Managed confrontation

The nerve-agent attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury on 4 March 2018 was not just a brazen violation of UK sovereignty. It was also a UK policy failure. Following the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006, the UK government failed to deter another life-threatening attack on a British national by organs of the Russian state. Russian decision-makers saw the UK as lacking purpose and resolve because its firm rhetoric was not matched by its actions. The UK’s response to the Salisbury attack has been far stronger. It has taken robust political, diplomatic and law enforcement measures, coordinated with international partners. Yet this is still essentially a sterner version of what it tried following the Litvinenko murder – broadly ‘deterrence by denial’ (making it more difficult for Russia to conduct future hostile attacks on UK soil). Other aspects of the UK’s post-Salisbury policy towards Russia seem ill-defined. Consequently, there is a danger that the UK’s actions are again perceived to be out of line with its rhetoric and will thus prove ineffective as a deterrent. The UK should close the gap 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 – i.e. ‘deterrence by punishment’. The government should emphasize that, once the UK has left the EU, it will give serious consideration to using the 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act against Russia (or any other state) if it attacks British citizens in future. If it did use this legislation, the UK should urge its partners to adopt similar measures – multilateral action would have more impact than unilateral action – but it should be prepared to act without the EU if necessary.

In the meantime, the UK should redouble its efforts to make the supervision of its financial sector and related industries more effective. As well as adding to the costs incurred by Russia’s leadership elite, this would strengthen the resilience of UK institutions against the corrupting effects of illicit capital inflows. It would also 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. Set against the UK’s duty to protect the lives of its citizens, considerations of potential economic cost are of secondary importance. Organs of the Russian state have murdered and attempted to murder British citizens. The priority must be to minimize the risk that they will do so again. This approach is less equivocal than the UK government’s present policy towards Russia appears to be. It is rooted in a judgment that the UK will more credibly deter further attacks on its citizens by putting financial and supervisory instruments at the centre of its Russia policy. And it recognizes that it is untenable to view the Russian state as a geopolitical problem and a direct threat to certain UK nationals while actively facilitating the enrichment of some of that state’s elites.

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