The West Gets Tough on Russia. What’s Next?

The West Gets Tough on Russia. What’s Next?

Canada has now joined an international effort to punish the Russians for their role in the use of a nerve agent to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England.

Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a statement on Monday indicating that four Russian diplomats would be declared persona non grata for intelligence activities and that another three diplomatic positions would be denied to Russia.

This action was being taken, she said, in solidarity with the UK and as a response to a “clear threat to the rules-based international order and to the rules that were established to ensure chemical weapons would never again destroy human lives.”

The Canadian expulsions follow earlier action by the UK to expel 23 Russian operatives and were coordinated with European Union and US action.

The EU announced a total of 33 Russians would be sent packing from a wide range of countries. More surprisingly still, the United States booted out 60 Russians and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle, widely regarded as little more than a spy base. This action by the Trump administration comes hard on the heels of the president’s congratulatory phone call to re-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It may be a sign that adults still occasionally have the upper hand in the White House.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has every reason to be buoyed by this support. May was right to call it the “largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history.”

The support is clearly predicated on two things. One is the evident confidence that Britain’s allies have in the conclusions the UK reached regarding the substance used to poison the Skripals, a potent nerve agent of a class known as “Novichok” (new boy), created in Soviet and Russian chemical weapons labs and first revealed to the West in the early 1990s by a dissident Russian chemist.

The second element is the fact that the Russian reaction to the revelations of the Skripal poisoning has been such a bizarre exercise in implausible deniability, compounded by sheer crassness. If the West was inclined to be fed up with Russian actions against its interests over the past few years, culminating in election interference in the US and across Europe, a blatant use of a banned chemical weapon on British soil, followed by an information campaign designed to blame the West, was the final straw.

What comes next? That depends, in the first instance, on the Kremlin.

If the Putin regime decides to respond using tit for tat expulsions against Western diplomats, as seems likely, the crisis will only deepen. If the Russian foreign ministry continues with its efforts to spin wild conspiracy stories (such that this was a plot by British intelligence on the eve of the Russian election to damage Putin, or harm the success of the World Cup to be hosted this summer by Russia) the crisis will only deepen.

If the Russian government continues to try to play the blame game against Britain, that will only feed anger in the West.

The blame game reached an early nadir in a statement released by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs last Wednesday, which caused even seasoned Western diplomats in Moscow to shake their heads and strive to hold their laughs.

The Russians went so far as to suggest that Britain was abusing its responsibilities under the Chemical Weapons Convention by failing to act in conjunction with Russia; was playing the UN Security Council in an unseemly manner to politicize the Skripal poisoning; and had engaged in an unwise medical response. The Russians called the decision to administer antidotes to the Skripals and a British police officer “hasty,” and even suggested that British medical action may lead to “grave complications and further deterioration of their health status.”

This is gallows humour of an extraordinarily crude kind.

If the Russians have a chess move at hand, it is hard to see what it might be. So far, the Russian response to the Skripal poisoning seems based on nothing more than authoritarian ineptness and paralyzing shock at being found out. If the Kremlin thought a demand to involve the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the investigation as a neutral and authoritative source would be denied by the British, they were wrong.

If they think they will get any comfort from the findings of the OPCW once it investigates the materials used in the poisoning they are wrong. Perhaps their last gamble is the assumption that British law enforcement and intelligence will not be able to identify the perpetrators.

If the Litvinenko inquiry was ultimately able to identify the two key Russian operatives involved in the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 in London is any indication, that won’t save them either. Even Putin found himself named as a likely source of the order that sent Litvinenko to his death.

While the Kremlin thrashes around, it is likely that its actions will only stiffen Western resolve and deepen the crisis through further diplomatic isolation for Russia, increased financial and economic sanctions, and a root-and-branch decimation of its overseas intelligence service.

Authoritarian regimes can be incredibly stupid, and incredibly isolated from reality, and maybe the Skripal poisoning will prove one of those occasions when authoritarian stupidity and wrong surmises about global reaction came together to produce a result that the Russians may long rue.

This article was first published on 27 March 2018 by the Ottawa Citizen.

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