Britain’s advantage over Russia swung on a dinner. Before European leaders gathered to eat on Thursday, the European Union (EU) was supportive of the UK’s case over the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal but, France and Germany apart, unconvinced that Moscow should be publicly blamed. “We need to investigate,” pleaded the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, who hosted Vladimir Putin in 2016 and benefits from cheap Russian gas. But with appetites satiated, the mood turned.
Sceptics, like Greece, Italy, Austria, and Hungary were persuaded or bought off – Athens was given tough language on its dispute with Turkey – and the leaders fell in line. The Council agreed with the UK government that Russia was “highly likely” to be behind the chemical weapons attack, “and there’s no other plausible explanation”. The EU ambassador to Russia, Markus Florian Ederer, was recalled, an unprecedented step, and several countries are exploring following the UK’s lead and expelling undeclared Russian intelligence officers.
This is a triumph for British diplomacy, but also for the police, intelligence, and scientific agencies that have gathered evidence on the Skripal case so far. EU diplomats told the Times that the UK’s briefings have included “much that is not in the public domain”, adding up to a “extremely convincing case”. The question, however, is how much this welcome rhetorical support will translate into concrete pressure on the Kremlin.
Start with diplomatic expulsions. The UK’s own steps represent a major blow to Russia’s intelligence network, hitting two-fifths of the embassy’s manpower and forcing Russia to rely on, and perhaps expose, its illegal rezidentura (station) instead. Reports suggest that up to 10 countries, including France, Poland, and all the Baltic states, are considering following suit, on Britain’s request. These countries will have to balance a number of factors.
Their domestic intelligence agencies will be delighted by the prospect of kicking out troublesome Russians, who tie up surveillance and other resources. When the UK expelled 90 Russian intelligence officers in 1971, allied agencies were electrified and envious, and eager to persuade their own governments to follow suit. But foreign intelligence agencies worry about losing their officers in Moscow, if they have any, in the tit-for-tat. Foreign ministries want to protect bilateral relations with Russia.
Despite these concerns, it would not be surprising to see a dozen or more EU member states take such a step, in light of wider concerns over the role of Russian intelligence in cyber-attacks, election interference, and the spread of disinformation. Expulsions would not stop Russian meddling, which is mostly carried out at arms-length, but it would make life harder for the agencies doing it.
The logical next step would involve further EU-wide sanctions. One option would be expanding the array of travel bans, asset freezes, and economic sanctions already in place after Russia’s illegal invasion and occupation of Ukraine. Notably, the UK did not press for these measures on Thursday, recognising that the current sanctions regime is already wobbly. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister until earlier this month, proposed easing sanctions in February. While Gabriel’s successor, Heiko Mass, has taken a tougher line on Russia so far, his party, the SPD, which recently re-entered a coalition with Angela Merkel, is more dovish, as is German business. More broadly, Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Slovenia all get a large majority of their gas from Russia.
But although these countries are unlikely to take a greater hit, the new European consensus on Russia is still important. It undercuts those who wanted a reset, making it far less likely that Ukraine-related sanctions will now be eased quickly. This keeps up the heat on Moscow. Russian growth remains feeble, at under 2 per cent, investment is anaemic, and real household income is still falling. Vladimir Putin will have to choose whether he wants to keep liquidating his enemies and harassing the West, or prefers a functional economy.
The UK did not persuade the EU to label Russia a “strategic enemy”, although this is hardly surprising. The bloc rarely uses such terminology, given the challenges of cobbling together 28 different foreign policies. But it is clear that Russia has overreached, pushing the world’s largest economic bloc, comprising seven of its top 15 trading partners, further into a defensive crouch.
The next steps for the UK are to broaden these diplomatic efforts. It should work closely with France, Germany, and those European states with the will to go further than the EU as a whole. It should expand its efforts ahead of the G7 summit in June and the Nato summit in July, to ratchet up the pressure in line with Moscow’s campaign of obstruction, obfuscation, and deceit.