March 13, 2018
When events intrude: Novichok edition
We had hoped not to report on the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, but the issue is now turning into a first-order geopolitical affair which may have deep effects on European security, and even indirectly on Brexit. We will hear from the Russian ambassador to London before the end of today whether there is a plausible explanation.
Theresa May yesterday stopped one notch short of calling the Skripals' poisoning - by the Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent Novichok - an act of war, but she did call it "a direct attack on our country". We are hearing that the list of sanctions under consideration goes well beyond the usual mass expulsion of Russian diplomats. Under discussion are the freezing of Russian-owned assets in the City of London, expulsion of some Russian citizens living in the UK, and even a boycott of the World Cup. The Daily Telegraph is reporting that Downing Street was calling on Nato allies to consider an Article 5 declaration - but we doubt whether the western alliance is ready to treat this poisoning of a former Russian spy on the same level as the 9/11 attacks.
The first reactions from Nato have been of solidarity with the UK. US defence secretary Rex Tillerson shared May's assessment that the Russians are behind the attack, and Emmanuel Macron also assured May of his solidarity. But we are not certain whether the EU will have the stomach for another escalation of its sanctions against Russia.
Another development to watch is the position of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who used yesterday's declaration by May in the House of Commons as an opportunity to attack the government's policies towards Russia. He called for renewed dialogue. Many Labour MPs, however, rallied behind the prime minister as it is customary in times of national crisis. Corbyn's pro-Russian comments were not the big story yesterday only because it was trumped by other events. We expect this to become an issue in British politics to the detriment of the Labour Party.
International crises usually strengthen the incumbent prime minister, and we think this is going to happen in this case as well. Security is May's strong suit, and her statement in the House of Commons was strong and dignified. We think the crisis risks widening the divisions between the UK and the EU, which we don't think is very likely to show a large degree of solidarity with a departing member. The European Council is keen to return to the Minsk process and to create the conditions that would allow the sanctions against Russia to be lifted. Especially the Germans, in particular the pro-Russian Social Democrats in the government, are not in the mood for another decade of sanctions especially with Donald Trump in the White House.
The combination of a UK rallying behind May and divisions within the EU could indirectly impact the Brexit discussions. If this leads to a fall in popular support for Labour, we would expect less opposition to the government's Brexit strategy, and a reduced likelihood of a Tory leadership challenge.
The Independent reports this morning that English football fans have been warned to be careful about going to Russia because of the Skripal affair. We think that a decision by the English team not to attend the games could put other Europeans on the spot. Germany, France, Spain, and Portugal, have all qualified. A joint withdrawal of the 10 EU teams, out of a total of 32, would effectively kill the championship, but we don't see this happening.
William Hague writes in the Daily Telegraph that a lot of people will have to reassess their position vis-a-vis Russia as well as their cosy end-of-history type theories.
"And for the general public too, it is a tiresome intrusion of reality into a world of easier distractions. We are busy getting on with our lives and, if we are arguing, it is over important but introverted issues like health funding, or tuition fees, or housing, or Brexit. Surely, people think, the Cold War is over?"