NATO and EU nations have announced plans to expel Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The pair were poisoned using a military-grade nerve agent earlier this month, in Salisbury, England. Prime Minister Theresa May called the move “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history,” with a total of 100 Russian diplomats expelled. It is one of the most unified responses yet to Russian deception, but tragically, it will likely prove to be largely symbolic, with only a limited effect on Putin’s ability to gather intelligence.
Earlier this month, a joint statement from the UK, US, France, and Germany stated unequivocally that there is “no plausible alternative explanation” for the “first offensive use of a nerve agent” in Europe since the Second World War, other than Russian involvement. This came in response to the usual misdirection tactics from Moscow. After the incident, when May said it was “highly likely” that Russia was involved in the incident, Russian spokespeople offered a variety of conflicting narratives in response. One account claimed the nation had destroyed its stockpiles of chemical weapons, another said that no weapon existed, while one scientist told state media he had worked on such a project.
Other statements blamed Western nations for a conspiracy meant to vilify Russia. Such misdirection recalls Russia’s behavior in recent years when it faced international scrutiny, for incidents such as the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 disaster in 2014. According to US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, Russia has offered only “a sea of disinformation, making it very hard for people to tell fact from fiction. So we’ve had to rely, as the UK, on their own rigorous approach to the facts that they know and the rigorous investigation. We have great trust in what they have done and what they will do.”
In any case, the broad and unified response follows years of tensions with Europe and the US, over much more than just the recent Russian poison attack. Over the last several years, Russia has escalated a program of cyberwarfare against its rivals. General Sir Nick Carter, the UK’s Chief of the General Staff, said in January:
“Since 2016 we have seen a marked shift to cyber, subversion and coercion, as well as sophisticated use of smear campaigns and fake news – for example, interference in the US democratic process and the attempted coup in Montenegro.”
While the multilateral response is a step in the right direction, it may not go far enough to address or deter the years-long Russian campaign of manipulation and deception. The move is a mostly symbolic step that is unlikely to actually hinder Russia’s ability to conduct intelligence operations in these nations. Many countries are expelling only a single diplomat, and even the more robust actions by the US and UK will have no effect on espionage that is not using the cover of diplomacy. Half of the EU’s member nations are taking no action at all. While these steps are a long overdue display of unity, this fact only goes to show how muted and fractured the response has been so far.
Putin is likely to respond in kind, expelling Western diplomats and potentially even seizing US properties, as he has done in response to sanctions in the past. The question is whether the West has the stomach for stronger, and equally unified, responses to Russian mischief.
Since Russia’s 2008 invasion of pro-Western Georgia, Western leaders have shied away from serious retaliation. The Obama administration first offered a “reset” of relations, but in 2014, Russian soldiers nonetheless invaded Ukraine and then annexed Crimea. Subsequent sanctions from the West were not strong enough to deter Russia from taking action against the US in Syria, and manipulating the 2016 US elections in favor of friendly candidate Donald Trump, and against Hillary Clinton, a staunch critic of Russian aggression. This manipulation of democracy extended to European elections, in support of pro-Russian candidates. The recent poisoning continues a parallel campaign of Putin’s silencing of critics, even those residing abroad.
So far, past expulsions of diplomats have not deterred Putin. It is unlikely they will this time, either. Donald Trump’s hesitation to personally criticize Putin, even congratulating him on a corrupt election victory, has clearly emboldened Russia even further. The offensive use of a nerve agent on British soil clearly represents a line that has been crossed.
Stronger action is needed. As columnist Max Boot writes in the Washington Post, the West has many options to put pressure on Russia. The vast assets of Russian oligarchs in the US and UK could be frozen and seized. The Obama-era Magnitsky Act made this possible in the US, but the UK could follow in kind – especially since London is a hotspot for wealthy Russians. And so far, Trump has unsurprisingly utilized the Magnitsky Act far less than his predecessor.
Like North Korea, which poisoned its enemies using nerve-agents on foreign soil, Russia could be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. Retaliatory cyberattacks could target Russian state websites and other propaganda outlets. Already, Russia has been barred from G-8 gatherings, but they are still participating in G-20 summits, and are still part of the SWIFT international banking system. For the most part, Putin still enjoys a comfortable role in these international institutions.
Finally, NATO or the EU could act collectively to offer a multilateral retaliation, with an increased presence in Eastern Europe. So far, it remains to be seen whether the international community is ready to draw a real line in the sand. But it may be the only way to set a limit on Putin’s manipulation, deception, and outright attacks such as the Salisbury incident.