In a new statement today at the House of Commons, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has set out her government’s response to Russia’s alleged role in attacking a former spy in the town of Salisbury and its refusal to explain the use of a military-grade nerve agent. The reprisals are set to be among the most severe since the Cold War and mark a new low in UK-Russia relations.
Moscow refused to co-operate with the UK in the investigation, despite warnings of diplomatic reprisals. The deadline was set for midnight on Tuesday with Theresa May promising to set out new measures on her government’s response in Parliament the next day.
One of those measures includes the expulsion of 23 diplomats from Russia, the biggest expulsion in 30 years. Theresa May said that the 23 Russian diplomats, who were identified as “undeclared intelligence officers”, will have a week to leave the country. In addition, an invitation to Russia’s Foreign Minister has been revoked while all planned high-level bilateral contacts between the UK and Russia have been suspended.
Another snub to Russia was the announcement that government ministers and the Royal Family would boycott the World Cup even this year, currently being held in Russia. There are currently no plans to remove the England football team from the event itself, as Boris Johnson suggested, but the move will be a major snub to Putin.
Theresa May also announced that increased checks on private flights, customs and freight would take place and that Russian state assets would be frozen if individuals were identified as likely to cause harm. New laws to combat the increase of “hostile state activity” will also be discussed in the future, looking on how to defend against attempted assassinations.
To top in all off, Theresa May announced that she was calling an emergency meeting at the United Nations Security Council in order to update council members on the investigation. Downing Street also confirmed that Theresa May has received support from several world leaders including Donald Trump and Angela Merkel as well as allies in both the European Union and NATO.
Despite the flurry of diplomatic activity, Russia has remained unimpressed and has continued to accuse Britain of making baseless accusations without backing them up with evidence. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, they are unlikely to take Theresa May’s update passively and will attempt to divide opposition both in the UN and in Europe to avoid punishment.
Theresa May also faces questions of escalation. Despite her reprisals today, many have called for more punishments against Russia, but Brexit negotiations and the varying relations between European countries and Russia make further action uncertain. There is also the question of possible Russian retaliation on British businesses including energy, football clubs and even affecting members of the House of Lords among others.
Ironically, Theresa May is also fulfilling Putin’s wishes – by pushing forward Brexit, she is inadvertently helping Putin achieve his aim in dividing the Western opposition and sowing chaos amongst his enemies. After all, Vladimir Putin was one of the biggest cheerleaders of Brexit, just as he was one of Trump’s biggest supporters.
Theresa May has secured a small diplomatic victory, but with questions of trade tariffs and Russian connections hanging over Trump, the incident has become a test for Theresa May and a post-Brexit Britain to see how much influence and international support she can muster. For now, it is holding up, but if the situation escalates into an international diplomatic crisis, that support may dwindle.
Whatever the case may be, Theresa May made her point clear: Russia is now a clear and present danger and if they intend to do harm to UK citizens and Russian exiles, Britain will respond.