After days of hysteria and of mounting speculation, and after having stoked up by her statement on Monday expectations of stern action against Russia to stratospheric levels, Theresa May produced a package of ‘sanctions’ today which do no more than expose the weakness of Britain’s hand.
This is how the BBC describes them
- The expulsion of 23 diplomats – who have one week to leave
- Increased checks on private flights, customs and freight
- The freezing of Russian state assets where there is evidence they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents
- Ministers and Royal Family to boycott the Fifa World Cup in Russia later this year
- The suspension of all planned high level bi-lateral contacts between the UK and Russia
Note that none of these sanctions include any of the supposedly draconian steps which have been spoken about over the last few days.
Theresa May for example appeared to rule out a blanket visa ban and sweeping asset freezes on wealthy Russians coming to London. It is clear that ideas for a boycott by the England team of the World Cup in Russia and for the complete severing of diplomatic relations with Russia have been abandoned if they were ever considered.
Reports in the media have also confirmed that the idea of launching a cyber attack against Russia has been ruled out, since the British quietly acknowledge that Russia has immeasurably greater cyber resources with which to retaliate than Britain does.
As to whether or not Ofcom will now strip RT of its broadcasting licence, Maria Zakharova’s threat to expel all British media outlets from Russia is having a chilling effect, with the British media apparently now quietly lobbying the British government against doing it.
By way of example, The Times of London, the newspaper which has been leading the British media’s offensive against RT, now has this to say, tucked away at the bottom of a meandering editorial with the woolly and meaningless headline ‘An Unstable World’
The Kremlin has threatened to expel British journalists from Moscow should London shut down the Russian propaganda channel RT. That would be ill advised. Britain stands for nothing if not free speech. Mrs May should stick to the evidence in the Skripal case, identifying the culprits and bringing maximum international force to bear to punish them personally.
It is interesting to see how the British media suddenly discovers free speech also applies to Russian media when its own interests are threatened.
It is still possible that Ofcom may follow up on its threats against RT, but that is now looking rather less likely.
As for the measures Theresa May announced today not only will they not affect Russia in the slightest, but they are actually counterproductive.
The Russians are sure to respond to the British expulsion of Russian diplomats from London by expelling a comparable number of British diplomats from Moscow.
Since Russia is by far the more powerful country, it is the British who need to maintain a strong diplomatic presence in Moscow to retain relevance. By contrast Russia, as a Great Power, has no need to maintain a strong diplomatic presence in Britain, which is nowadays a second or even third rank power.
The reciprocal expulsions which are now going to happen will not therefore affect Russia’s position as a Great Power in the slightest. They will however further marginalise the British in international diplomacy.
The same is true of the British decision to sever bilateral contacts with Russia.
Apart from Boris Johnson’s recent ill-starred to Moscow, there have in fact been barely any bilateral contacts between the Russian and British governments for years, even though it is again Britain as the weaker country which needs these contacts in order to retain relevance, not Russia.
As it happens I expect the Russians to greet the news that they are going to be spared further meetings with Boris Johnson with a quiet sigh of relief.
As for Boris Johnson himself, how he hopes to cut an important figure in international diplomacy when he is now prevented from visiting Moscow – the capital of one of the world’s Great Powers – by his own government, completely escapes me. The reality is that no one takes him seriously anyway.
The reciprocal expulsions of diplomats will of course also make it more difficult for the British to maintain their intelligence operation in Moscow.
Since this appears to be rather extensive, and seems to involve far more ‘democracy promotion’ activity (ie. meddling in Russian domestic politics) than anything the Russians do in Britain, the Russians will probably also be quietly pleased about it.
Not surprisingly there have been media reports that the British intelligence community actually lobbied against large scale expulsions. It is not difficult to see why, with her locker largely empty there was little else Theresa May could do.
As for the non-attendance of British government ministers and members of the Royal Family at the World Cup, I doubt anyone would have noticed their presence there anyway. Certainly the Russians won’t be bothered if they don’t come. I doubt anyone else will care much either.
As for the threat to seize Russian state assets in Britain “where there is evidence they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents” that may sound ominous, but note that no actual seizures of Russian state assets were announced, and given that such seizures would almost certainly be contrary to international law and would undoubtedly provoke retaliatory action from Russia, I doubt they will happen.
In summary, Theresa May today looks like a conjuror who following a lengthy drum roll discovered she was holding an empty hat.
It is possible that the British may lobby for further action from their allies, and that more such action may come, but frankly I think the prospects of any significant action being taken against Russia by the Western allies at an international level are small.
Note for example the carefully worded readout the White House has provided of Donald Trump’s conversation with Theresa May
President Donald J. Trump spoke today with Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom. They discussed the United Kingdom’s investigation into the chemical weapon attack on a private citizen and his daughter on British soil. President Trump stated the United States stands in solidarity with its closest ally and is ready to provide any assistance the United Kingdom requests for its investigation. President Trump agreed with Prime Minister May that the Government of the Russian Federation must provide unambiguous answers regarding how this chemical weapon, developed in Russia, came to be used in the United Kingdom. The two leaders agreed on the need for consequences for those who use these heinous weapons in flagrant violation of international norms.
(bold italics added)
Contrary to what some reports in the British media were saying yesterday, it seems that the only assistance Donald Trump actually offered to Theresa May was assistance with the conduct of the investigation into the Skripal attack itself. There is no word here of help with action against Russia.
Theresa May did announce some other measures, which do not specifically target Russia. The Guardian describes them as follows
- The government will enact a new targeted power to detain people suspected of hostile state activity at borders. This power was previously limited to suspected terrorists.
- The government will look at whether new counter-espionage powers are needed
Britain already has sweeping anti-terrorism and counter-espionage laws, and there is concern that they are already being used in an increasingly arbitrary way. Beefing them up further should invite concern because of the threat to the rights of private individuals, not Russia..
Lastly, on the subject of the Skripal attack itself, the “increased checks on private flights, customs and freight” I take that as further proof that the British authorities do not know how the chemical which was used to attack Skripal was brought into Britain.
Of course based on the information about the investigation which has been released up to now there is also the possibility that the chemical used was produced in Britain. No one in authority in Britain – least of all Theresa May – is however going to say that.
In conclusion, Theresa May has done what she habitually does: take what appears to be an exceptionally strong stand, and then fail to act on it.
It will probably take some time for this to sink in in Britain itself, but eventually it is bound to do so, and when it does that will only damage her already tattered authority further.
In truth the British were reckless and foolish to enter into a confrontation on the flimsiest of evidence against Russia, a country far more powerful than themselves.
The package of measures Theresa May announced today simply highlights that fact.