hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 8 March 2018

The Skripal Attack: Britain's Options

Britain “is just a small island…no-one pays any attention to them”.

Alleged 2013 comment by Dmitry Peskov, Official Spokesman of President Putin

The Skripal attack

Alphen, Netherlands. 8 March. Let me assume that in some manner or other the Russian state or those close to it were behind the poisoning of former Russian GRU (military intelligence) officer, Sergei Skripal, his daughter, and a Wiltshire police officer in Salisbury last Sunday.  Moscow will, of course, publicly deny all and any involvement in the attack, even as it leaves open the chance for people (particularly its own) to draw their own conclusions.  So, what options does Britain really have if it is to respond ‘robustly’, as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson somewhat theatrically suggested in Parliament this week?

Why attack Britain?

First, why attack Britain?  If the attack was sanctioned at a high level in the Kremlin the consequences would have been carefully considered.  It is unlikely that Moscow would risk such an attack on the United States, given the consequences if an American police officer was infected in a similar fashion to that unfortunate British police officer.  Moscow is also unlikely to have sanctioned such an attack on Germany, France or, Italy as all have shown themselves sympathetic and/or understanding of Moscow in the past.  Indeed, their collective refusal to back Britain in the wake of the 2006 Russian attack in London on Alexander Litvinenko in which highly-radioactive Polonium 210 not only killed Mr Litvinenko, and which put many Londoners at risk, demonstrated all too clearly the fragility of European solidarity.  It also demonstrated just how ‘uncommon’ the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy really is at times of crisis.  The Baltic States are already under daily attack from Moscow across a range of forms and means.  The rest of Europe?  Too small and insignificant to send the message Moscow might wish to send to the Russian people on the eve of the presidential elections about Russia’s ability to cower enemies and punish traitors.  Therefore, Russia’s much self-reduced and vulnerable old Cold War foe Britain, with a now sad ‘tradition’ of spinelessness in the face of a host of similar such attacks in recent years, thus presents the perfect target.  

Second, the attack might involve the sending my Moscow of more than one message.  On such occasions one needs to think somewhat laterally because the circumstances that inevitably surround cases of espionage are inevitably murky, with the public utterances of government often hiding a whole other story. Certainly, I am (again) angered by the prospect that (again) the Kremlin, one of its agencies (the fearsome GRU?), or one of the factions close to President Putin, seems to have carried out another possibly deadly attack on British soil. Equally, I am curious at the coincidence that such an attack should take place in Salisbury, just next door to Britain’s highly-secretive Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). Could it be that Skripal, who betrayed Russia, was the unwitting messenger in some other hidden conflict between Moscow and London?

Hinting at just such a conflict General Sir Chris Deverell, Britain’s Joint Force Commander, said this week that Russia has developed the ability to cripple a dangerously open Britain, particularly via a cyber-attack. Cryptically and coincidentally Deverell also said that Moscow “did not care about civilian life…They care only about what is in the interests of their elites…They are quite capable of anything”.  Was that the message Moscow was sending London?


Britain now knows the specific nerve agent used in the attack.  Given the sophisticated nature of the compound it is likely to be only a matter of time before the British identify the source of the attack, no doubt with the help of the Americans. So, let me break Britain’s possible responses down into two parts: retaliation and policy.

London’s immediate responses to such an attack would need to be necessarily and consequently theatrical. In addition to issuing pointless indictments against those Russians London identifies as suspects, Britain would first likely withdraw its ambassador from Moscow and/or expel a host of Russian diplomats, as well as declare a few Belgravia oligarchs persona non grata.  However, with the Russian presidential elections nine days away President Putin would probably be only too happy to expel a similar number of British diplomats to demonstrate graphically to the Russian people the ‘real’ enemies of the Russian state.

London might also seek to increase the severity of the sanctions on Russia imposed in the aftermath of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the July 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17.  However, it would be pointless for Britain to do that on its own.  And, as in the aftermath of the Litvinenko case, it is likely that only the United States (or possibly not!) might be willing to join Britain.  Of Europe’s major powers Germany’s Russia policy is far too tied up with Berlin’s economic interests to consider further sanctions against Russia, particularly the Nordstream 2 pipeline.  France at times talks tough about Russia but is similarly ambivalent, and Italy has just seen the political influence of pro-Russian Silvio Berlusconi markedly increase. 

