12 Mar 2018

What are Theresa May’s options in response to Salisbury poisoning?

Theresa May has gone to the top end of the diplomatic lexicon to condemn the attack on a Russian spy and his daughter. The Prime Minister said it constituted an “unlawful use of force” and “more extensive measures” would follow.

The Russian government has been given until tomorrow night to explain how a nerve agent known to be developed by the Russian military came to be deployed in Salisbury.

The National Security Council will consider any response from Russia on Wednesday morning. Mrs May will then make another statement to the Commons. First indications of the Russian response – mocking the UK version of events as a “fairy tale” – suggest there will not be much engagement from Moscow. The PM will then have to spell out her planned response. Matching today’s strong language will be difficult.

Mrs May will want to extend financial and travel sanctions against Russia and individuals in the SVR and the Kremlin. But for those to bite you need cooperation and recent history teaches us that the convoy can move slower than some would like in the EU on matters like this.

Expelling diplomats in what quickly and regularly turns into a tit for tat exercise is something that exasperates seasoned diplomats. “Necessary but pointless theatre,” one old FCO hand said. Sources say that Mrs May would be reluctant to end diplomatic relations altogether. The UK is regarded as a useful ally understanding elements of Russia that other “5 eyes” allies aren’t so good at. You get a flavour of that in this New Yorker article.

What Mrs May would probably dearly love to do is to “out” Vladimir Putin’s personal wealth. That could prove difficult and risks exposing the weakness of the West.

Mrs May’s use of the term “unlawful use of force” has made some wonder if she might attempt to to refer Russia to the International Criminal Court, though she would need evidence of Kremlin involvement that would stand up in court. Russia would veto a motion trying to do this at the UN Security Council but the whole process could be an embarrassment. At least that’s what she could hope.

As Jeremy Corbyn responded, I watched several Labour MPs sitting behind him shake their heads. Mr Corbyn quickly turned his attack on the Tories for accepting money from donors of Russian origin and suggested that cuts in public services might be affecting police and NHS response rates in Salisbury. Tories jeered “disgrace” and “shame.”

Later on, Chris Leslie got a stare from his party leader when Jeremy Corbyn took offence at Mr Leslie’s criticism of a “party political response” to the Salisbury attack as “just not appropriate.” Labour’s deepest fissures over the years have often been on foreign policy matters and defence issues.

Today meant the gulf between Jeremy Corbyn and many of his backbenchers resurfaced. MPs will have another moment to judge his response and the governments when Theresa May is expected to return to brief the Commons on Wednesday.

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