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Salisbury Poisoning at Sixes and Sevens: Traditional and Non-Traditional Security of the 21st Century in the Mix
2018.03.20  Tuesday
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Eunsook Chung


Salisbury Poisoning at Sixes and Sevens:

Traditional and Non-Traditional Security of the 21st Century in the Mix


No. 2018-19 (March 20, 2018)

Chung Eunsook (Senior Research Fellow, the Sejong Institute)


Throughout this March, the rift of mistrust between Britain and Russia has widened with Moscow replying with tit-for-tat move after London decided to expel 23 Russian diplomats. While President Putin assured another six years in the Kremlin after the presidential elections on March 18, the grim outlook overshadows the international security cooperation among great powers, not to mention the Russo-British relations.

The Salisbury poisoning refers to the incident in which a former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, who worked for Russia’s military intelligence service GRU and defected to Britain in 2010, was found unconscious with his 33-year-old daughter on a bench at a shopping mall in the southern English city of Salisbury. Three days after the incident, the UK counter-terrorism police announced that ‘Novichok,’ a nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union, was used to poison the pair. Military experts expound that this blocks nerve signals, ultimately causing a systemic collapse of bodily functions.

This is not the first time where an ex-Russian spy defected to the UK was poisoned to death. Twelve years ago in 2006, former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko died after drinking a cup of tea with a dose of radioactive material (polonium-210); the British authorities failed to close the case satisfactorily. While the Crown Prosecution Service named two Russian nationals as perpetrators, the suspects denied the charges and the Russian government turned down the UK’s extradition request. Consequently, London had to resort to a limited response, expelling four Russian diplomats and Moscow countered with an equivalent measure. Against this backdrop, the discovery of another nerve agent brought the British public to urge the Downing Street to demonstrate more determination and take more substantial steps against Russia. This comes as a burden to UK Prime Minister Theresa May even personally who served as the Home Secretary at the time of Litvinenko inquiry. The UK has its reputation at risk—being a country unable to guarantee the safety of residents and citizens on its soil.

On March 12, eight days after the incident, Prime Minister May issued an ‘ultimatum’ to Moscow demanding a full explanation regarding the introduction and deployment of Novichok on British soil within 24 hours. She added that “extensive measures” will follow, “should there be no credible response.” As the Russian government provided no credible response to the British government, she defined the assassination attempt as an “unlawful use of force” in her statement to the House of Commons on March 14, and announced a series of retaliatory measures against Russia, concluding that Russia is “culpable” for the poisoning.

The most notable measure is the expulsion of 23 diplomats “who have been identified as undeclared intelligence officers” within a week. The UK and Soviet Union (and Russia) share a long history of expelling diplomats followed by espionage activities. The recent expulsion of diplomats is the largest in more than four decades since the expulsion of 105 Soviet diplomats in 1971 during the Cold War. It indicates that the UK government regarded 40 percent of Russian diplomats (23 among 58 diplomats) in the UK as those involved in espionage activities. It appears that London acquiesced to their presence, considering that they focused on counter-terrorist operations.

While most people in the UK support this measure, they point to the limitations of this conventional approach of evicting diplomats. Though the measure may have declaratory and demonstrative connotations, in their eyes, it does not pressure the Russian economy, nor does it have a significant value in terms of counterespionage in this digitalized world.

Other measures that Prime Minister May introduced include: increased inspection of private flights, customs, and freights; freeze on Russian state assets in the UK that may be used to threaten lives and properties of UK nationals or residents; boycott of the World Cup to be held in Russia by ministers and the royal family; suspension of all scheduled high-level meetings; a new legislation aiming to deter "hostile state activity," etc.

Russia rebutted UK allegations and measures. In response to Prime Minister May’s announcement, the Russian Ambassador to the UK criticized the measures as “'totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted.” Moreover, on March 17, a day before the presidential elections, Russia proclaimed robust retaliatory moves: expulsion of 23 UK diplomats in a week; closure of the British Council in Moscow; cancellation of a consulate in St. Petersburg, among others. This should have emphasized the image of a strong Russia to the constituents supporting Vladimir Putin.

In response, as the anti-Russian sentiments escalate in the UK, London may consider additional measures such as denial of Russian oligarchs’ access to luxury estates in London, seizure of undeclared assets, prohibition of Russian media such as RT working in the UK, etc. However, these are difficult decisions to make.

Looking beyond the isles, could the EU come up with another sanction over this? Currently, the UK implemented sanctions on Russia as part of EU sanctions regime which was imposed because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of separatist forces in Ukraine. These include the prohibition of a long-term loan to Russian state-owned banks; a ban on exports of dual-use goods and technology for military use and arms and of certain energy-related equipment and technology; asset freeze and visa bans on 150 individuals and 35 entities, etc.

The EU officials stated that it “takes extremely seriously the UK Government's assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible” regarding the Salisbury poisoning and added that it will gather views on the matter. It remains to be seen whether this will lead up to fresh sanctions against Russia or a firmer compliance to the existing restrictive measures. This could be the testing ground for the UK to check diplomatic capacity toward the EU as it leaves the union. Obviously, the key to this will be the reports of further investigations.

In the meantime, Prime Minister May’s use of the phrase “unlawful use of force” reminds us of the Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (collective defense)—signed by 29 parties. As a matter of fact, the NATO official statement, regarding the Salisbury incident, “expressed deep concern at the first offensive use of a nerve agent on Alliance territory since NATO’s foundation” and “called on Russia to address the UK’s questions.” Still, no one in the UK government including Prime Minister May or NATO mentioned the Article 5.

The UK also strives to internationalize this incident. It has pressured Russia to “provide full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Cold War, the international community have shared its concerns on ‘non-traditional security threats’ including, but not limited to, the usability and proliferation of biochemical weapons, materials, and technology by non-state actors or rogue states, or extremist groups’ terrorist acts. Hence, it seems rather odd to see the two countries—being veto powers in the UN Security Council, which is mandated to ensure international peace and security, and having stood on different sides in the bipolar world—embroiled in tensions over the responsibility in the use of nerve agents. Even for not going far as to perceive the Salisbury poisoning as an ‘unlawful use of force’ by the Russian state as Prime Minister mentioned, it has cast shadows on international security cooperation among great powers. The world already witnessed the use of chemical weapons in the civil war in Syria.

Translator’s note: This is an unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.