Even Britain is ambivalent about its own sanctions on the Russian elite.  The City of London represents 11% of the British economy affording it significant influence over British foreign policy. Even after a High Court judge in 2016 implicated President Putin directly in the Litvinenko murder London has done little or nothing to prevent the flow of dodgy ‘no questions asked’ Russian money into London, and would probably be loath to do so even now. The EU? Even if the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy amounted to more than an extended budget for think-tank meetings London is hardly the flavour of the month in Brussels and is unlikely to get much support therein.

What about direct retaliatory action? London is certainly not in the business of poisoning people on foreign soil, whatever RT, Sputnik et al might imply.  Could Britain mount some form of retaliatory cyber-attack?  This is unlikely. First, Britain is only in the process of developing an offensive cyber warfare capability. Second, the failure of successive British governments to ‘harden’ Britain’s critical infrastructure makes the country uniquely vulnerable to a whole host of attacks Moscow has been working up for some time, and which now extend across the twenty-first century hybrid war, cyber war, hyper war spectrum. 

Policy Responses?

If the ability and capacity of London to retaliate is limited what about policy options?  Here, if ‘Whiteminster’ (Westminster and Whitehall combined) for once responds with a) some backbone; and b) investment in new capability, capacity and structures the attack could be the catalyst for Britain to finally abandon its appalling ‘policy’ of recognising only as much threat as HM Treasury says it can afford. Rather, Britain should move to establish a new principle in its dealings with Russia: if Moscow attacks, London responds with policy across the conflict spectrum and as part of a new, twenty-first century concept of escalation. 

At the lower end of escalation London could move to re-capitalise the Russian-speaking service of the BBC World Service and start again to fully engage/interfere in Russian domestic affairs. Britain could also move faster to balance the counter-terrorism focus of its Secret Intelligence Service with a born-again counter-Russia capability – both offensive intelligence and counter-intelligence.

London’s strategic blindness has also left Britain far too vulnerable to externally-induced chaos.  Therefore, London should also begin the systematic hardening of critical infrastructures from cyber and actual attack.  If past Russian tradecraft is anything to go by there is likely to be a significant number of well-placed Russian sleeper agents in Britain ready to help foster such chaos.   

Above all, and by way of considered policy response, London needs to strike a new balance between the protection of its people and its ability to project coercive power, particularly within NATO.  Deductively, it is in the specific realm of defence policy that London should respond most forcefully. For too long successive British governments have played at coercion as Whiteminster has steadily retreated from strategic realism into strategic political correctness. Moscow has observed this Little Britain retreat with contempt.

Therefore, Prime Minister May should announce as a direct response to this attack that Britain will move to prevent Russia’s continuing ability to carry out the low-level war it is currently conducting at Britain’s many seams. Critically, in addition to strengthening the resilience of British society to attack London should also announce an immediate increase of its defence budget to 2.5% GDP to close the massive gap that has opened up between the stated missions of the British armed forces and their ability to undertake them.  That such an increase would be the direct consequence of Russian action would not only be something Moscow would understand, it would also be an unintended consequence that Moscow would not welcome. After all, it takes two to message.

Britain must prove it can still sting

If London’s response to this attack is that it finally gets serious about security and defence and demonstrates to Moscow that there is a price to pay for its aggressive and unlawful actions then, just then, Russia too might want to talk.  Ironically, only then will the Foreign Office’s preferred policy of talking to Moscow, rather than isolating or threatening it, have any chance of success.  Sorry, Foreign Office, speaking softly, carrying a little stick, and turning a well-educated blind eye will no longer do.

What frustrates me most about my country is the false Little Britain narrative that not only have so many Britons bought into, but which Moscow exploits.  If one combines economic and military power with the experience and systems of engagement Britain should still be able to sting and sting hard. Sometimes in international relations, particularly when dealing with autocrats, democracies must have the proven ability to sting.  We do not as yet live in Utopia. However, only if Whiteminster stops behaving like a strategic amoeba, re-injects some strategic backbone into its policy and responses, and makes an adversary pay a price for such an attack will Britain stop this kind of attack.

Hard at times though it is to believe Britain is still a top five world power but needs to start behaving again like one.  As for Mr Peskov, Britain might well be a small island, but it is a bloody powerful one with an economy twice the size of Russia’s. Now is the moment for Moscow to be reminded of that fact…should, of course, it is demonstrated that Moscow was complicit in some way in the Skripal attack.

Julian Lindley-French

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