It’s been almost two weeks since British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found poisoned in Salisbury, England.
The diplomatic consequences of this incident have begun to take shape.
The first step was confirming suspicions that the Russians were behind the incident. The National Counter Terrorism Policing Network that took over the investigation into the attack a week ago was able to identify the substance used against Skripal. On 12 March, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that a nerve agent of the Novichok variety, the notorious series of poisons developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s, was used against Skripal. The conclusion that Russia was behind the attack has received substantial, albeit slightly reserved support from the United States. Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned the “really egregious act” that he claimed “clearly” came from Russia, adding however that it was not yet known whether the poisoning "came from Russia with the Russian government's knowledge."
Two days after her statement implicating Russia, May announced that her government would expel 23 Russian diplomats from Britain in retaliation for the poisoning of Skripal - the greatest expulsion of diplomats from the UK in over 30 years. It is important to put this expulsion into perspective. The British government lists 58 Russian diplomats in Britain, which means that almost 40 percent of them are being expelled. May set a deadline for the Russians to respond to the incident and perhaps explain for themselves, but this deadline passed with little reaction from Moscow. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that Russia would cooperate with Britain only if it gets access to the nerve agent so it could carry out its own analysis.
Of course, uncovering evidence of Russia’s involvement in the attack was not the end of the investigation. There are still several important questions that remain unanswered. How were the victims poisoned? Were the actual perpetrators in Britain as diplomats or did they slip into the country as a private citizens? Is there any lingering danger to UK citizens indicated by these attacks?
To answer these questions, investigations by the British government must continue. As of now, the road where Skripal’s home is located on the outskirts of Salisbury remains sealed off, and detectives and experts in protective hazmat suits continue to comb through his house and belongings. Similar investigative teams have also cordoned off the area surrounding a bench in Maltings shopping center where Skripal and his daughter were found in a paralyzed state. Items suspected of being contaminated continue to be removed in plastic bags. Traces of the nerve agent were also found at the Mill pub and Zizzi restaurant, where the Skripals spent the afternoon, giving officials a pretty clear lead into the investigation.
May has already delineated reprisals and sanctions aimed at Russia. These include increased screening of Russians entering the UK, more customs checks on freight and other imported goods, and the suspension of all high-level diplomatic contact with Russia. Prime Minister May has promised new counter-espionage legislation to protect Britain from “hostile state activity.”
The Russian Foreign Office has threatened to retaliate against any actions taken by Britain. The consequences of this for the UK could end up being quite substantial. Simply put, Britain has some very significant economic investments in Russia. Take for example the 20 percent stake British Petroleum has in Russian state-owned gas company Rosneft. Incurring roadblocks to business from the Russian government would have serious consequences for the UK market.
Furthermore, it is not clear how much international support May and her government can command at the moment. The US administration is busy as the leadership of the State Department is still in transition, and the ongoing debacle with North Korea continues to be sorted out. The rest of Europe cannot necessarily be expected to lend support to May as many nations on the continent are even more dependant on Russia’s economy than Britain.
The question now is how far the diplomatic strain between Russia and the UK will escalate. The scale and nature of the events that have already transpired are eery reminders of the Cold War era.