UK Weighs Options For Retaliating Against Russia Over Spy Poisoning

Will Racke | Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has given Russia until midnight Tuesday to explain its alleged involvement in the poisoning of a Russian double agent on British soil, after which she will “set out the full range of measures” Britain will take in retaliation.

Moscow has adamantly denied having anything to do with the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, suggesting that May’s ultimatum will go unanswered. If the deadline passes without a response from Russia, Britain is likely to draw on its past experience with similar attacks against former Russian intelligence operatives.

One obvious step is to expel Russian diplomats, as Britain did after the poisoning of former Russian Federal Security Service operative Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 with radioactive polonium. Feuding countries commonly resort to expelling diplomats, though the move is usually seen as a symbolic gesture.

In the Litvinenko case, the U.K. also added targeted visa restrictions on certain Russian officials, but neither measure had a significant impact in terms of holding the perpetrators accountable. The man identified as the main suspect in Litvinenko’s murder, Andrei Lugovoi, is now a member of parliament in Russia, as the BBC noted Tuesday.

A stiffer penalty would be to seize the real estate and financial assets of wealthy Russian oligarchs in Britain, a step backed by Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee. The British government could invoke something called Unexplained Wealth Orders, which allow officials to seize assets during a criminal investigation, reports the BBC.

Other unilateral actions London could take include boycotting the FIFA World Cup in Russia later this year and kicking Russian broadcasters such as RT off the air. Broadcasting regulator Ofcom has said it will “consider the implications for RT’s broadcast licences” after May addresses parliament on the situation Wednesday.

British lawmakers could also respond by passing a U.K. version of the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that punishes Russians involved in corruption and human rights violations with travel restrictions and financial sanctions. Some lawmakers have been pushing for a Magnitsky-style amendment to be added to an anti-money laundering bill now going through Parliament.

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Beyond those moves, Britain could also enlist the help of allies or international organizations to act against Russia, but it may be difficult for London to secure cooperation from countries with divergent interests. The EU has already imposed sanctions on Moscow for its intervention in Ukraine, and several member states including Hungary, Italy and Greece have all supported the weakening of sanctions. EU countries might also be reluctant to help Britain toughen sanctions against Moscow, especially since the U.K. is on its way out of the union.

As for a response by NATO, the alliance released a statement Monday night saying “the use of any nerve agent is horrendous and completely unacceptable. The UK is a highly valued ally, and this incident is of great concern to NATO.”

Article 5 of the NATO charter states that an attack on any one ally is seen as an attack on all, and May framed the Skripal incident as “an unlawful use of force” by Russia against the U.K. London, however, has downplayed the idea that an Article 5 defense is required for this single incident, suggesting that NATO’s response will be largely rhetorical.

The only time Article 5 has been invoked in the alliance’s 59-year history was after the 9/11 attacks.

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