Prime Minister Theresa May holds a news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the start of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, 2016.Theresa May described the Salisbury attack as ‘an unlawful use of force against the UK’. This is the language of military force. It is less strong than ‘armed attack’, a descriptive that would have triggered a NATO Article V response, but nevertheless it is couched in the language of war and thereby implies that proportionate counter measures can be taken. Yet we could also describe what happened in Salisbury as a heinous crime and, if we are assuming that Russia was responsible, a crime committed against its own citizens – indeed a massive violation of human rights.
What difference does the wording make? The military framing implies a geo-political response against the Russian state, which is the approach adopted by Theresa May, starting with the expulsion of Russian diplomats. It is an expression of disapproval but what does it achieve? It is already being countered by tit-for-tat expulsions of British diplomats and indeed by escalating the conflict through the closure of the Consulate-general and the British Council.
Effectively what it does is to create an imaginary war, in which both Theresa May and Vladimir Putin can claim to be strong in facing their enemies. Indeed, this was perhaps the motivation. It strengthened President Putin a few days before the Presidential elections in which turn-out seems to be have been around 60% – lower than the 70% Putin was aiming for. And it offers a kind of Falklands moment to Theresa May at a moment when opinion on Brexit is shifting against her; Russian interference in the referendum and implicit support for Brexit is all about weakening the European Union. If indeed this was the motivation, then May’s response just plays into Putin’s hands. If indeed this was the motivation, then May’s response just plays into Putin’s hands.
A further problem with the geo-political approach is that it presupposes collective responsibility with collective counter-measures like sanctions directed against the Russian state and hurting ordinary Russians as well as or perhaps even more than the regime. It is exactly the kind of people that those who favour democracy and human rights might want to support who are most likely to be affected by, for example, the closure of the British Council. Typically, where sanctions are introduced, regimes are able to blame the external enemy and further underpin their own positions.
So what difference would it make to describe what happened as an international crime, the approach taken by Jeremy Corbyn? Rather than state-to-state measures, the focus would be on investigation, as happened in the Litvinenko case, and on individual criminal responsibility. Before taking counter-measures, there would need to be a ‘requirement of legal proof’.
This might mean requesting an investigation of the type of agent used or a challenge inspection of Russian sites by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OCPW); the latter is something which has never been done before. While the Novichok nerve agents were developed in the Soviet Union, it would be possible for any skilled chemist who knows the structure and has access to the ingredients to synthesise a sufficient amount for an attack like Salisbury. Because the structure is secret and the ingredients not easy to obtain this is likely to mean a state chemical warfare establishment, although weak control might mean that a non-state actor could acquire a small amount.
By analysing the impurities, side products and by-products, it is possible to identify where the agent is produced although this would take time. Meanwhile, the most likely suspect for this gigantic calling card appears to be Russia if only for circumstantial reasons.
Assuming Russia is responsible, treating what has happened as a crime would focus attention on two aspects of Russian criminality. One is the way Russia is violating both human rights law and international weapons law, notably being in breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention both because of the use of chemical weapons and because of failure to declare Novichok to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The other aspect is, of course, the criminal nature of the Russian regime, both in stealing wealth and killing enemies, and the way in which Russian criminality has played out in the UK through money laundering in the City and the London property market.
It is estimated that there have been 14 suspicious deaths of individuals somehow linked to the Russian state in Britain and this does not include the recent Glushkov case. The UK government was very slow to investigate the poisoning of Litvinenko and has failed to investigate other possible murders – all this while Theresa May was home secretary.
One explanation was the concern that this might lead to Russian retaliation and a new cold war; the other explanation is the way in which the Conservative Party and the Brexit camp may have indirectly benefited from Russian money. The UK government does now have a tool for investigating criminal Russian oligarchs – something called Unexplained Wealth Orders and this might be the most appropriate tool even before criminal responsibility has been established – as well as the Magnitsky amendments to the Criminal Finances bill, which provides a mechanism for dealing with foreign persons known to be criminal and/or corrupt. The other explanation is the way in which the Conservative Party and the Brexit camp may have indirectly benefited from Russian money.
In other words, addressing the problem within a crime paradigm rather than war paradigm would facilitate a focus on the criminality of the Russian regime and of Putin himself and how to address it. Treating the Salisbury attack as a military issue merely reproduces traditional great power conflict to the satisfaction of both Theresa May and Vladimir Putin.