By Agustin Ferrari Braun
As soon as traces of a nerve agent were found in the bodies of Sergueï and Yulia Skripal, the British government started a diplomatic confrontation against the Kremlin. Today, the British public is united in their condemnation of Russia and most of the members of the Atlantic Alliance have implemented measures against the Eastern power. But why was the government of Theresa May so keen on triggering a crisis? This article will examine the UK’s domestic and international positions, and the reasons why they have moved the way they have since the former spy was poisoned.
This article is also available in French.
On March 4th, Sergueï Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found in a catatonic state on a public bench in Salisbury; in their blood were traces of a powerful nerve agent. Through the 1990s and the 2000s, Skripal worked as a double agent for the United Kingdom in Russia, providing secret information to MI6. Therefore, the main suspect for this poisoning was the Kremlin. The British government, and in particular its foreign minister, Boris Johnson, answered with unusual expediency, immediately accusing Putin and therefore triggering an international crisis. But why would Theresa May be in need for a crisis at this very moment? Facing a lack of domestic consensus and a pressing need to reassess its geostrategic position in light of Brexit, the Conservative government needed to rally their people and their allies behind them, and the poisoning gave them an opportunity to do so.
Needing a “Falkland Moment”
The May premiership has been characterized, since its inception, by thorough self-doubt, lack of assertiveness and petty conflict within its own ranks. It was born from a surprise election aiming at obliterating the Labour party and providing the Tories with total control over the parliament. However, surprisingly, it ended up being a pyrrhic victory in which they lost their majority in the house and had to strike a deal with the Northern Irish far-right, the DUP, in order to remain in power.
Theresa May has struggled with her position as leader. She is notoriously bad at public speaking, was largely unknown to the large public despite holding a senior position in the previous cabinet and struggles to keep internal order in her cabinet. Moreover, she never had a clear position on Brexit. Therefore, since her victory, political heavyweights in her cabinet, including key figures of the Leave campaign such as Boris Johnson or Michael Gove, and other senior politicians like Amber Rudd, have continuously challenged and questioned her leadership and position as leader of the country. The result of this petty infighting has been nine months of backstabbing, inner conflict and a general failure to present a coherent and stable government that can close ranks.
An additional problem is that the Conservative party is dramatically failing at drawing in new faces. Brexit remains a ticking time bomb and nobody wants to be too close when it explodes. There is a largely implicit consensus among Tory MPs that being associated with the negotiations in any way can seriously hinder any future bid to leadership. This has enabled the rise of some bizarre figures amongst the Conservative ranks, the most obvious one being Jacob Rees-Mogg. Rees-Mogg, a millionaire and ultraconservative etonian, is very close to being the quintessential parody of a Tory politician. The very fact that he is now an important face in British politics proves the extent to which this government is failing at mobilizing the backbenchers.
On the other side of Parliament, Jeremy Corbyn has steered Labour away from Blairism after years of internal struggle. A key feature of this radical change was Corbyn’s surprising electoral appeal, and his ongoing popularity, consistently reinforced by the Tories’ failures to undermine him. A perfect demonstration of this took place a couple of weeks ago, when a group of senior Tory politicians accused the Labour leader of having been a socialist spy during the Cold War, an accusation so flimsy that it collapsed after a couple of days, and helped the Labour leader win some points in the polls. Between this rise of Labour and the internal struggles of the Conservative party, the British political landscape, after years of stagnation, is becoming more and more competitive and divided, which presents a sizable issue to the Tories who have been ruling the country for the past eight years.
Moreover, aside from electoral politics, May is ruling over a country going through a deep social crisis. The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower has given a new dramatic tone to the housing crisis that has been plaguing the country for years. Labour has already presented several plans to tackle this crisis, including a project to change the law in order to force landowners to sell land to the state at cheap prices in order to build council housing. Surprisingly, senior conservative members acknowledged that such measures had to be taken.
Likewise, years of austerity have brought the British public sector to a state of near collapse. Despite decades of privatisations managed by both conservatives and labour, the British public still thinks that the government should run the health and educational system. This large consensus is starting to be a major problem for the government. But the tide is perhaps starting to turn. The deal with the DUP involved heavy investments in public infrastructure which revealed that there was still money available for those services. Likewise, in his spring statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer has promised that 2020 will mark the end of austerity and that more spending in the NHS is to be expected. Those promises are more than likely to be shallow, but they do show an awareness on the part of the Conservative leaders that the social fractures caused by austerity are so damaging that they are starting to undermine their leading position.
