggression. International espionage has informal codes of conduct which take a very dim view of assassinations taking place on foreign soil.
Here are some of the options which May is considering:
- Boycotting soccer’s World Cup,
- Seizing Russian oligarchs’ mansions,
- Invoking NATO’s collective defense clause,
- Blocking the Russian TV stations that broadcast in the U.K.,
- Expelling diplomats, or
- Something else which has not been made public yet.
“Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action (the poisoning of Skripal) amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” May said. She also said that if the Russians ignore her warnings there will be “much more extensive measures” put in place than the U.K. has ever taken against Russia before.
The most extreme option is for May to invoke NATO’s mutual defense clause, Article 5. Article 5 says that an attack against one NATO member “shall be considered an attack against them all.” It’s unclear what type of retaliation would be expected from NATO if this happens.
Boycotting the World Cup would probably hurt Britain more than Russia. It would generate a lot of headlines but would have little real impact. It would also send shockwaves through England where the soccer fans are intense, to say the least. If the national team doesn’t go, it would be the first time its team didn’t go to the World Cup since 1994 when they failed to qualify.
Now the Russians are saying that soccer is the motivation for the U.K. to blame Russia for the poisoning. “The British are unable to forgive Russia for winning the right to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup in a fair fight,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The option of seizing the assets of Russian oligarchs has some appeal but may be problematic in several ways. (It does, however, have some popular support in the U.K.)
“It’s time to get tough on the Kremlin kleptocrats using London as a playground for money laundering and cover for Putin’s cyber and propaganda attacks on the West,” Conservative lawmaker George Freeman told Parliament on Monday.
The ties between Russia’s billionaire oligarchs run so deep that London has been nicknamed “Londongrad” and “Moscow-on-Thames.” Reportedly $25 billion in Russian capital goes into London each year.
The problem with this strategy, according to the Institute of International Relations (IIR), is that the oligarchs could just move their money elsewhere.
“We really need to be thinking how to respond to this collectively,” said a spokesman for the IIR. “If London is going to be closed to Russian money, then Frankfurt and Paris need to be, too.”
Other people have recommended blocking the Russian TV stations RT and Sputnik from British airwaves. They are thought to be nothing more than tools for Russian propaganda.
Possibly a more likely option would be to increase sanctions on Russia and to expel both intelligence and diplomatic staff from Britain.
According to Robert Peston, political editor with ITV News, NBC News’ U.K. partner, that “a number, but not all Russian government staff based at its embassy in London, will be expelled.”
We’ll have to wait and see exactly what the U.K. does here, but clearly, they have been angered by Russia’s actions and they will be taken steps in response. If they don’t, then Russia may feel emboldened to do these types of things again in the future.