Theresa May Falls Short Again
Britain’s prime minister (Theresa May) has finally announced her unilateral responses to another probable Russian act of state-terrorism on British soil. She said that Russia has reacted with “disdain for the gravity of these events,” but so has she.
In March 2018, two Russian exiles, a British policeman, and at least three other first responders have been hospitalized by a nerve agent of a peculiar Russian vintage; hundreds of other Britons were exposed.
May has described the use of this nerve agent as a “reckless and despicable” and “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” “part of a pattern of Russian aggression elsewhere,” including violations of British air space and territorial waters – not to mention military interventions in Russia’s neighbours, which she would “not tolerate.”
So, should Britain’s leading response be the expulsion of 23 diplomats?
Her procrastination has not proved advantageous. Nine days after the poisoning, she gave a deadline for the Russian president to explain the incident. The Russian president ignored her: the Russian government responded with a storm of counter-accusations and ridicule.
The next day – ten days since the poisoning – May’s leading response was to expel 23 diplomats. May spun this as the largest expulsion of Russian officials in 30 years, which will “fundamentally degrade” Russian intelligence in Britain “for years to come,” but that’s a weak comparison. Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union was collapsing; the nascent Russian state was treated as unthreatening.
Her government has flunked opportunities under criminal justice and counter-intelligence. She described these 23 persons as “undeclared intelligence officers.” Their diplomatic cover means they have immunity against criminal justice, but their non-diplomat contacts do not: at least some of those 23 handlers must have handled sources – essentially British-resident spies for Russia. If the British government knows that all 23 are intelligence officers, the British government should have been surveilling them and their contacts, so why no criminal arrests? Instead, May proposes “new counter-espionage powers”!
Too late now: they’ve got one week to leave. Russia can replace them. Why didn’t Britain expel the Russian Embassy? Remember: May said these diplomats are complicit in “unlawful use of force” against Britain. Should Britain have any resident Russian diplomats on its soil while Russian diplomats are complicit in state-terrorism on British soil?
May’s responses just do not add up as proportional to the scale of the accusations she is levelling at Russia. Her other diplomatic responses were: suspension of “high-level” bilateral meetings, abandonment of plans to send Royals and ministers to the football world cup, and consideration of new laws to defend against “hostile state activity.”
What can be holding back the British government? One explanation is norms that predate May’s premiership. Since the 1990s, the British government – motivated by the post-Cold War “peace dividend” and some appallingly simplistic scholarship – bought into the fallacies that democracy and capitalism would make everybody selfless friends. Then terrorism captured everybody’s focus in the 2000s.
Yet, the British government cannot be excused entirely by pointing out its other burdens. The British government’s reactions to violations of British sovereignty since the 2000s have been uselessly slow and weak. At least 14 deaths occurred on British soil from 2003 through 2015 that the US intelligence community suspected of Russian involvement, but that British authorities have closed as suicides, accidents, or unexplained. Multiple premiers are responsible: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and now Theresa May.
The government did not complete its investigation into the murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko until 2016 – ten years after his murder in 2006 by polonium, a radiological material. The inquest concluded that the Russian president himself (Vladimir Putin) was probably behind it, and indicted the two agents who met with the victim on the day, but Russia refused to extradite them and spun the British accusations as provocative anti-Russia propaganda, and Britain did nothing more than freeze the assets of those two agents.
Britain has been part of a weak sanctions and assets-freezing regime against Russia since 2014, in reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; Britain’s participation was particularly weak. May’s only economic response to the attempted murders by a chemical weapon of Sergei Skripal, his daughter, and their British aiders is to propose to freeze Russian state assets if linked to plots to harm Britain and to increase checks on Russian flows of trade and flights.
Expatriate Russian capital is one explanation. Just in February 2018, Britain’s Security Minister told a newspaper that the British government wanted to crack down on Russian criminals and corrupt politicians in Britain, who launder about £90 billion of illegal funds in Britain per year – no crackdown followed. Thus, Britain is still home to around 500 Russian millionaires – and hundreds of thousands of other Russians: estimates vary (due to the uselessness of British border security and censuses) from 300,000 to 800,000. May now proposes to bring criminal justice to “serious criminals and corrupt elites” – why not before? and what will be different?
The leader of the opposition (Jeremy Corbyn) has accused the Conservative government of being weak on Russia due to private Russian donations to the Conservative Party, although he is hypocritical, as an apologist for Russian aggression, just as he is an apologist for terrorism.
May should have proposed a sanctions regime at least comparable to the current US regime. In 2008, a Russian auditor (Sergei Magnitsky) revealed that at least 18 Russian officials and businessmen were involved in corruption from Moscow to London. The auditor was subsequently detained on tax evasion charges for 11 months until he died in detention under at least inhumane if not murderous conditions. US legislators passed what they nick-named the Magnitsky Act of 2012, which blocks any travel or financial business in US jurisdiction by the 18 Russians. In 2016, the Act was expanded to cover another 44 Russians, partly in response to Russian meddling in US elections.
May should have expelled all Russian diplomats from Britain and expanded the sanctions regime to cover all Russian officials, pending Russian cooperation in the investigation of this chemical attack.
May flunked this latest test. The final explanation for her failure is personal-professional: she has proved throughout her political career – most obviously in response to Brexit – to be indecisive and a procrastinator in response to events, contradictory and unreliable on policy, weak and stylistic as a leader. Thus, under her premiership, we cannot predict any improvement of Britain’s response to yet another likely case of Russian state-terrorism on British soil.
If you're interested in writing for International Policy Digest - please send us an email via firstname.lastname@example.org