Novichock, what response would be appropriate for Russia?

by Philip Ingram MBE

With the Russians having failed to respond to Prime Minister Teresa Mays deadline to answer the simple question of “how this nerve agent came to be used” relating to the use of military grade Novichock in an attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal that put Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey in intensive care on Sunday 8th March in Salisbury.  How should she respond, what are her options, can she really punish Putin and Russia?

The first thing is to look at Putin’s probable motive for carrying out the attack. Recognise his motive and tailor responses to stop him doing what he set out to achieve.

I believe it is probable that President Putin wanted to do 3 things, the first and his most important is to send a very clear and horrific message to any of his political or business dissenters; he can get them anywhere and in the most horrific way.  The second was a message to the West and the wider world, he can operate with impunity where and when he wants, as he has done in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.  The final is personal, as an ex-KGB man the continued existence of a GRU ‘traitor’ will have gnawed away at the very fabric of his soul.

This was a political attack rather than an assassination attempt; the means to achieve this political attack required the assassination attempt.

Teresa May could unilaterally carry out a number of things that have almost become routine when a rogue nation goes too far, and these include:

  • Expel Russian diplomats and known intelligence agents, as was done after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB operative, in 2006 with polonium 210, a highly toxic radiological agent manufactured in a nuclear reactor.
  • Increase economic sanctions as was done after the downing of MH17, the Malaysian Airliner shot down over Ukraine in 2014, the Russian annexation of Crimea and support for Rebels in Eastern Ukraine and freeze the financial assets of rich Russian oligarchs in the hope they will put pressure on Putin.
  • Other ‘protest’ actions such as restrict Russians from coming to the UK through a visa ban, boycott the World Cup, remove the broadcasting license for Russian state-backed broadcast channels such as RT, restrict access to UK based websites from Russia or any number of other punitive options.

Will they work? The easiest way to answer that question is to look back in time and see if similar actions have worked before.  The answer is a resounding no.  The reason why is that they are not getting at the reasons why Putin probably ordered this attack.

If Teresa May resorts to any one or more of these options only she is in effect saying to Putin the doors of the UK are open for him to do what he wants, and he will!

What else could she do? A coordinated International response would have a greater effect by sending a clearer message.  This doesn’t fall into NATO Article 5 territory of an attack on one nation meaning a military response from all.

The UK could ask NATO to invoke an Article 4 action where, “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” This is in effect what is being done but what is it likely to result in? A stiff letter? NATO members scolding the respective Russian Ambassadors in their countries? Will Putin be concerned?  In a word NO!

She could try to get GCHQ to carry out cyber-attacks on Russia and these could hurt, but would likely result in tit for tat escalation and the impact on British businesses could be catastrophic, especially during the Brexit negotiations.  The Russian control of the information war and use of social media as a weapon is significantly more advanced than anything the West has. It is extremely well explained in the book Alternative War by JJ Patrick and hours after Teresa May’s statement in Parliament threats erupted from the Russian Embassy on Twitter.

However, the UK intelligence services need to increase their Russian focused counterintelligence operations which became diluted after the end of the Cold War.  They need to remove the ability for Russian (and other) foreign intelligence operatives to use the UK as a ‘playground for spooks’.

Putin is acting as the bully in the playground, he is confident, arrogant and is developing if it hasn’t already developed, a god complex where he believes everything he does is right, and he is untouchable. That is his Achilles heel!

Going back to why he carried out the attack in Salisbury with an agent he knows would be tracked back to Moscow, it is a clear message to his political and business dissenters across the globe, “get on side or else.” In his 2102 Election, Putin got 63.6% of the vote, his personality is such that he wants to maintain that percentage or grow it in this weekend’s election.  If it goes down, he will feel his authority is being undermined and will likely be extremely angry.

So, what should be done to have an effect?  I believe Teresa May must do 2 things.  Identify a mechanism for hurting Russian State business. Something like a punitive transaction tax for all international currency transactions coming from Russia via the city of London. This would likely require emergency legislation and for it to be successful it would need cross-party unity.  If she attempted this and it failed, Putin would be emboldened.

It is too late to have a political effect on the Russian Presidential elections this weekend.  But we need to take a long-term view and if the UK identified some strong political opposition to Putin, offering a safe sanctuary in the UK with assistance to develop an effective campaign for the next elections would really worry Putin.  However, any individual associated a campaign like that would be a priority target for further Skripal type attacks.

These measures would hit at Putin’s probable motive for his use of Novichock on the streets of the UK and the next step is the international community following suit.  This is a real test of Prime Minister Teresa May’s domestic and international strength.

Note: This blog will be updated as new information is received.  The current version was updated at 1000 on 14th March 2018 – if you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE