Britain’s MI5 and MI6 have declared they are astonished by the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, his daughter Yulia, as well as first responders in Salisbury last week.
The most remarkable aspect of the attempted execution of the former agent is the use of an exotic nerve agent which indicates beyond reasonable doubt that the attack was orchestrated by a state actor, and makes Russia the most obvious candidate. Indeed, by all accounts, the British government is preparing to point the finger unequivocally at Russia and Vladimir Putin.
So why would Putin have done something quite so obvious? Why would Russian state television actively seek to give credence to the speculation that the Kremlin is behind the attack by warning “traitors” that they would not be safe in Britain? This is not the usual Putin M.O. Normally, the Kremlin would do hits that were highly visible, but also easily deniable. Not so in this case.
One side of the story might be that the West has consistently failed to respond adequately to Russian assertiveness in recent years, whether in Syria, or in Crimea, or in their ongoing cyber and intelligence efforts to undermine the social and political structures of the West.
Seemingly the only response has been sanctions, and though they have done considerable damage to the Russian economy, they have done nothing to undermine Putin’s domestic political position. Quite the opposite.
So in effect, the West are rewarding Putin with increased domestic political support by helping him rally popular nationalist support in defiance to Western pressure for his increasingly ostentatious behavior.
In effect, the West are rewarding Putin with increased domestic political support by helping him rally popular nationalist support in defiance to Western pressure for his increasingly ostentatious behaviorAzeem Ibrahim
Another side of the story
Another side of the story might be that Putin is not expecting that the UK could do much more in response, even if they wanted to. Sure, there will be a strongly worded letter from Theresa May and Britain’s allies in the West.
But as far as Russia’s international standing goes, that’s hardly going to change anything. The West is already taking a pretty dim view of the Putin government as it is – with Trump the only notable exception.
And if Britain did want to take matters beyond condemnation, and perhaps a new round of sanctions, what could that actually look like? Can Britain realistically pose a military challenge to Russia? Hardly.
Can they inflict further economic pain on the country? Perhaps, but that avenue is already near exhaustion. Anything else? Then Putin will likely be able to turn around and spin that as an act of British aggression – once again with a positive effect for Putin’s domestic position.
That said however, if Theresa May and her government were serious about retaliation, they do in fact have an avenue to respond. Putin may be the keystone of the Russian political system, but he is not floating on air. He needs the support and loyalty of the oligarchs to remain in power.
And most, if not all, of those oligarchs have huge investments and flourishing money laundering operations running, primarily, out of London. What is more, the British government has the legal authority to freeze assets and crack down on the loosely-regulated vehicles used for money laundering in the city.
The British government does, therefore, have the power to do serious damage to the Russian plutocracy, and can use that leverage to pit Putin’s power base against him. Putin is not stupid. He knows this. But he is betting that this will not happen. And he may have a point.
If Downing Street goes for the “nuclear option”, that creates a dangerous precedent: suddenly, Chinese billionaires, Gulf billionaires, or African Presidents find that London can take an interest in their assets and can usurp them for political reasons.
Even if the city’s status as the world’s foremost financial centre for dubiously wealthy individuals and companies was not already threatened by the spectre of Brexit, this would definitely be a huge blow all by itself. So why not goad London a little bit more? After all, when have they ever put principle before the interests of the City before?
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.