International relations are driven by national leaders. But those leaders act according to public and governmental pressure. Only by understanding Theresa May’s and Vladimir Putin’s goals, motivations and pressures can we predict whether UK-Russia tensions will be enduring.
The Salisbury Novichok attack has kicked off what appears to be a never-ending saga of confrontation between the UK and Russia. Perhaps the most important question of all is how it will all play out. History might remember the Salisbury poisoning as merely a blip in the great game. Or the standoff between Putin and May could go down as the precipitation of an irreparable rift in UK-Russia relations.
There’s been talk of retaliatory cyberattacks. High-level communications have been suspended. On Wednesday Prime Minister Theresa May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, whom she claimed were undeclared intelligence officers. Russia’s tit-for-tat response has been to expel British diplomats. There are various ways of seeing May’s actions and the situation as a whole: immature, frightening, shortsighted versus savvy; perhaps (regarding May’s response) utterly necessary. But how does Russia see it? How does our government see it? What incentives exist for May and Putin to de-escalate or increase tensions? These questions are vital to answering the big one: how will it all end?
How Putin might view the Salisbury spy poisoning
From Russia’s point of view, killing a traitor (former Russian spy Sergei Skripal) may be no different from UK and US operations on foreign soil to kill, rendition or torture terrorists. While some countries such as Syria agreed to the intervention, others did not; an example is the killing of Osama Bin Laden which Pakistan did not consent to. The use of drones in other sovereign states to murder UK and US targets is also pertinent. The UK feels justified in infringing on other states’ sovereignty to achieve national security objectives. Therefore Russia may view the UK as hypocritical for not allowing Russia the same thing.
In legal terms, Russia has a strong argument in its favour: individuals, organisations and groups are only punished if they are proved to have committed an offence, This usually means being found guilty in criminal court. So far there has been no accusation by any witnesses or victims against the Russian state. There has been no verdict, no trial, no Crown Prosecution Service involvement, no police referral to the Crown Prosecution Service- not even the first stage of a trial: a police investigation. Putin and the Russian people may feel it is presumptuous of the UK to accuse Russia based only on the fact that Novichok (a Russian weapon) was used. Being culpable may not eradicate feelings of being too decisively retaliated against.
In the unlikely event that the Novichok attack was committed by Russian terrorists, as Jeremy Corbyn suggested, or perhaps by another state trying to frame Russia and cause conflict between Russia and UK/the EU/America, Russia will obviously feel unjustly accused.
Judging by BBC footage, at least some Russian citizens believe that Britain has unjustly accused Russia of poisoning Sergei Skripal. If much of his public holds this view, this may incentivise Putin to bolster his popularity by taking a firm stance against the UK.
How Theresa May may view the Salisbury spy poisoning
Theresa May is under pressure from MPs to take a tough stance; as most believe Russia is responsible. Over 30 Labour MPs have signed a motion acknowledging Russia’s “culpability”, meaning that May is receiving pressure not just from her own party but also the opposition. This makes it more likely that she will continue to take action against Russia.
The public are another source of expectation. One would be right to question what the point of having a leader is, if that leader fails to protect her citizens. The Novichok has already affected bystanders and one of its creators has warned that exposure could harm or kill others in the years to come. May could justifiably worry that any future illnesses traced to the Salisbury attack could elicit criticism of her if she fails to be seen protesting Britain from future incidents. Conversely, keeping the public’s (and opposition’s) attention on the Kremlin could provide a distraction from national issues such as Brexit, NHS privatisation and DWP policy. Therefore there is little advantage to restoring relations with Russia and much to be gained from escalating reprisals.
Another major cause of concern for the UK government is that after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, this is the second Russian murder on UK territory in a relatively short space of time. Appearing weak towards Putin could result in more chemical attacks, putting the public at risk. Marina Litvinenko’s public statements that “nothing was done” after her husband’s poisoning- despite May’s assurances that nothing like this would happen again- will probably increase motivation for May to be seen to be “doing something”.
As to the fact that May has absolutely no evidence that Russia was behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia Skripal – what other choice does she have. The UK government can’t simply sit and wait for a trial that will never come. To wait until irrefutable evidence is gathered might mean waiting months, years, or for ever. Even then, it is unlikely that a balanced criminal case would follow, unless Putin threw his agents under the bus, framed someone or was tried successfully by the International Criminal Court.
Jeremy Corbyn raised an important caveat by recalling the Iraq war and cautioning that being ruled by fear and emotion can be dangerous, leading to ill-judged actions. The BBC reports that Corbyn said Russia should be “held to account on the basis of evidence”. Labour MP Chris Williamson told BBC Two’s Newsnight that though Russia is a suspect, the UK should”make sure we get our facts right” before “leaping into action”. Far from being ‘soft’, Corbyn is demonstrating strategy and calculation; a calm appraisal of the situation instead of puerile emotionality. In practical terms, however, Theresa May’s approach is understandable.
Finally, let’s not underestimate the seriousness of the Novichok poisoning. Had it been committed by a civilian, it would have been termed terrorism or at least an incredibly reckless form of first-degree murder.
So how will the UK-Russia standoff play out?
Based on the above, it’s probable that Russia’s perception of unjust accusation will prevent tensions being quickly resolved. For Theresa May and most of the UK government, the stakes are too high to back down and risk criticism or a third chemical attack. There are several incentives- both intergovernmental and from the public- to continue with diplomatic and economic sanctions, and no clear benefits to improving relations with Russia.
So, the UK will continue taking a tough stance on Russia if the situation does not change. Given that Russia is unlikely to pacify the UK or admit they were behind the poisoning of the Skripals, relations between the two countries will not significantly improve. Most politicians, including Jeremy Corbyn, believe at least to an extent that Russia is the culprit. As long as our government and we ourselves- the voters- continue to believe Russia was responsible for the Salisbury poisoning, the tensions will continue. Therefore it is likely that UK-Russia relations will be affected for some considerable time.