Sky’s diplomatic editor Dominic Waghon looks at Theresa May’s options as she faces one of the biggest tests of her premiership.
The Prime Minister’s detailed statement to the Commons on the Salisbury poisoning raises the prospect of Britain being drawn into an ever escalating confrontation with Russia.
Theresa May described the attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia as a foreign state attacking Britain, and by definition that will require a robust response.
Anything else makes her, her government, and the country look weak.
As foreign policy analyst Ed Lucas told Sky News: “This I think is as important for Britain’s security and Britain’s image in the world as the Falklands War was.
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“It will change not only the way we think about ourselves but also the way other countries will think about us.
“A chemical weapons attack totally unprovoked in the heart of Britain could have killed many more people than it did, and it’s the biggest test of Theresa May’s premiership how it responds.”
Mrs May did in theory give the Russians a way out, but they have already indicated they are unlikely to take it. She raised the possibility that somehow they lost some of their stockpile of nerve agent and it fell into the wrong hands.
If that was the case, they need to account for it to the international body responsible, the OPCW.
They seem in no mood to cooperate using terms such as “fairy tales” and “circus acts” to dismiss the allegations and the furore around them.
So the deadline for a Russian explanation is likely to come and go. What are the British Government’s options then?
They may opt for a traditional response, expelling diplomats and Russian intelligence agents and maybe even the Russian ambassador, too.
That would be far more effective if they can do so in concert with their allies. Already British cabinet ministers are consulting their American counterparts and others on what help they can possibly expect.
They may also seek 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 Mrs 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. Multi-national cooperation would make those kinds of sanctions more effective.
However, unlike past British governments, Theresa May’s cannot necessarily depend on American’s full-throated support given Donald Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin, even if his spokesperson was making the right noises in the White House briefing earlier.
Brexit has coloured Britain’s relations with its European allies and may complicate the effort to coordinate a response across the continent, even if what happened in Salisbury could happen in provincial towns anywhere.
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; a chilling prospect and thought to be well within the capability of the Russians.
The path ahead for Mrs May is not without peril but then if this was a state sponsored attack on the UK, as her police chiefs and spies seem to believe, she has little choice but take it.
Otherwise, they will be telling her she will be inviting more such attacks in future.