Russian spy attack offers a glimpse of Britain’s future place in the world

We all stand together: Boris Johnson and Jens Stoltenberg. EPA/Olivier Hoslet

Not long after the UK Government began negotiating its departure from the EU, I wrote that Brexit will not only transform the UK’s relationship with its European neighbours; it’ll also unleash processes that could have tremendous negative security implications. Extricating the UK from the EU is already devouring a tremendous amount of political, diplomatic and economic capital that could be better spent mitigating the serious security challenges that Europe faces, not least from Russia. Clearly, the UK’s future place in both Europe and the world needs to be clarified, and fast.

And now comes an early indication of what that future might look like: the recent attempted murder of a former Russian double agent and his daughter on British soil, and the tellingly coherent responses to the attack from the rest of the world.

On March 14, NATO’s North Atlantic Council offered a statement noting that the UK “confirmed the use of a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia and briefed Allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible”. On March 15, France, Germany, the US and the UK also offered a joint statement reading that “this use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War” and that the four countries “share the UK assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation”.

And on March 19, the EU announced it was “shocked at the offensive use of any military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, for the first time on European soil in over 70 years” and that the EU “takes extremely seriously the UK government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible”.

What do these three statements tell us? First, that the powers concerned are coordinating very closely on very precise details. Note that the phrase “of a type developed by Russia” appears in all three. It was also deployed by the UK at the UN Security Council and by Theresa May herself when she addressed parliament. This slightly slippery formulation has led some commentators to call it a “Whitehall compromise”, and argue that “Porton Down is still not certain it is the Russians who have apparently synthesised a ‘Novichok’” – hence the formulation “of a type developed by Russia”, rather than “made”, “produced” or “manufactured” by Russia.

While the three statements do differ marginally on some points, they are all strong proclamations of solidarity with the UK. Even Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s representative in the Brexit negotiations, tweeted that “the Russian attack on Britain must be discussed by EU leaders at the summit next week. We need a common European response to this outrage”.

Pushing back

So far, what concrete actions have been taken have come mostly from Britain itself. The UK has expelled 23 Russian diplomats and taken various other symbolic and cautionary measures. It also invited the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to send a team to take a sample of the agent used, and a team has now arrived in the UK to “independently verify the analysis carried out by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down”. But the OPCW will only be testing to verify the type of nerve agent used; it will not be making an accusation regarding blame or attribution.

So what does all this mean for NATO and wider global diplomacy? The UK has said it will consider further steps “in the coming days, alongside our allies and partners”, although Downing Street has not thus far suggested triggering the NATO treaty’s Article 5, which would declare this an attack on all NATO allies.

Investigation underway. EPA/Andy Rain

At a press conference with Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg reiterated that the Salisbury attack fit a pattern of continued irresponsible Russian behaviour. Stoltenberg noted that beyond the strong political support from the UK’s other 28 allies, NATO has also extended an offer to help the UK’s investigation. This comes as the alliance dials up its military capability on its eastern flank and implores its members to spend more on defence – all supposedly in response to Russia’s persistent unsettling behaviour.

On the very same day, David Davis, the UK’s secretary of state for exiting the European Union, was attending negotiations in Brussels. At a press conference with his EU counterpart Michel Barnier, Davis noted that “as recent events demonstrate, close cooperation with allies is central to standing up for a rules-based international order”. He also announced that as far defence and security is concerned, he wants to see the UK have a more robust relationship with the EU than any other third country – and to establish it as soon as possible.

Pulling together

For all the UK has received verbal support from allies, concrete multilateral actions against Russia are another matter entirely. Much will depend on the findings of the OPCW investigation, which has quite a task on its hands. The UK may yet convince NATO and EU partners to support additional measures or sanctions if the OPCW’s tests corroborate Porton Down’s. But as for passing a motion at the OPCW that explicitly points the finger at Russia, the UK would have to rally a two-thirds majority of that organisation’s 192 members. And that Russia holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a diplomatic coup at that level is pure fantasy.

In terms of the EU, the Brexit process will not make this any easier even if this case should crystallise their security interdependence. Before the UK referendum on Brexit, Tim Oliver noted that the UK’s departure from the EU may lead to a multi-polar Europe with Britain, Russia and Turkey surrounding the EU raising the possibility of Europe becoming a contested space between the US and Asian powers.

That contest seems to have begun earlier than Oliver may have imagined. The reaction to Vladimir Putin’s re-election from various world leaders has underscored this. But it should now also be evident, if it was not already, that when it comes to security, the UK will continue to rely primarily on its partners in the EU as well as NATO – Brexit or no Brexit.