5 Sep 2018

Salisbury poisoning: what can the Government do to punish Russia?

With spy film forensic detail, the Prime Minister outlined today the government’s exact allegations about the Salisbury novichok poisoning, providing routes and tactics of two Russian GRU (military intelligence) officers who she said came to the UK intending to kill a Russian defector.

No. 10 said that the it was “almost certainly” authorised at the top of the Russian state and signalled that, having dismantled the Russian intelligence network in the UK by expelling 24 agents in March, it would now be upping its efforts to disrupt their effectiveness by other means. Whitehall is being very guarded about what that means.

In practice it means more of what we just saw splashed across screens and websites today: exposing the trade craft of the GRU in CCTV technicolour. Agencies often sit on that sort of thing. The UK will also now be sharing with a spray can any information it can about the GRU with allies.

By law, the government can’t get into the business of cyber attacks to disrupt the GRU work unless they can prove to government lawyers that it is necessary, proportionate and to a specific point. And Whitehall will be acutely aware that Russia might happily retaliate asymmetrically. We could close down their trade mission and they could close down our NHS.

The Prime Minister kept things opaque in her statement to the Commons, talking about deploying the full range of national security measures. Much of that will be covert activity but the government will start the “soft power” push at the United Nations tomorrow. There will be attempts to get more action against President Putin’s oligarch allies, attempts to get more sanctions.

The latter moves slowly and the EU is a divided force on Russia with some countries trying to relax existing sanctions, not tighten them further right now.

Some say the initial work in March to get international support for diplomat/spy expulsions was tougher than it sometimes looked from the outside. President Trump told Theresa May he would only move when the EU had moved. Getting Germany to act required work on the Baltic states and then the French.

Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman said any responses should be proportionate and evidence-based. Mr Corbyn had a security briefing this morning from officials which doesn’t appear to have gone into “next steps” but did manage to convince him that the Russian state itself was responsible for the attacks in Salisbury and the Russian state should be condemned.

That’s some distance from Mr Corbyn’s very first reaction to the attacks back in March when he appeared to share his doubts about intelligence-led political statements. His spokesman cited the failings of the WMD dossier in the Iraq war. Mr Corbyn said samples of the nerve agent involved should be sent to the Russian government so they could help to identify it. Some of his own MPs were exasperated. Today some of them relived that anger but Mr Corbyn’s position has moved on – changed, his spokesman argued, by hard evidence.

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