It could have been worse. The Skripal affair will continue to undermine Russian-Western relations for years to come, accentuating the already deep distrust of Russia in Western states. In terms of the long term effect on attitudes, it’s decidedly bad. In the short term, though, it’s not quite as bad as I feared, as the British government has so far refrained from taking really serious action against the Russian Federation. British Prime Minister Theresa May today announced the UK’s response to the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, and it consists of the following measures:
- The expulsion of 23 diplomats – who have one week to leave
- Increased checks on private flights, customs and freight
- The freezing of Russian state assets where there is evidence they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents
- Ministers and Royal Family to boycott the Fifa World Cup in Russia later this year
- The suspension of all planned high level bi-lateral contacts between the UK and Russia
Diplomatically, this is tough stuff, but in practical terms it’s more or less meaningless. Russia will simply replace its diplomats with other ones, as will the UK when Russia expels British diplomats in response. Increased checks on freight etc falls far short of new economic sanctions and certainly short of the demands some people were making to force Russian oligarchs to take their money out of Britain. I very much doubt Russia will be too bothered if Prince William doesn’t turn up to the World Cup, and this is a very minor step compared with withdrawing England from the competition. And the suspension of high-level bilateral contacts will be damaging, but something Russia can live with and not feel that it has suffered.
Certainly, the British government has avoided taken drastic action which would adversely affect British interests and prompt a severe Russian reaction – so, no sweeping sanctions, no World Cup boycott, no banning of RT, etc. In short, it all adds up to a slap on the wrist but nothing much more. There’s not much to be happy about, but let’s at least take some consolation in that.