Skripal Affair: What does the UK’s reaction show?Today, the British Prime Minister is expected to announce whatever sanction measures are to address the alleged Kremlin-led attempts to murder former GRU colonel and a British agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, UK. Why the widespread apprehension and anger as a reaction towards the act of using deadly chemicals in full daylight, without much concern for the security of bystanders, is totally understandable, the scale of reaction on the part of the British establishment has been spectacular, Prime Minister May even uttering that the act amounted to “an unlawful use of force against Great Britain”. So, what can explain this unexpectedly harsh and uncompromising response and what implications does it bear for future?

First of all, talking about the Skripal affair, one should not forget the murder of Litvinenko in 2006 and a very ambiguous response on the part of London back then. While disclosing the polonium trial clearly leading to the Kremlin, the Labour government made some harsh statements but did not take any real steps to restore justice or at least prevent the occurrence of similar cases in future. As the subsequent events have shown, preventive measures would have not been out of place, as 14 more or less suspicious cases of death of people somehow related to Putin’s arch-enemy Boris Berezovsky happened in the UK since then, the oligarch himself dying in suspicious circumstances in March 2013. In fact, direct accusations of the Russian ruling regime in orchestrating the Litvinenko murder were pronounced only in 2015, after the Ukrainian crisis had spurred a political confrontation between Russia and the West. Such lackluster response has been universally explained as meant not to provoke a grave crisis with Moscow, especially based on numerous business ties London has had with Russian oligarchs, Putin’s confidents and enemies alike.  Obviously, the British believed such ties would serve to tie Russia’s interests to its own ones and secure its predictable behaviour. 

However, the opposite happened. As this piece published at the Chatham House website indicates, in Moscow the unwillingness to take unpopular confrontational measures was perceived as a sign of weakness. The events of the last several years made it clear that unlike the Cold War period, Moscow now does not feel obliged to play by the rules. Instead, in order to minimize the huge disparity in power that puts is far behind the West, Russian strategists invented the concept which may be called “hybrid politics” which extends far beyond mere proxy wars and includes informational aggression, cyberattacks, engaging in shadow or openly criminal schemes and, as it has been the case in Salisbury, murder attempts. Peter Dickinson made a brilliant observation that the parties may be even unaware of the fact they are engaged in a hostility. At the same time, such policy has been a handy tool to secure the popular support somewhat shaken by socioeconomic stagnation. It has helped to create a narrative deeply mired in part-criminal mentality that views the West at the same time as ingenuous enemies and “weaklings”, unmanly, in contrast to President Putin and ordinary Russians. So, it becomes somehow moral to use any methods against them, be they honest or not. This mentality views people like Berezovsky, Litvinenko or Skripal with special contempt, as traitors who do not deserve to live. It is quite common to hear this on the Russian TV and this point of view predominates within the Russian society at large. Thus, though Russia never admitted any connection to the suspicious deaths (or murder attempts) that happened in Britain, subliminal messages about the omnipotent FSB (Federal Security Service) and the Russian state have been delivered. 

But when such toxic ideology is implemented on a regular basis, it becomes difficult to control for its masters as well. A myriad of proxies Kremlin has may have indeed made its policy unusually nimble and misleading, but it also bears the risk of losing effective control over some of them. The admission Prime Minister May did, that the killers might have either operated on a command from Moscow or acquired the deadly weapon by the lack of control from the Russian government, is telling. The KGB way of doing things makes total control over all the numerous agents, informants etc., impossible. So, it would be accurate to expect that most probably the recent crime was committed by someone not under total control.

However, Britain today is not quite what it was 10 years ago, both internally and in terms of its relationship with Russia. Brexit, the cornerstone and the sore point of current British foreign policy, was first of all meant to boost London’s sovereignty. Hence, the accusations that London let itself turn into a playground for the rich and corrupt of the world, became more pronounced, and after the court’s verdict it became even more clear how carefully London had tried to downplay the Litvinenko murder and other gruesome incidents before. The growing pressure from the Labour Party that turned increasingly left under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, capitalizes on the alleged “toxic” connections of the Tory-dominated finance industry (the opposition leader regularly brings this matter to the public agenda, the latest time being the Skripal affair discussion on March 12). Partly under such pressure, the Tories devised a piece of legislation that would introduce much tougher requirements on capital disclosure for foreign investors, especially those with supposed government connections in their countries. Factors such as this, coupled with public distress about increasing inequality and Britain’s vague Brexit prospects, entailed a shocking setback the Tories suffered at the snap elections in June 2017 which deprived them of their absolute majority in the Parliament. Prime Minister’s “strong and stable” mantra became a laughing stock for many. Hence, Theresa May’s government faced with so many reputational challenges both at home and abroad, has not had any other choice but to take a hard line in the incident that for the first time, brought about harm to the British citizens totally unconnected to the world of Russian oligarchs and spies. How sensitive this maybe for the Western governments, can be learned from Washington’s reaction to the Russian attempts to meddle in the election process. 

However, London’s harsh reaction is not only an isolated incident- it totally fits the recent pattern of Russia’s communications with the West, increasingly provocative and confrontational. Kremlin has never provided any substantiated proof of its innocence in all the major scandals that shattered its reputation, be they the Boing shutdown in Ukraine, the Olympic doping saga and allegations of cocaine traffic via the Russian embassy in Buenos Aires. Instead, its spokespersons, such as MFA’s Maria Zakharova, tell anecdotes and use expressions on the verge of inappropriate when talking about their “Western partners”. President Putin, answering to a question about his press secretary Peskov’s statements, said that sometimes “he speaks total nonsense”, using quite a colloquial phrase in Russian. The peak of it was the public comment made by the major suspect in the Litvinenko murder, Andrey Lugovoy, who is now a Russian MP, about the Skripal incident. Such openly mocking reaction on the part of Moscow communicates to the Western governments the sense that they are not taken seriously. It seems that from the Russian strategy switched from fake news to open expression of contempt for normal diplomatic communication. On the deeper level, this emphasizes Moscow’s unwillingness to accept the rules of the game- something uncharacteristic for the post-war USSR, which made many experts claim that the current international climate is even more dangerous than during the Cold War. Free from any ideological constraints, today Russian government challenges the West while benefiting from all the opportunities it provides. Hence, it is quite natural that the West would take measures unseen before if it really wants to stop this creeping encroachment.