The mass expulsion of Russian diplomats and intelligence officers from the EU, United States, Canada and Australia represents the best possible international response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury that the UK government could have hoped for. It underscores the vital importance of the alliance systems that Britain has done so much to build up since the Second World War.
More importantly, it suggests that – despite the tendency to write its obituary in the era of Brexit and Trump – the concept of “the West” still has a profound geopolitical sway on those occasions that it can be mobilised into action. While Russia is the specific target of the punitive measures, this has potentially longer significance as the West debates a coherent response to other epoch-defining challenges on the horizon, such as the rise of China.
In the short-term, the clear message is that tolerance levels for illegal acts on our sovereign soil, or the type of behaviour that undermines Western democracies in general, have markedly reduced. Crucially, after a period in which leadership from the West’s most influential states has been in short supply, it was the robustness of the UK’s original independent response to the incident that provided a firm foundation for a collective reaction.
The contrast with the fall-out from the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 could not be more stark. In 2007, the Foreign Office’s a formal request for the extradition of the key suspect Andrey Lugovoy was rejected by the Russian government. It was not until 2016 that a public inquiry concluded that Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, another Russian agent, were responsible, possibly under the direction of the FSB. The swift and decisive action following the Salisbury incident on 4 March demonstrated a desire not to get trapped into the stalling and dissembling tactics that amount to the second phase of clandestine Russian operations. In the most generous interpretation of the Labour leader’s position, Jeremy Corbyn’s request to Theresa May in the Commons – to provide the evidence the Russians were requesting – fell precisely into this trap. The pre-condition for an effective response was not to get trapped in this charade.
Too often in recent times multi-lateralism has been used as a cover for stage-managed inaction. By acting swiftly and independently, before the painstaking diplomatic process of coalition-building, the British government therefore created the best possible platform for collective action. Rather than seeking safety in numbers, or making a plea for sympathy, the firmness coming from the UK mobilised those who share the same concerns. In particular, the Trump administration – which continues to express its willingness to engage in a dialogue with Russia – could not be seen to soft pedal on the issue, given the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the presidential election. The scale of the expulsion of Russian intelligence agents from America, with nearly 60 removed from the country, suggests that the US State Department was waiting for just such an opportunity.
Likewise, long-term Russian hostility to the EU as an institution, and the concerted targeting of a number of key member states, created an imperative for concerted European action that went beyond NATO. What is more, that a number of those joining the action have little specific gripe of their own with Moscow at the moment – such as Italy; or, further afield, Australia – underlines the sense in which there remains a community of interests across Western democracies. It has been Russian strategy in recent years to put this to the test. Moscow has found that the West struggles to express a common unity of purpose. Above all, the strongest foundation was provided by last week’s joint statement from the US, UK, France and Germany which provided the cover for other more vulnerable partners, such as Poland and the Baltic States, to follow suit.
As he begins another term in office, President Putin can no doubt absorb the expulsion of over a hundred Russian intelligence and diplomatic officers from US, Europe and Australia. But there is no question that such a large number will damage the intelligence gathering apparatus of the Russian state. Only time will tell whether it is an effective deterrent but the decision to use a weapons-grade nerve agent was clearly intended to test British mettle at a time when there is uncertainty over the UK’s future role in the world. The act, and the response, brings to mind Lenin’s old adage “Probe with a bayonet: if you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.” One can assume that the UK’s response turned out to be less mushy than was originally calculated.
In an era in which it has been fashionable to run down alliances, this incident and the response to it confirms a fundamental truth that Lord West of Spithead – former First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Intelligence and Labour Security Minister from 2007 to 2010 – made for Policy Exchange last week: that collective security remains the “bedrock” of British national defence. In seizing the initiative and setting the terms of the international response through its own decisive action, the UK government has shown the merit of adopting a proactive rather than a reactive response to an ongoing threat to national security. There is no need to fall into an “escalatory trap” with President Putin, who will no doubt seek a further response. Nonetheless, now is the time to firm up the options for further deterrence, such as adopting the so-called “Magnitsky Amendment”, and to keep discussion alive about how to replicate this type of coordinated action should it be needed again in the near future.