Evidently, Theresa May was in dire need of a “Falkland moment”, an international conflict proving to the British public that the island still has enemies abroad, and that the only way to confront them is through unity between the people and its government. Short of a war, the attempted poisoning of a double agent working for the Russians and the British awakens the memories of the Cold War, and is undoubtedly appealing to the country that gave birth to both Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.
In the homeland, the Skripal case was a victory from the outset. Since the first days, the British public at large has seen the attempted assassination as a potential act of war and largely viewed May’s sanctions as the correct course of action. In fact, a substantial amount of people believe that these sanctions weren’t sufficient in light of the gravity of the events. In the British context, Boris Johnson’s comparison of Putin to Hitler makes perfect sense. Moreover, Jeremy Corbyn has failed at providing an assertive answer, which has angered a considerable part of the electorate and weaken his already delicate reputation on international affairs.
Finding one’s place in the world
It was hard to tell from the beginning if the British strategy was going to pay out internationally, but in fact it has done so spectacularly. Over a hundred Russian diplomats have been expelled from NATO members countries, in a very rare display of Western cohesion. However, going back slightly, there is strong evidence that when the crisis exploded it was very likely that the whole affair would remain a matter of electoral politics and never truly leave the island.
The main reason for believing this was that very strong links remain between the Tories and the Russian elites. Russian donors have given 3 million pounds to the party since 2010, of which 826.000 have been received since last July. Similarly, some senior figures such as the Chancellor or the former leader of the Scottish branch have strong ties to pro-Kremlin groups. This relationship worries some people in the party, but their voices are not truly heard. In fact, shortly after the crisis began, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, declared that the donations were legal and therefore would be kept by the party.
These donations can be understood as part of a wider strategy embraced by the Russian elite to make the UK its base in Europe due to the welcoming tax regime of the City of London. The quantity of Russian wealth floating around in the capital is immense, and oligarchs (many of whom have their children enrolled in the best boarding schools in the United Kingdom) have a word to say in most elite British institutions one can buy its way in. This has prompted Anne Applebaum to argue that the Kremlin does not see Britain as a threat because it thinks that it has bought it.
It would certainly seem that the markets, and Britain’s allies shared this view. While May was preparing the packet of sanctions against Putin, Russia sold $7bn of eurobonds. UK-based investors were the main buyers, taking almost half of the 2047 eurobonds, and more than 20 % of the 2029 ones. This display of trust tells us that the investors are aware of the recent strength of the Eastern power in the international markets and didn’t think that the verbal and diplomatic opposition of London will damage its position. In fact, as the think tank Chatham House pointed out, the measures taken by the British government were deliberately aimed at avoiding impairing the British financial and legal services provided to Russians[note]At the moment this article is being finished some sanctions are starting to be discussed, such as reviewing the 700 investor visas given to Russian nationals and banning the City from selling Russian debt, which show the escalation of the crisis. These potential sanctions seem to support our argument: despite the initial trust of the markets, Downing St. is willing to trump financial gains for a stronger geopolitical position.[/note].
Initially, Britain’s allies also got involved in the crisis half-heartedly. In early March Germany didn’t go further than condemning the attack, Emmanuel Macron said he would wait for further evidence before pronouncing himself on the question, and Donald Trump’s most important action on the matter was firing his secretary of state after he openly condemned Russia. However, by March 24th May had persuaded the European Union to issue a joint statement condemning the alleged Russian involvement in the attempted assassination of Skripol, and 10 member states decided to expel Russian diplomats. Among them France was the most important, but Estonia, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania took similar measures. By the 27th, the matter had moved from the EU to NATO, with widespread expulsions of Russian staff from the military mission and 20 of its member states. Therefore, this crisis has been a thorough success for May.
The United Kingdom needs to reassert its position in the world in a post-Brexit context. Evidently, the Brussels negotiations are not looking particularly good for Great Britain. There isn’t any clear sign that the rebirth of the Commonwealth as a trade hub, which was one of the key promises of the Leave campaign, will take place any time soon, and Trump, who was a big supporter of Brexit, has not been particularly helpful to London either. His visit in January over the inauguration of the new American embassy was cancelled out of fear of the mass protests it could trigger, and the British priority over trade deals has not been effective so far. May’s premiership was born under the sign of the referendum; she had to take care of the geo-strategic positioning of the country, and she has not managed to decide on any consistent foreign policy that could provide any certainty to its present or potential allies.
