Salisbury spy mystery: May and Britain’s credibility at stake after ultimatum to Russia


If Theresa May is incapable of punishing Russia, she will have shown Britain as weak and that could be dangerous in the long-term.

Mrs May delivered her speech at Mansion House in the City of London

Theresa May issued Russia with an ultimatum and deadline and Russia has ignored her.

A foreign power has conspired to kill people on British soil for at least the second time in a decade – this time with a nerve agent that only Russia owns and can develop.

Theresa May’s credibility is at stake. But so is Britain’s.

Former diplomats are in no doubt she must now announce actions that match the rhetoric she used on Monday.

Sir Christopher Meyer was Britain’s ambassador in Washington and also worked in Moscow.

He has told Sky News the UK will be unable to act diplomatically “until the police and Home Office office point the finger conclusively at Russia, and they may never do so”.

“If I were in the Foreign Office right now I imagine there would be a lot of contingency planning against the possibility that Russia is the guilty party, in which case you can come up with a menu of things you’d do against the Russian state and then in the other column, how would they retaliate, because they will,” he said.

“There will be a calculation of benefit and cost if it is expected officially of carrying it out.

“I used to run the department in the Foreign Office that was responsible for this kind of thing, the position from which I would start is to say that a state assassination on British territory is utterly intolerable and just about the worst thing one state can do on the territory of another state.

“Whatever the cost, the response should be pretty draconian.”

The Prime Minister will have been given what diplomats like to call a suite of options to choose from.

At the more extreme end she could expel every Russian diplomat and suspected intelligence operative in the country. It has happened before in 1971. The more hawkish among her advisers would recommend throwing out the Russian ambassador, too.

That would send a clear message but sever relations with a permanent member of the UN Security Council and increasingly important global player.

It would be far more effective if it happens in concert with Britain’s allies.

British cabinet ministers are consulting with their American counterparts and others on what help they can possibly expect.

Their efforts have been rewarded with encouraging words from European chancelleries and eventually the US government but what we have not seen yet is a co-ordinated response…a communique promising united action and co-ordinated sanctions.

The Prime Minister will be advised by some to hurt Putin and his circle where it hurts – financially.

Russian oligarchs famously use London as a playground to spend and park their money.

Russian opposition leader Alexander Navalny has tweeted his advice to Theresa May naming three oligarchs with London connections in particular to target.

The British Government could go after their assets. They could also restrict their visas or deny them. That always runs the risk of the oligarchs and tycoons finding a new place to take their money.

Multinational co-operation would make those kinds of sanctions more effective.

Theresa May will have been encouraged by the promise from Donald Trump to stand by Britain “all the way”, but less encouraged by the suspicion he sacked his Secretary of State at least partly because Rex Tillerson linked Russia far more explicitly with the Salisbury poisoning than his boss was prepared to at first.

Brexit has coloured Britain’s relations with its European allies and may complicate the effort to co-ordinate a response across the continent.

There is undoubtedly less appetite to stand alongside the UK now it is heading out of the EU.

Then there is the risk of retaliation.

If Vladimir Putin is capable of attempting an assassination using a nerve agent in the middle of provincial Britain, what else might he try?

A cyberattack, for instance, targeting British commerce or public infrastructure is a chilling prospect and thought to be well within the capability of the Russians.

The path ahead for Theresa May is not without peril but then if – as her police chiefs and spies seem to believe – this was a state sponsored attack on the UK, she has little choice but take it.

Otherwise they will be telling her she will be inviting more such attacks in future.

Theresa May warned Russia in November her government knew what it was up to and it would not succeed.

If she is incapable of punishing Russia in a way that hurts, she will have proven herself and the UK as weak and that is in the long term dangerous for our national security.


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