Following the poisoning of Sergei and Julia Skripal, the UK has crystallised its identity as opposed to Russia. However, this position may be undermined by the growing cleavages in European politics, and the UK’s inability to shape EU policy in the future.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is expected to face unpredictable changes upon Britain’s departure from the European Union. The UK is considered to be more powerful as a member of a collective of European democracies with largely similar values and interests. While the UK will most likely retain a strong relationship with the EU in terms of defence and security cooperation, it could also lose the ability to amplify its interests from within the EU. Having derived a significant part of its international identity from EU membership, the UK could appear politically weaker and more isolated to foreign actors as a result of an inadequate representation. Present ongoing tensions suggest that Russia is a growing area of concern.
Historically speaking, with the exception of a brief rapprochement between Blair and Putin, British relations with post-Soviet Russia have been fraught with crisis and mistrust. According to the Russian narrative, NATO’s neo-imperialist expansion into the post-Soviet space is unjustified and poses a threat to Russian sovereignty. This specific narrative has been used to justify Russian military interventions in Georgia, Ukraine and, more recently, in Syria. In contrast, the British narrative holds that the Kremlin has continually and calculatedly violated international law in relation to its role in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko on British soil, the illegal annexation of Crimea, its war crimes in Syria, the maintenance of an unlawful military presence in Ukraine, and recent allegations over disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks. These tensions have led to the re-emergence of Cold War rhetoric and a rejection of the Kremlin’s Russian unlawfulness has become an important factor shaping Britain’s foreign policy.
After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the EU member states multilaterally imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia. As an EU member state, the UK, alongside the Baltic States, Poland and Denmark, successfully lobbied for the continuation of these anti-Russian sanctions. However, in recent years Russia has exploited cleavages in European politics fomented by the migration crisis and gained support amongst neo-nationalist parties in the EU. In Austria, Hungary and Italy these parties have acceded to power and are calling for an end to anti-Russian sanctions. At the same time, more influential states in the EU – France, Germany and the Netherlands – are currently opposed to escalating tensions, largely due to their productive energy deals with Russia. From the British perspective, the annulment of the multilateral sanctions would undermine the sanctity of international law and leave Britain isolated as other EU member states benefit from closer trade deals with Russia. Brexit has strengthened the resolve of those calling for a revision of the economic and diplomatic penalties, weakening the UK’s foreign policy position.
Given these tensions, the poisoning of Sergei and Julia Skripal on British sovereign soil was acutely politically charged. Although the Kremlin denies any involvement, British intelligence services, which were corroborated by the European Council and the US security services, concluded that it was a Russian initiative. In response, the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats – the largest-scale diplomatic ejection since 1985. Significantly, by pleading its case in Brussels, the UK managed to corral 18 out of 28 EU member states into expelling their own Russian diplomats. What does this reaction tell us?
The immediate British response was mild; the expulsion of diplomats was a measure used in 2006 following Litvinenko’s murder and clearly did not work as a deterrent. However, recently British MPs have backed the introduction of a British version of the Magnitsky Act, an effective measure which directly targets Putin’s inner circle of kleptocrats in ‘Londongrad’ by freezing their assets and refusing them visas. This legislation sends a clear message that Britain rejects the human rights violations of the incumbent Kremlin regime. However, the show of European solidarity was nominal – approximately 2 diplomats were expelled by each of the 18 EU member states. This shows the reticence of EU states to seriously confront Russia’s contraventions of international law and the growing fissures in European politics are a concern for post-Brexit Britain.
The British response to the Salisbury poisoning further crystallised the UK’s identity as opposed to Russia, but it remains to be seen if this position will be supported. Unanimity on the continuation of sanctions will be the true litmus test of European solidarity against the gross human rights violations of the Kremlin regime.
Angus McWhirter is studying at UCL for a MA in Politics, Security and Russian.