The attempted murder of an exchanged Russian former agent in Wiltshire using a nerve agent particular to Russia, is one of the most dramatic recent provocations from the Russian Federation, which gives a clear indication of Russia’s Strategic intent.
The attack was against a double agent who would have virtually no practical or symbolic value to anyone, using a method so specific that it could only have come from the former Soviet Union. The Russians have not even mounted a vigorous defence, they have simply dismissed the claims with contempt.
What does this mean:
The attack can be seen as another phase in Russia’s campaign of Hybrid warfare against its enemies and rivals, much like the Russian operation in Crimea, the influence operation against the US elections and against other European elections.
This was clearly a strategic operation designed to have a strategic effect that can be specifically tied to Brexit and a reshaping of the post US/ UK era.
Brexit is the final stage of a series of crises from the Eurozone financial crises, to the wave of illegal migrants that have exposed divisions in the European Union, putting the 3 great powers of Europe, UK, France and Germany in competition.
Brexit has also ruptured Britain’s internal unity, within the Cabinet, political parties and the population at large. It threatens to fracture the Kingdom, giving Scottish independence a second wind and apparently achieving for Northern Irish nationalists what 38 years of armed struggle could not.
As Russia comes up to a general election it struggles with a moribund economy, a vocal if impotent opposition and several frozen conflicts in Syria, Ukraine an Islamic insurgency in the Caucasus and other conflicts in her near abroad.
In this context this crisis can be seen as an unparalleled opportunity to generate internal popular support, rupture European unity, and the US/ UK special relationship.
Within the EU, the effect on national economies of sanctions on Russia, the dependence on Russian gas have dampened the enthusiasm for further actions on Russia. The UK has lost its leadership role due to the fractious Brexit debate but even prior to that massive defence cuts have weakened the elements of the British Armed Forces that actually concern Russia and have allowed it to have credibility on the continent. The UKs enthusiastic welcome to Russian individuals and money of dubious extraction whilst at the same time engaging Russia with sanctions means the UK is vulnerable to a loss of a huge amount of funds and business as well as accusations of hypocrisy.
The US is struggling with its internal divisions generated by the 2016 elections. President Trumps inexperienced administration has generated a huge amount of controversy and is vulnerable to accusations of collaborating with Russia to win the election. The allegations of kompromat have done almost as good a job as any actual kompromat would have, leaving the US with an incoherent and disjointed foreign policy.
The attempted murder of a Russian dissident in such an obvious manner is propaganda of the deed in extremis, a clear message to allies and opponents of Russia of their resolve and capabilities. The fact that it was so public and obvious shows Russia has the means to reach its enemy’s and does not fear the consequences. Equally important is the reaction of the UK; such a public attack is the equivalent of shooting a few bullets in the direction of your enemy to make him respond. Britain’s credibility and ability to project power post Brexit depends on her response and how much support is given by friends and allies, a form of strategic reconnaissance by force.
Taking all these into account Russia’s alleged actions can be considered to have 4 key objectives, generate popular support within Russia, demonstrate Britain’s weakness, separate Britain from the EU and separate Britain from the US.
Russian dissidents and exiles have died in the UK in much more conventional yet suspicious circumstances with a fairly tepid response from the UK. Litvinenko’s public enquiry was actively resisted by the current Prime Minister as Home Secretary. Britain’s greed for Russian oligarch money makes the UK corrupt and vulnerable in Russian eyes. The continuous denuding of Britain’s armed forces as well as the strategic defeats and operational challenges of UK Armed Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq also demonstrate weakness in Russia’s eyes. Brexit thus constitutes the final element of this decline, in that Britain’s ability to have an influence on the EU will end in 2019, whilst the bad blood from the negotiations will likely poison bilateral relations. Britain’s influence in NATO is likewise denuded by its falling military strength. A public humiliation such as this demonstrates Britain’s weakness to its leadership but to its population, further fomenting internal upheaval.
