Special Report: Diplomatic Tensions Following Salisbury Chemical Incident

Special Report: Diplomatic Tensions Following Salisbury Chemical Incident

Executive Summary

Anglo-Russian tensions are elevated after the UK accused Moscow of responsibility for carrying out a targeted chemical attack on a former Russian intelligence agent March 4 in the British town of Salisbury. The UK has announced a series of diplomatic sanctions, to which Moscow has promised to react. The UK has widespread support from the international community, but further widespread economic sanctions are unlikely, which will probably motivate Moscow to limit its response. The approach of the FIFA World Cup, which Russia will host in June-July, could also restrict the scope of retaliatory measures on both sides. Nevertheless, low-level bureaucratic impediments and closer scrutiny of British visitors to Russia could lead to processing delays and inconveniences to British businesses operating in Russia. UK citizens - and citizens of countries perceived as supporting the UK position - could face minor verbal harassment in the coming weeks, though are very unlikely to face any threat to their physical safety.

Key Judgments 

  • Travel to, and normal business operations in, Russia can continue in the medium term with basic security precautions.
  • The low threat of further UK and international sanctions will likely limit immediate Russian retaliation to tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.
  • While anti-UK demonstrations and low-level harassment of UK nationals is possible, no current increased threat to UK travelers and businesses operating in Russia exists.

The Salisbury Incident

The apparent attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, UK, March 4, which the British government claims was carried out using a chemical weapon of Russian origin, has led Anglo-Russian relations to rise to their most-strained since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Skripal and two other people, including a British police officer, remain in a serious condition following the incident. Prime Minister Theresa May has publicly denounced Moscow, alleging that the retention and use of the "Novichok" nerve agent is a breach of international law, and follows an established pattern of Russian state-sponsored assassinations and disregard for accepted global norms in recent years.

Following the deliberate and fatal 2006 radioactive contamination of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in London - also attributed to President Vladimir Putin's government, the UK was accused of hesitancy in prosecuting the investigation, and a public inquiry into the killing was not announced until 2014. Critics alleged that the British government was reluctant to react against Moscow for fear of threatening the rebuilding of economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries. PM May's current government appears very unwilling to face similar criticism and has responded robustly, possibly out of a desire to increase her domestic public support, which has remained lackluster since the June 2017 general election. Westminster has ordered the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats - so-called "undeclared intelligence officers" - since the height of the Cold War and announced the suspension of high-level, bilateral contact between the two countries; May has also warned that Westminster will look to pass legislation aimed at freezing the assets of Russian individuals and entities assessed as seeking to harm the UK. Her approach so far appears to be domestically popular, with a recent survey finding that May's response had a 60-percent approval rating among the British public. Nevertheless, such measures are relatively cosmetic, and May has given no indication that wider economic sanctions are under consideration.

As an EU member, the UK remains legally unable to diverge its trade policy from the rest of the bloc, at least until its scheduled departure date of March 2019, and possibly not until the end of the subsequent, and as yet undefined, "transition" period. The UK is, therefore, extremely unlikely to attempt to impose punitive economic measures unilaterally. In addition, the UK government could face significant domestic pushback if - as some have suggested - it were to prevent the England team from participating in the World Cup, or England supporters from traveling to Russia. While May has announced that no ministers or members of the royal family will attend the competition, further travel restrictions are very unlikely from the UK side.

International reaction

The current UK approach has won widespread public backing from key international players, including the US and the EU. The US ambassador to London has said that Washington stands in "absolute solidarity" with the UK on the issue, and the March 15 passing of unrelated US financial sanctions on Russia could increase the pressure on a relatively isolated Moscow to avoid significant retaliatory action. Key EU countries, including Germany and France, have also vocally backed the UK, and the bloc's reaction to the Salisbury incident is slated to be discussed at the next EU summit, scheduled for March 22. However, the EU already has a hefty sanctions regime against Moscow over the latter's illegal 2014 seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, and there appears to be little appetite to stretch these measures further. Given that many member states - including Hungary, Italy, and Greece - are looking to relax sanctions on Russia, any EU action could be confined to verbal condemnation, which could also limit the scope of any Russian retaliation.

The UK has referred the Salisbury incident to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), to check Russian compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The involvement of the OPCW - an independent, multinational body - will internationalize the issue away from being a bilateral UK-Russia dispute. If the OPCW's findings concur with the UK's position that the Russian government was responsible, it could lead to demands for OPCW inspections of the Shikhany military research facility, where the chemical agent used in the Salisbury incident was believed to have been manufactured, to ensure Russian compliance with the CWC. If Russia refuses to cooperate with the OPCW, the issue could be referred to the UN general assembly - where Russia has no veto - or even the International Court of Justice. Either scenario could exacerbate tensions between Russia and the West and raise the prospect of calls for an expansion of international sanctions against Moscow. However, the OPCW has previously been criticized for its slowness and reluctance to risk becoming embroiled in diplomatic disputes, and any public judgment on Russian culpability could be delayed for several months. Any allegations that Russia is in noncompliance with the Convention could prompt bellicose rhetoric from Moscow, and a possible condemnation from members of the UN Security Council. Such actions could exacerbate anti-UK and anti-Western feelings in Russia but would still be unlikely to motivate widespread harassment of Westerners in the country.

On Russia's part, Moscow has said it will announce retaliatory expulsions of UK diplomats in the coming days. Confirmation of such measures could be delayed until the conclusion of the Russian presidential election March 18; in the meantime, any tough statements from the Kremlin relating to the Salisbury poisoning are likely to be aimed at generating public support for the re-election bid of President Putin, who is currently very likely to win the vote. A proportionate, tit-for-tat response could be as far as the diplomatic fallout goes in the immediate term. Nevertheless, other retaliatory sanctions are possible; Russia could prevent the England team from participating in the World Cup, for example, or formally place restrictions on the number of UK fans who can attend. However, it is unlikely that Moscow would wish to risk threatening the participation of other national teams in the competition due to the diplomatic support the UK is enjoying on the issue. However, "unofficial" measures, which could impact UK travelers' ability to visit Russia in the medium term, are possible. The temporary closure or cutting back of consular services, for example, could slow the issuance of visas in the UK, with Russian diplomats perhaps blaming the UK's expulsion of its diplomatic staff. Russian consular services outside the UK are likely to operate as normal.

Conclusion

The limited scope of any punitive action by the UK and its supporters will likely serve to restrain any official Russian retaliation, at least in the immediate term. The current heightened tensions could prompt minor demonstrations outside UK diplomatic facilities, though these are unlikely to lead to significant disruptions. UK visitors to Russia could experience additional, possibly obstructive, scrutiny from Russian security forces and customs officials in the medium term. UK nationals and citizens of countries perceived as supporting the UK's position could also face low-level verbal and official harassment, though this is very unlikely to translate into a physical threat.

Advice

Normal travel to Russia by UK nationals and citizens of countries perceived as siding with the UK's stance can continue with the following basic security precautions: 

  • Western citizens in Russia should maintain a low profile and not display overt signs of nationality.
  • UK citizens should allow additional time for processing if applying for Russian visas in the coming weeks; additional time may be necessary to clear customs.
  • Western citizens in Russia should remain vigilant at all times, particularly in the vicinity of Western diplomatic facilities or commercial premises. Avoid all demonstrations as a routine security precaution.
  • Western, and particularly UK nationals, should avoid open criticism of the Russian government while in-country, including on social media. Avoid political discussions where possible, and remain noncommittal when such conversations are unavoidable.
  • Western nationals should remain polite and nonconfrontational with security forces at all times.

 

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