After Putin’s recent victory in an election that was a foregone conclusion, the question of how Britain should react to the use of illegal and potentially devastating chemical weapons on its soil increases in significance. If indeed Putin is directly culpable for the attack on ex double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, as seems to be the almost unanimous consensus of both the security services and Parliament, how Britain reacts sets the frame for its future dealings with the man who is going to be leading Russia for at least another six years.
The evidence of Russian responsibility for this attack seems overwhelming, and the most obvious explanation is that the use of the deadly Novichok nerve agent was ordered by Putin. The use of Novichok, a Soviet and Russian developed nerve agent, was a calling card from Russia, designed to show Britain, and the wider world, that defectors and perceived traitors would never be safe. Moreover, Britain, an old adversary, was seen to be an easy target, increasingly isolated on a global stage, detached from its old European allies and unable to rely on an erratic American president. The response of Theresa May’s government is vital in showing Russia, and other hostile groups who perceive Britain as an easy target, that any attack that endangers the British public will be met with severe consequences. The initial response from the British government, expelling 23 supposed Russian spies, suggests that the government is taking this attack seriously, in contrast to the feeble response to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.
Expelling diplomats or spies and preventing royals and ministers from attending the world cup in Russia may be strong measures in the world of diplomacy, and are a natural first step, but in terms of meaningful acts that will actually hurt Putin and his supporters, Britain must go further. Russia will naturally retaliate and has already expelled 23 British personnel in a tit-for-tat response. Now is the time for Britain to step up and match the harsh condemnation with meaningful action.
The government can start by using existing powers, and where necessary seeking new ones, to finally take action against corrupt and illegal money used to finance the lavish lifestyles of Russian oligarchs and associates of Putin. The assets of those responsible for attacks on British soil should be frozen, and effective sanctions imposed on the Russian state, actions that will hurt those responsible and put pressure on Putin. The difficulty for Britain lies in walking the tightrope between a measured response and a meaningful one. If Britain condemns Putin for flouting conventions and the rule of law, the government must act within the law, and not target Russians simply for association, there is plenty of scope for the government to hurt Putin and his cronies by targeting those who have operated outside of the law.
In addition, calls to ban RT, the Russian state-sponsored television channel which effectively acts as a propaganda piece for the Kremlin, should be ignored. Britain claims to be a bastion of liberalism and free-speech, and banning those who disagree, even if they shroud their arguments in lies and support states that use chemical weapons to assassinate dissenters, would be a shift away from liberalism and a small victory for those who seek to undermine it.
Of course Britain’s response depends heavily on the attitudes of its Western partners and, in a post-Brexit world in which Trump is the leader of the most powerful nation on earth and Britain’s closest ally, this is not to be taken for granted. However, the initial response from key players such as France, Germany and the U.S., even if slightly delayed, has been encouraging. Britain is still a huge player on the international stage, possessing a seat on the UN Security Council, being a nuclear power, and having the sixth largest economy in the world ensures that Britain still retains global clout. Britain must now use all legitimate and necessary powers to hit back at Russia, with the help of Western friends, and show the leader of Russia for the foreseeable future that he no longer has carte blanche to endanger western citizens and advance his own schemes which make the world a more dangerous place.