At the same time, Russia is becoming stronger through its energy policy, which is worrisome for a number of international actors. In the last years Gazprom has managed to establish itself as the leading provider of gas to Europe. While Poland, Lithuania and other Eastern states are opening their markets to other providers, Western Europe is effectively moving towards a Russian monopoly of their gas. Last year, Gazprom increased its importations by 8.1 % and Germany granted the company permission to build its third pipeline in Europe through its territorial waters, the Nord Stream 2, in which some have seen a submission of Brussels to Moscow.
A number of people in the United States are not pleased at all with EU’s choices on matters of energy. On March 20th, the State Department declared that the government was against the project after a bipartisan group of 39 senators opposed it in a letter. Despite Trump’s lack of engagement with the matter, it is clear that some key sectors in American politics see the pipeline as a threat. This action of the Trump administration has shown the extent of the power of the political establishment over the process of policy-making in Washington.
Unlike their president, the American establishment is deeply committed to the values of Atlantism. Trump’s sympathies for Russia are hard to swallow for many people in Washington that continue to see the Kremlin as one of the key enemies of the United States. At the same time, as previously stated, Trump has not been a particularly helpful ally for London. It therefore makes sense for the UK to bypass him and try to build a more meaningful relationship with the establishment which, even if it doesn’t get control over the White House in two years time, will still be calling many of the shots in the foreseeable future.
On the European front, the UK is also managing to reach some long yearned for international victories. London’s position in Brussels might be weak, but it still can play power games within the Union. The Franco-German couple, the main power holders of the EU, is going through a period of restructuration. On the one hand, Brexit means that a new financial leader needs to arise now that London’s City is out of the game. This position is contested by Frankfurt and Paris, with the former being ahead according to the latest news. On the other hand, however, Emmanuel Macron has managed to obtain large support for his openly Europhile positions while Angela Merkel’s last term in office was secured through a wobbly coalition. Macron will take advantage of this position to forward France’s bid to European leadership and, as Merkel’s last visit to the Elysée could indicate, he might be succeeding. At the same time, both countries are key for the Brexit negotiations and neither of them have been particularly helpful to London. The Franco German axis does not need an international conflict between the EU and another power; London can use it to gather continental support in a field that is not linked to the decision to leave the EU.
Southern Europe is happy to avoid conflict with Russia as most states (in particular Italy and Greece) have managed to build a comfortable relationship with Putin. However, the Eastern states are very worried about the imperial aspirations of the Kremlin. Those states used to be soviet satellites, and most of their modern political history can be understood in terms of frontal opposition to Russia. Their fears have been increasing exponentially, particularly since the 2014 Ukrainian conflict, and they are determined to use their power to avoid their powerful neighbor reinforcing its influence in Brussels. Nonetheless, their voices seem to have little influence over the Brussels-Moscow relationship. For instance, in mid-March, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Estonia released an official statement condemning the construction of the Nord Stream 2 but the coverage of it was extremely limited. Nonetheless, if Britain throws its weight behind their claims as part of its strategy to attack Moscow, then their perspective is much more likely to be heard internationally. Therefore it is in the best interest of both parties come together against Russia.
Opposing Russia is, therefore, a good strategy for the UK internationally. It shows powerful sectors in Washington that they share similar views, creates a conflict between the West and Russia in a moment in which France and Germany are not particularly keen for it and puts London in good terms with Eastern states who have their say in the negotiations of Brexit. Downing Street has managed to secure a good position in Europe on a matter that has nothing to do with Brexit. It is hard to doubt that May’s government is going to do all that is in its power to preserve and increase that power.
During his time as a double agent, Sergei Skripal served the interests of Her Majesty well; his poisoning serves them even more efficiently. Since the American election, the Cold War narrative has been overflying Eurasia: Britain has found a way to make it explicit and force everybody to go along with it. At home, May has finally managed to gather support from her people. Abroad, London has forced its allies to follow its line. For the first time since the referendum, the United Kingdom holds a strong position in Eurasian geopolitics. How it is going to make use of this position remains to be seen.
Reviewed and edited by GEG-Nordiques (L.S., P.S.)