Spy Poisoning: Russia Retaliates 23 For 23

On Saturday, March 17th Russia announced expected retaliatory measures, giving twenty-three British diplomats a week to leave the country. Just three days after the UK announced it would do the same. Russia additionally announced the closure of the British Council in Russia and the British Consulate in St. Petersburg, according to The BBC. This diplomatic tit for tat is the direct result of the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on March 4th in Salisbury, Wiltshire. The retired Russian colonel, who remains in critical condition, had been jailed in 2006 after being charged with being a double agent for Britain’s MI6. But according to The BBC, Skripal came to the UK in 2010 as part of a “spy swap.” Given that the nerve agent used was Novichok, a chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s the UK has claimed that Russia was responsible for the attack, according to The Telegraph. As quoted in The New York Times, British Prime Minister Theresa May said of Russia: “They have treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance. Their response has demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events. They have provided no credible explanation.” However, Russia vehemently denies these charges, with Russian ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya demanding “material proof” and condemning the UK for giving Russia an ultimatum, before the Security Council.

Although no concrete conclusion has been drawn from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigation, on Wednesday, March 14th May stated that the UK “will never tolerate a threat to the life of British citizens and others on British soil from the Russian government,” as quoted in The BBC. She made several announcements: that twenty-three diplomats who have been identified as “undeclared intelligence officers” will be expelled, the Royal Family will not attend the 2018 Fifa World Cup, checks on private flights and freights will increase, all planned high-level bilateral contacts between the UK and Russia will be suspended, and she plans to consider new laws to increase defences against “hostile state activity.” May’s sanctions and the aforementioned Russia counters will have a significant impact on Russia-British relations, which have reached their lowest since the cold war.

The retaliation from Russia was expected, as the BBC put it, British ambassador Laurie Bristow “had been expecting this call for three days.” It is worth noting that given the context, it is promising that Russia’s counter-sanctions were mirrored at twenty-three and no more, highlighting that Russia has no intention to escalate tensions. Nevertheless, the closing of the British Council under the counter-sanctions could have significant future consequences. As BBC diplomatic correspondent James Robbins argued, the Council fosters people-to-people relationships, focusing on youth, thus its removal could be crucial for the UK’s relationship with a post-Putin Russia. The statement released by the British Council on March 17th echoed the same sentiment: “We are profoundly disappointed at this development. It is our view that when political or diplomatic relations become difficult, cultural relations and educational opportunities are vital to maintain on-going dialogue between people and institutions.”

More importantly, May asserted, “This was not just an act of attempted murder in Salisbury – nor just an act against UK. It is an affront to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.” Similarly, the French ambassador, François Delattre, stated in The Guardian: “We have reached a new stage; the use of a substance never declared to the OPCW used in a public area in the territory of a European country.” Thus, no matter whether Russia was responsible for the attack, or the Czech Republic, or the UK itself as a way to divert attention from Brexit as Russia’s ambassador to Britain Alexander Yakovenko claimed to the BBC, it still holds international significance. Especially in relation to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. Thus far most members of the Security Council, particularly the US and France have supported Britain. As a result, Russia’s relationship with other Council members is concurrently deteriorated.

Therefore, to conclude, a bipartisan investigation through the Chemical Weapons Convention as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has argued for in order to “establish exactly where the nerve gas came from, who administered it and prosecute if we can,” as quoted in The BBC, may allow for the repeal of sanctions and support cooperation between these two nations. An effort that is key for other international issues, for instance, the Syrian Civil War and refugee crisis.

Charlotte Devenish

History student at the University of Edinburgh, currently on exchange at the University of Auckland.