Former double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who were exposed to a toxic substance in the English town of Salisbury, are still fighting for their lives. This week Theresa May blamed Vladimir Putin for this attack, although she did not provide solid evidence for this. In response she has expelled 23 Russian diplomats. In the short term this could boost May’s stature, as in stark contrast to the Brexit negotiations, it makes her look statesperson-like. In the longer term she is playing into Vladimir Putin’s hands.
The established rules of international relations and domestic politics are based upon two interlinked axioms. The first is that nation states are sovereign and have no right to interfere in the domestic affairs of others. The second is that national governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens from harm (however defined). National state’s ability to respond to infractions of these rules is determined by, amongst other things, the abilities of their leading politicians and their deeper trajectories of socio-economic development.
In this case, Skripal and his daughter, who are UK citizens, are said to have been poisoned by agents of a foreign power. Theresa May had to respond in a way that would demonstrate that the UK state internationally and domestically retains its sovereignty. The question then became how, rather than whether, to respond?
Before continuing it is worth highlighting a bizarre twist of circumstance. In the same week as the Skripal case, a cross party committee of MPs announced that 40,000 people in the UK die prematurely every year as a consequence of traffic pollution. They also noted that the inadequacy of the government’s response. This example highlights how the golden rules of international relations and domestic politics are inherently flexible and open to interpretation. After all, the UK car market is dominated by overseas firms, who have effectively externalised the mortal costs of pollution onto the British public.
But now back to the main story. May’s actions are playing into Putin’s hands. His objective, since becoming president of the Russian federation in 2000, has been to revive Russian power. The Soviet Union, prior to its collapse in 1991, projected power internally and externally by a number of means: by using its Communist legacy to portray itself as a progressive alternative to Western capitalism, and by trading and aid relations that benefitted its near periphery in Eastern Europe and supportive states such as Cuba. It also used mass repression at home and abroad – in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1981, to counter any challenge to its one-party form of rule.
Following the USSR’s collapse most of these options vanished. As Russia’s economy collapsed, it experienced de-industrialisation, mass impoverishment, and a mega concentration of wealth in the hands of the so-called oligarchs, who benefitted from the sale of previously state-owned industries at rock-bottom prices. At the same time, the post-cold war world under US auspices, experienced what might be called a cosmopolitan moment. Organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, NATO and the European Unions expanded in scope, power and membership. The ideology and practice of humanitarian intervention emerged and was deployed as an organising principle to inform the extension of US power. Economic globalisation entailed the flow of wealth across the world, and combined with the UK’s relative openness, enabled Russian Oligarchs to use the UK as an offshore haven.
Under these circumstances, Putin sought to rebuild Russian power in three interconnected ways: Through domestic repression and political manipulation; Through power projection over its neighbours, as in Chechnya in 1999, Georgia in 2008, and in Syria at present; And through attempts to undermine international rules and organisations that he saw as constraining Russian power.
The last strategy has taken many forms, including the use of cyber-warfare, and the cultivation of links with political parties and personalities in Western democracies. It has been boosted by western government’s austerity-based response to the 2008 global economic crisis. Austerity has damaged much of the social fabric of western societies and has polarised politics to the left and far right. Amongst the latter camp, including Ukip in the UK, the National Front in France, The Lega in Italy, and of course Donald Trump in the US, support for Putin and hostility to international rules governing human rights is well documented.
Putin’s attempts at refounding Russian power are based on an attempt to recreate international relations based upon great power politics. These efforts are mirrored in Donald Trump’s attempts to shift the US away from its former role of coordinator of global capitalism towards an America First strategy – witness his imposition of tariffs upon steel imports.
In the UK, Brexit represents a major opportunity for Putin. It signifies the potential fragmentation of the EU. It also heralds an attempt by the UK government to establish a ‘global Britain’ based upon a fantastical mis-reading of British imperial glory. This is bound to fail, leaving the UK internationally weakened like never before.
All this takes us back to Theresa May’s response to Skripal case. By raising the prospect of a renewed cold war with Russia, and despite their supportive statements this week, May is pushing the UK further away from its closest allies in Europe. Will a weakened Brexiting UK really command the loyalty of European states concerned about EU coherence and access to cheap Russian gas?
May’s alternative response to the Skripal case could have been to crack down on the flows of Russian dirty money through the City of London, the buying of political influence in the UK, and the use of London and England more generally as a haven for oligarchic Russian wealth. She could have pressed for stronger international regulation and the drawing down of chemical and other weapons. She could have connected Russia’s power projection to the global expansion of Oligarchic wealth, itself based upon a permissive, offshore-orientated global financial architecture. But the City of London and the arms industry are two very profitable UK economic sectors, both of which are intimately connected to the Tory party. On top of this Theresa May is hardly a master statesperson. Under these circumstances her response to the Skripal case could contribute to the further degradation of the UK’s domestically and internationally, which will suit Putin very well.