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Spy row: Is tough UK stance on Russia because May under pressure to act?

Vidya Ram London | Updated on March 19, 2018

Security concerns Police officers guard a cordon around a tent covering a supermarket car park pay machine in Salisbury on Tuesday, near the area where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found critically ill   -  AP

UK govt’s response to alleged poisoning of Yulia and Sergei Skripal raises eyebrows

While the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury on March 4 may appear to have similarities to the circumstances around the death of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, the UK government’s rhetoric has been strikingly tougher and more definitive this time.

On Monday night, just over a week after the Skripals were found unconscious on a shopping mall bench, British Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for poisoning with a “military grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia” under its Novichok nerve gas programme.

“Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others,” she told the House on Monday afternoon.

“It’s overwhelmingly likely, or highly likely, that the Russian state was involved. And the use of this nerve agent would represent the first use of nerve agents on the continent of Europe since the Second World War,” said Boris Johnson, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, on Tuesday. Britain has given Russia till midnight on Tuesday to “offer a convincing explanation” as to why Novichok had been used “on the streets of Wiltshire,” failing which Britain would respond with a “robust” package of measures.

Russia hits back

Russia has said it had nothing to do “with the alleged poisoning” and condemned Britain for failing to send Moscow a sample of the substance and share information. “We won’t respond to UK ultimatum as it ignores (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) procedures and London’s own international obligations,” said the government in a statement on Tuesday.

By naming Russia directly, Britain’s response in terms of rhetoric is a level above those of its allies. “As soon as we get the facts straight...we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be,” US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday, ahead of a conversation with May, declining to make the Russian link that just-fired US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pointed to on Monday.

“Those who are responsible for the nerve gas attack in Salisbury in the UK must see very clearly that there is unequivocal, unwavering and very strong European solidarity with the British people and the British government,” said the European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans.

Alongside concerns around public safety — hundreds of diners at the Italian restaurant visited by the two Russians were asked to wash their clothing and belongings as a precautionary measure while a policeman who first attended to them was hospitalised — there are a number of other factors piling pressure on the Prime Minister and her team.

May was home secretary at the time of the Litvinenko killing and faced criticism — along with other cabinet colleagues — over the muted response then and afterwards.

A 2016 public inquiry concluded he had been poisoned by two agents “acting under the direction of the FSB”, probably at the behest of President Vladimir Putin. Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, told Sky News this weekend that despite “strong words” promising tough action in the aftermath of that inquiry, “nothing was done.”

Domestic queries

The two poisonings, just over a decade apart, have raised serious questions domestically about Britain’s ability to protect those seeking political asylum on its shores. Over the past week, MPs have repeatedly pointed to a number of apparently “suspicious” deaths on British shores.

Last week the Home Affairs Select Committee wrote to the government, urging an inquiry into 14 deaths in the UK that were not identified as suspicious by police in Britain but were reportedly identified by “United States intelligence sources as potentially connected to the Russian state.”

The list derives from a 2014 Buzzfeed investigation that pointed to deaths including that of Russian whistleblower Alexander Perepilichnyy who died in 2012, and oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who died in 2013.

“In recent years, successive British governments have repeatedly communicated weakness to Russia without any intention of doing so,” wrote John Lough and James Share of the international think tank Chatham House in a paper this week, describing the Skripal attack as a “test for the UK.” They pointed to the reduction in Britain’s maritime reconnaissance and warfare capability, triggered following a 2010 review, and Britain’s limited engagement in the European response to the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 as developments that may have weakened Britain’s hand.

Call for toughness

Others have also called for tougher action in the form of new legislation similar to the US’ Global Magnitsky Act of 2012.

The legislation allows the American government to impose visa bans and financial sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world determined to be responsible for human rights abuses and corrupt acts.

Visa refusal

“We are all familiar with the way in which huge fortunes, often acquired in the most dubious circumstances in Russia and sometimes connected with criminal elements, have ended up sheltering in London and trying to buy political influence in British party politics,” said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament on Monday.

A private members bill in the House of Lords introduced by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC would have granted the government power to refuse visas to human rights abuses was rejected by the government last year on the grounds that there were sufficient grounds within current legislation for doing so. However, the latest developments will pressurise the government to potentially introduce tougher measures to strengthen its hand.

“Asset freezes, money laundering investigations and selective cancellation of visas for individuals and their families who are either part of the regime or support it will cause real pain in Moscow,” suggested the Chatham House report. “Impulsive and symbolic measures will not do the same.”

Published on March 13, 2018

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