30.03.18 Publication:

How do you deal with a neighbour like Russia, which seems to enjoy breaking all sorts of rules, both legal ones and ethical ones? By economic sanctions? By expelling its diplomats and spies? By ejecting it from the G8 group of big economic powers? Or by talking to it and trying to persuade it to behave differently? 


This is what Britain, Germany, Japan and the United States are all now debating, along with many other countries, but with no clear answers. The only clarity is that doing nothing and just leaving Russia to do whatever it likes is not a good option.


            It is not a new puzzle, but it nevertheless came back to trouble foreign ministers, intelligence services and diplomats, not to mention media commentators, on March 4thin a new and extraordinary way. This was the day when some unidentified assassins used a nerve agent that was apparently developed by the Soviet Union to try to kill a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in the small, historic English city of Salisbury, endangering dozens of ordinary citizens. 


This use of a chemical weapon in the peaceful streets of a western city caused outrage, while then provoking an unusual exhibition of western solidarity, with 29 countries as well as NATO’s headquarters joining Britain in expelling 145 Russian diplomats. What was particularly surprising, at least to us in London and Washington was that President Donald Trump joined swiftly and energetically in the British-led response, expelling 60 Russians and closing the Russian consulate in Seattle.


President Trump, after all, is a man who argued during his successful 2016 election campaign that better relations with Russia should be a priority. He also telephoned President Vladimir Putin to offer formal congratulations for his victory in Russia’s stage-managed elections on March 18thand failed to make any mention during the call of the nerve agent attack – unlike Japan’s Shinzo Abe, who reportedly did express concern about this use of chemical weapons during his congratulatory call.


Yet psycho-analysing Trump and all his many contradictions is not the important question. The bigger question is whether reacting to this assassination attempt in an English city by engaging in a retaliatory battle of diplomatic expulsions is the right course of action. Can it do any good, or will it just make things worse? Is it even justified?


The first task in answering this question must be to remember that this is not a new problem nor an isolated incident. It follows a long-established pattern of behaviour, over at least the past 10 years. That behaviour consists of a disregard for international law concerning national sovereignty and national borders as laid down in the United Nations Charter of 1945, and of a belief that Russia has the right to act in its own interests even inside other countries’ territories.


This behaviour was seen – or should have been seen – clearly in 2006 when Alexander Litvinenko, a defector from the Russian intelligence service, the FSB (formerly KGB), was killed in London by being poisoned using a lethally radioactive substance called Polonium. This was a dramatic and horrific death. Traces of the radiation were found in an ordinary restaurant and in a luxury hotel, in both of which Mr Litvinenko had been meeting Russian agents.


Another aspect was seen in 2008 when Russia went to war with its former Soviet compatriots of Georgia, over two breakaway, largely Russian-speaking Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, provinces it still controls. 


Then the issue was intensified by Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea in 2014 and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine. During that intervention, a Malaysian Airlines aircraft was shot down by soldiers using Russian-made missiles, killing 298 passengers and crew. Russia denied all involvement with any of these events. And meanwhile many other Russian dissidents have died in mysterious ways in many foreign cities, especially in Europe.


At the same time, Russian confidence in international affairs has been growing. It has intervened successfully to help Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad defeat his opponents and so to survive that country’s long and deadly civil war, and Russian influence is now said to be expanding in Libya, another Arab state that has suffered from conflict and instability.


In fact, the biggest problem in European politics is tied directly to the situations in Syria and Libya: the flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria into the European Union, and the flow of hundreds of thousands of economic migrants from West Africa, up through the Sahara Desert to Libya and then on to boats heading for Italy.


Hence, really, the diplomatic dilemma. Some kind of a deal with Russia could be helpful to the European Union in controlling the flow of migrants across and around the Mediterranean. For the United States, a pact with Russia to help stabilise the Middle East could also be tempting, which is why Donald Trump advocated it. But when Russia uses chemical weapons in our own western cities, and invades neighbours such as Ukraine and Georgia in violation of international law, it looks more like a pact with the devil rather than a potential partner.


A pattern of behaviour does not necessarily make a country or a person guilty of a specific crime. So some politicians in Britain and other EU countries have criticised governments for expelling Russian diplomats and spies, arguing that Britain has not yet produced clear proof that the attempted killing in Salisbury was ordered by the Russian state. This is true: all we have is the statement by British intelligence and military officers that the nerve agent used is one developed only by the Soviet Union, and that the only plausible users of that nerve agent are Russian agents.


This criticism is fair, but is nevertheless misplaced. In a criminal case, we should expect it to be proved beyond reasonable doubt that an accused person committed the crime. But diplomatic expulsions are not the same as a judicial punishment: they are not like the death penalty or life imprisonment. Instead, they are a symbolic gesture intended to convey a clear message that countries believe that Russia was the perpetrator, and intended to convey strong displeasure at this sort of conduct.


There is no real likelihood that Russia will change its behaviour very much as a result, and probably not at all. But it is important when acts of this nature – the brazen use of a chemical weapon for an assassination, which is essentially an act of terrorism for it is designed to spread fear, both among other Russian dissidents and among foreign countries – occur that countries do show their anger and outrage in as strong a way as they can.


The truth is that there are not many stronger ways available than economic sanctions and diplomatic expulsions. Russia is not a very important economy – its GDP is roughly the same size as Italy’s – but politically it cannot be ignored because its military is strong and it has a very large land area with many neighbours. 


Isolating it completely would not solve the problem. But gestures are both necessary and desirable. Sometimes, we just have to stand up for our values and our principles, even if it doesn’t do much good. That is why, as a British citizen, I am glad my government has responded by expelling Russian diplomats and grateful that so many other countries have done the same. We have to stand together, for we are all vulnerable to the same crimes.