Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi
A simmering conflict is brewing between a post Brexit United Kingdom and a post Cold War resurgent Russia as Britain’s Premier Theresa May has expelled 23 Russian diplomats last Wednesday over the poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil, raising tension between the two countries to a degree not seen since the height of the Cold War. Mrs Theresa’s statement to Parliament came after Moscow rejected a British deadline for Russia to explain itself over this month’s attack on the former spy, Sergei V Skripal, and his daughter. Prime Minister Theresa May said the UK is kicking out 23 Russian diplomats, its single biggest expulsion in more than three decades, and described Moscow as showing complete disdain for the gravity of the use of a nerve agent on British soil. The two countries have engaged in a worsening clash in recent days, with Britain widening an investigation into the incident and courting friends and allies to increase pressure on Russia, while Moscow has threatened to retaliate over any punitive action.
Theresa May’s assertion that it is highly likely the Russian state has committed an act of aggression by poisoning the double agent Sergei Skripal plunges Anglo-Russian relations into their worst state since the cruise missile crisis in the 1980s. The prime minister knows that she will have to go further than her response as home secretary to the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko – some assets frozen, an end to intelligence cooperation and the expulsion of a number of Russian diplomats. Addressing the UN Security Council, Britain’s deputy UN ambassador, Jonathan Allen, accused Russia of breaking its obligations under the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. In response the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, denied Moscow’s involvement in the attack and demanded “material proof” from Britain to support its charge. He said: “We were given an ultimatum and requested in 24 hours to admit that we committed a crime. In other words, confess. “We do not speak the language of ultimatums. We do not use that language with anyone. And we will not allow to be spoken to in that language either.’’
Among the EU Member States, the UK has some of the most difficult relations with Russia. The inquiry into the death of Alexandr Litivinenko, launched by the Home Secretary in July 2014 and expected to conclude at the end of 2015, will continue to cast a shadow over the relationship. As one country, Britain’s role in relation to Russia is limited. It is in international fora – the UN, the EU and NATO – that its contribution Alexandr Litivinenko, launched by the Home Secretary in July 2014 and expected to conclude at the end of 2015 will be more significant.
The previous Government took a relatively tough line in discussions with EU partners on sanctions over Ukraine, and in formulating the NATO response to increasing tension. The most immediate question may be over the endurance of the present coalition of EU Member States in favour of tough sanctions over Ukraine. If more conflict does break out, the security threat posed by Russia is likely to be a significant factor in discussions about the UK’s defence expenditure and policy, and its membership of the EU. However, recent moves such as the active monitoring of Russian vessels nearing British waters could be seen as a sign of mistrust from the UK and, even worse, aggression from the Russia Federation. The UK, being a NATO member, is currently following a directive from NATO concerning the maintenance of open lines of communication in the Atlantic Ocean.
The UK responsibilities under NATO coupled with a warning from the head of the British military on the increasing upsurge of Russian submarine activity close to the Internet data cables linking the North American continent with Europe could potentially worsen UK-Russia relations. While Looking at the 2016 Russian Foreign Policy concept paper, one finds that Russia has deemed the UK as no longer deserving the title of a Russian partner which comes in contrast with the 2014 Foreign Policy concept paper that states the opposite. Alternatively, in the 2016 version. France, Italy, Germany and other ‘European’ states are still being considered.
Put historically, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the UK and Russia have a long history of interactions, both positive and negative. They have situated themselves on the same side of the geopolitical spectrum when opposing the expansionary tendencies of Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century and Adolf Hitler in mid-20th century. Contrastingly, the UK and Russia have been on opposing camps during the Crimean War. Though the issue can be tackled under the Chemical weapons Treaty, the British analysts think the United Kingdom has been an interesting target for Russian espionage because of London’s close relationship with Washington and because of the large number of wealthy Russians who spend time in the United Kingdom .
And yet not surprisingly, the Russian strategists view that British diplomacy still represents an orthodox power house in their thinking borrowed from a Cold war hegemonic US-UK legacy to dominate the world. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Reuters “we will, of course” expel British diplomats in retaliation. Russia has refused Britain’s demands to explain how the nerve agent Novichok, developed by the Soviet military, was used to strike down Mr Skripal and his daughter. As for energy consumption expediencies, the United Kingdom will not be under the same amount of political pressure as countries in Central and Eastern Europe are since it is less dependent on Russian natural gas. Russia’s ambassador to Britain Alexander Yakovenko claimed the UK had angled allegations against Russia to “divert attention from Brexit”.
— The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-analyst based in Karachi, is a member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies.