- There is growing theory that Russia poisoned Sergei Skripal to test how isolated Britain is after Brexit.
- EU nations have jumped to the support of Britain, whereas the US has been more cautious.
- Professor Anthony Glees said Vladimir Putin will not approve of the European solidarity.
Britain believes Russia is culpable for the attempted murder of former Kremlin spook Sergei Skripal, but it is yet to provide a theory as to why Vladimir Putin would have ordered the nerve agent attack.
The vacuum of information has given way to a number of theories, including the suggestion that Skripal could still have been revealing state secrets or information about Kremlin operatives following his release from a Moscow prison in 2010.
But another explanation has grown in prominence in recent days: That targeting Skripal was a way of testing how isolated Britain has become after its vote to leave the European Union in 2016.
The idea was posited by Chatham House fellows James Sherr and John Lough, who said Moscow may be attempting to establish whether Britain’s European allies will support retaliation, or “simply send their best wishes.”
Skripal a pawn in Putin’s game?
Professor Anthony Glees, the director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, said it was “perfectly possible” that Skripal was a pawn in Putin’s game.
As many have pointed out, including prominent British parliamentarians such as Ben Bradshaw, Brexit fits neatly with Putin’s playbook of destabilising the West and breaking chains between powerful adversaries.
Having disseminated pro-Leave propaganda on Twitter during the referendum, Putin could now be circling back to test his theory that Brexit will leave Britain marooned.
Russia would never officially recognise this theory, however, and has consistently protested its innocence over the poisoning of Skripal. “Russia had nothing to do with this incident,” Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, told an emergency meeting on Wednesday.
Glees said the UK cannot be 100% certain Russia was behind the attack, but that May’s government can show the “probability borders on certainty.” And if Putin is testing how adrift Britain is following Brexit, Glees said he will not like the results.
Full-throated support from Britain’s allies
On Thursday, the UK’s most powerful European allies and the US rallied to the prime minister’s side. The leaders of Germany, France, and America released a joint statement backing Britain’s theory that Russia was the perpetrator.
“We share the UK assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation, and note that Russia’s failure to address the legitimate request by the UK government further underlines its responsibility,” they said.
The statement galvanised support around Britain’s retaliatory measures against Russia – including expelling 23 Russian diplomats – and banished any fears that the allies may question evidence produced by investigators from the scene of the Skripal crime in Salisbury, south England.
US President Donald Trump and French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, in particular, had initially appeared reluctant to blame Russia for the poisoning of its former spy.
- MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images
Trump, Macron, and Angela Merkel’s statement also echoed full-throated support from eastern European countries Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well as the EU itself. European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans said the bloc’s solidarity with Britain would be “unequivocal, unwavering.”
Glees concluded: “When the chips are down… in security terms, we stick together. All of us who are geographically in Europe are vulnerable to an aggressive Russia. If the EU 27 continue to show the same solidarity, that bodes well for a grown-up relationship with Europe once we’ve left. It has not been music to the ears of the Brexiteers.”
If Putin was testing how isolated Britain is, he has his answer.