The Kremlin felt confident enough to carry out the brazen novichok assassination attempt in Salisbury because of Britain’s failure to take strong action following a previous atrocity, the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a leading think tank has claimed in a new report.
The Russian government and intelligence services, it says, judged, as a result, the UK’s unwillingness to match aggressive rhetoric with action following the fatal radiation poisoning a dozen years ago as weakness, showing a lack of resolve to carry out retribution.
Despite the seemingly stronger political, diplomatic and legal measures taken by Theresa May’s government following the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, the reaction was just “essentially a sterner version” of what happened in the Litvinenko case, according to the Chatham House review.
Russia's government denies any involvement in either the Salisbury or Litvinenko cases.
The UK's policy in the wake of the Salisbury poisonings, the review says, is “broadly ‘deterrence by denial’ which may make it more difficult for Russia to conduct future hostile attacks on UK soil, [but] other aspects of the UK’s post-Salisbury policy towards Russia seem ill-defined”.
The risk is that the UK’s actions this time would again be viewed by those in Moscow prepared to carry out ruthless undercover missions “as out of line with its rhetoric and will thus prove ineffective as a deterrent”.
The focus of policy should, instead, be on “deterrence by punishment” by “making vigorous and imaginative use of financial and supervisory instruments in order to discourage future unacceptable activities by imposing a material cost on Russia”.
The government needed to stress, says the report, that it is prepared to use the 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act against Russia if it attacks British citizens in future and do its utmost to ensure that that partner states also adopt similar measures. But, after Brexit, the UK should be prepared to go it alone without the European Union if necessary.
The concentration of Russian wealth in Britain will mean that strict supervision of the financial sector in this country would be very costly for the Russian elite, the report argues.
This will also strengthen “strengthen the resilience of UK institutions against the corrupting effects of illicit capital inflows ... and reduce the reputational harm arising from a supervisory performance that leaves the UK open to damaging charges of double standards and undermines its influence abroad.”
The paper, by Duncan Allan of the Chatham House’s Russian and Eurasia Division, points out that while Britain and Russia have become increasingly at odds on international affairs, especially following Moscow’s role in Ukraine’s civil war, “the UK has continued to build economic ties with Russia, assuming that business interests can be insulated from a political relationship that has become more and more confrontational”.
Decision makers in London have consistently “talked up economic relations, especially since the financial crisis of 2008,” with Russia despite the fact that the country “has never been a top-tier commercial partner for the UK”.
Last year, the value of UK exports to Russia was around £6bn, out of which services, such as banking, accountancy, law, property and public relations – catering to the Russian elite –came to £2.9bn.
Despite the European Union’s Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia “successive UK governments have taken for granted the premise that bilateral economic relations can be largely sheltered from an increasingly problematic political relationship”.
After the Salisbury attack there was much publicity about the British government enforcing “Unexplained Wealth Orders,” enabling investigation of assets. “A National Crime Agency official was reported as suggesting that a more ambitious policy might be in the offing, indicating that ‘between 120 and 140’ people were under investigation for possible UWO applications,” the report notes.
But it claims that “When pressed on this matter in the House of Commons on 14 March, May conveyed little sense of urgency. She confirmed that the government had been ‘taking a number of measures in relation to financial activities’ in the UK overseas territories and crown dependencies; and that it would bring forward the introduction of a public register of beneficiaries of overseas companies owning property in the UK in 2021 – an initiative promised by Cameron back in 2013”.
Travel and residence in this country by wealthy Russians is also supposedly under scrutiny.
The then home secretary, Amber Rudd, told MPs that her department was looking at how Russians who had secured Investor visas have acquired their wealth.
Subsequently, it emerged that Roman Abramovich, the billionaire Chelsea owner, the report notes, was encountering delays in renewing his visa and had fallen foul of new, tougher procedures. He eventually withdrew his application and was granted Israeli citizenship at the end of May.
But the report points out that media reports of a crackdown have not been followed up by action: “According to one source [in a newspaper article] an internal review of Tier I visas was under way, extending back to 2008, implying that the review encompassed more than 3,000 cases, including Investor visas granted to over 700 Russians.
“The same source said that further changes to the Tier I scheme had not been ruled out, ‘in order to ensure that it continues to work in the national interest’. As of late October, however, the Home Office had not indicated what conclusions – if any – its review had drawn.”
A key objection to imposing tough sanctions is that Russia would retaliate. But the report holds that “it is important to think through the form that this would plausibly take. One suggestion, often made, is that there would be renewed pressure on BP and Shell, which during the last two decades have weathered several rounds of rough treatment from their Russian associates and Russia’s state agencies.
“This would hardly be risk-free for Russia, however, as it would harm the operations of these companies’ partners, Rosneft and Gazprom, two of the biggest generators of revenue for the Russian state and major sources of rent and patronage for the political leadership.
“Alternatively, Russia might impose counter-sanctions on UK exporters. If it did, UK companies would suffer. Yet Russia is not a critical export market for the UK: in 2017 it accounted for less than one per cent of total UK exports of goods and services.
“A third possibility is that retaliation would be asymmetric, perhaps involving cyberattacks. This cannot be ruled out either but is a long-standing threat; the UK would face it in any case”, the paper concludes.
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