12 March 2018
Nigel Gould-Davies and James Nixey outline the principles that should guide the UK’s actions following the attempted assassination.
Nigel Gould-Davies

Dr Nigel Gould-Davies

Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
James Nixey

James Nixey

Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme


Sberbank offices in London. Photo: Getty Images.
Sberbank offices in London. Photo: Getty Images.


If confirmed, the attack on double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter would be the second known Russian state-sponsored murder in the UK, following the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Other suspicious cases are now being reopened.

What principles should guide an effective response?

  1. Effective measures are more than symbolic. They impose costs that punish unacceptable actions and deter future ones. The UK’s response to Litvinenko’s death – expelling four diplomats, imposing visa restrictions for officials, and suspending security service liaison – was clearly not sufficient enough to deter the latest attack. Symbols matter, but only if they credibly convey intentions about the consequences of further action.
  2. Measures should be costly in smart ways, targeted at those who bear responsibility for Russian policy or directly benefit from them. Where possible, they should limit disruption to relationships that support other UK goals, such as long-term engagement with ordinary Russians. An appropriately hard line towards the Russian state is emphatically not Russophobic.
  3. Any significant measures will incur, as well as impose, costs. This is inevitable, since they will disrupt existing, mutually-beneficial arrangements. But special pleading should not trump the broader national interest. An effective response is never a free lunch.

What do these principles imply for possible responses to the attempted murder of the Skripals?

  1. Diplomatic sanctions. Expelling known Russian intelligence operatives under diplomatic, or other, cover will reduce Russia’s ability to mount future operations of this kind. But a more general cut in Russian embassy staff, or expulsion of the ambassador, would be merely symbolic, serve no purpose and invite a tit-for-tat response.
  2. World Cup boycott. This is merely symbolic, domestically unpopular and unlikely to be emulated by others. At most, it would be a temporary embarrassment for Russia with no lasting effects. A protocol response is appropriate: palace and senior ministers should not attend key World Cup events. But there is little gain, and no long-term cost, in not sending the England team.
  3. Dealing with fake news outlets. In a report published a year before the Salisbury attack, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee noted that ‘the rise of fake news in the UK is a real concern…The UK regulator should continue to take action against examples of outright falsehoods in Russian state-sponsored broadcasting.’

    The spread of fake news – especially from RT and Sputnik, and through social media – benefits no one in the UK and has no UK counterpart in Russia. While regulators punish specific infractions, robust action has been inhibited by the belief that the ‘best defence against disinformation is a robust, free, wide, and varied media landscape’. This admirable principle is no longer adequate in meeting the security challenge Russia poses.
  4. Effective financial sanctions. Britain has long been the most important centre for Kremlin-connected oligarchs seeking to legitimate their wealth. This benefits key figures and networks that support, are complicit in or help implement Russian policy.

    Western sanctions have not impaired Russia's enjoyment of UK financial and legal services. Last November, oligarch and close Putin confidant Oleg Deripaska listed shares of his company EN+ in London. Most of the capital raised was used to repay a loan to VTB, a Russian state bank subject to Western financial sanctions.

    Britain should now apply current financial regulations robustly and effectively. These include newly-strengthened civil asset recovery powers, Unexplained Wealth Orders, money-laundering investigations and ‘know your customer’ rules in banking and property.

What additional steps should the UK take?

  1. The UK government should widen its range of sanctioning powers. One obvious way is to pass a version of the Magnitsky Act. First adopted by the United States, this imposes asset freezes and travel bans on figures complicit in human rights abuses and large-scale corruption. Given the scale of Russian assets in the UK, this would be a potent symbolic and substantive measure.

    Britain could also conduct an exercise similar to that mandated by Articles 241–242 of the US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, passed overwhelmingly by the US Congress last year. These require the implications of sanctioning key Kremlin-connected figures, and of expanding financial sanctions on Russia, to be set out. Like the Magnitsky Act, it is deeply unwelcome to the Russian authorities and would signal Britain’s resolve to respond further if necessary.
  2. The power of Russian cyber intelligence-gathering and cyber interference to disrupt Western systems have been evident for some time. The recent release of Russian malware to knock out Ukrainian systems affected UK organizations too. Britain should be ready to respond robustly if this recurs.
  3. Britain must coordinate its response closely with NATO and the European Union – the latter in an effective post-Brexit framework. A continent-wide solidarity with no prospect of easing current sanctions, and every prospect of tightening them, is as important as any measure the UK adopts on its own. A future ‘deep and special relationship’ with the EU must, at a minimum, include a common response to a country that (if confirmed) has carried out what is now being treated as a terrorist attack on European soil.

Keys to an effective response

For too long Britain has sought to meet a skilful and growing Russian state threat while servicing the interests of its major beneficiaries. This contradiction is no longer strategically or ethically sustainable. A whole-of-government approach to Russian policy is long overdue, one that would coordinate the many strands of the Russia relationship in a clear and consistent framework.

Britain does not lack options. The key question is whether it has the political will to use them. An effective response should:

  • Focus on real and lasting effects, not ‘newsy’ symbols or one-off measures;
  • Combat the use of fake news and elite assets in the UK that sustain Russia’s system and undermine others;
  • Develop a properly joined-up Russia strategy that is more, not less, than the sum of its parts;
  • Prioritize a common post-Brexit Russia policy with the EU;
  • Respond effectively to interests, at home as well as abroad, that seek to maintain the status quo.

Russia will now watch the UK closely for clues to its resolve. A weak response will invite further threats to British security.

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