Britain and the EU:
Britain is already separating from the EU and is doing a fairly good job of alienating European partners by itself, making the task of creating and coordinating a unified response to Russian provocations difficult. This again demonstrates Britain’s weakness but also serves as a warning to other European powers that actions against Russia will most likely not be supported by their peers. The sanctions regime is unpopular in many European countries due to the effect on trade and energy supplies, the hope is that after Putin’s re-election he will have the flexibility to make certain concessions, giving European powers the excuse to relax sanctions. It is possible the Russians calculate this action will deter the hardliners such as Germany and Poland and neutralise the waverers.
Britain and the US
Britain’s special relationship has deteriorated from the heady highs of World War 2. British support for the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were meant to rekindle this relationship however, poor operational outcomes and British defence cuts have removed much of the lustre. It is a relationship that subsists mostly on nostalgia, with the US finding a more ready partner in France and other local powers around the globe.
With the advent of the Trump Presidency and the turmoil within US politics and government, the certainties of the rule and treaty based system the US developed post World War 2 has been disrupted. President Trumps insecurity due to his inexperience and personality, legacies of his personal and business life as well as the determined and inexorable fight back by US institutions, most notably represented by the Mueller investigation.
In this setting Trumps inclination will be to do what ever makes him look the most positive to his base. Whilst a strong response to any Russian provocation would be popular, it also damages his narrative of being the person who will restore positive relations with Russia. Trumps unpopularity in Britain also means he is temperamentally less inclined to lend support. Tepid or non-existent support would be devastating to the UK, removing one of the key planks of its post World War 2 strategic assumptions, that the US would provide military and diplomatic support to the UK at all times. The sacking of Rex Tillerson who understood these strategic paradigms and his replacement with a Trump loyalist may have been pre planned but is exceptionally ill timed and serves the narrative of a pro Russia Trump.
Britain is in a bind. Even if the UK had the will (which it doesn’t) or the means (which it doesn’t) to pay Russia back in its own coin with assassinations or attacks, Russia has a clear advantage in skills, motivation and assets to be able to sustain a war of attrition longer than Britain. If the UK responded with other non kinetic effects such as cyber attacks etc, Russia again has a developed state and affiliated non state capability. Britain can react with more sanctions but without the support of Europe and the US it has little hope of getting buy in from the rest of the world or enforcing them. It can expel diplomats but this tired formula will simply see British diplomats expelled. It can boycott the world cup jeopardising contracts and ruining English fans chance of seeing their team knocked out in the 2nd round.
The only actions the UK can take that will have an effect would be a comprehensive use of anti money laundering tools and asset seizures for Russian individuals and businesses. Targeting Putin’s inner circle and slowly expanding outwards would send a clear message but that would have to be balanced by the destabilising effect, that the flight of Russian capital flight would have one the just about managing economy, which is bracing itself for Brexit. It would also affect Putins opponents as well as his cronies, neither of which action is problematic for Putin as reducing the wealth of some of his allies, reduces the possibility of them turning on him.
But the most important factor is whatever response the UK decides on, will fit into Russia’s narrative of Western plots and conspiracies to undermine the country in general and the upcoming election in particular. A weak British response allows Putin to demonstrate to his people that he was able to interfere in America and humiliate Britain without consequence. A robust British response allows Putin to retaliate in kind and reinforce the narrative of perfidious Western interference and conspiracies.
This is another well planned and executed Russian influence operation, projecting an image of Russian, skill, strength and omnipotent reach.
Like the US election influence operation, the short term effects are beneficial to Russia and help their central narrative. The long term effects are less clear, it is entirely possible the EU will rally around Britain separating defence and security from the Brexit debate, strengthening the alliance, the push back from the US legislative and Republican Party could force robust action from the US. It could even give Trump an excuse to implement the stronger measures from Congress as it does not feed into the Russian collusion narrative.
In the short term however, this is Putins world and the rest of the world is merely visiting.