Author: Kakha Gogolashvili, Director of EU Studies Center, Rondeli Foundation
When in 2006, the double agent living in the UK, Alexander Litvinenko, was fatally poisoned with a small dose of Polonium at the order of the Federal Security Service of Russia, this crime, which, according to the international agreements (related to non-proliferation of radioactive materials), was committed through the usage of a prohibited substance, did not receive adequate reaction either from UK or the international community in general. At that time, London merely expelled four Russian diplomats. Almost the same sort of crime was conducted by the Russian government (within the confines of a reasonable doubt) on 4 March 2018 in Salisbury, United Kingdom. This time, the assassination attempt (also through a chemical substance prohibited by an international agreement) of another former Russian agent, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, was followed by rather tough and adequate reaction for everyone to see, not only by the government of the UK, but also by a large number of states from the Euro-Atlantic area.
What has changed since 2006 and why did Russia get a stricter response this time?
- In 2006, Russia was not in a crisis mode in its relations with the European Union and the United States. Putin’s policies, which later attempted dismantling both the European as well as the international order, were not yet recognized as a general threat; Russia had not yet conducted aggression against a sovereign European state – Georgia, an act, which violated the principle of the inviolability of the territorial integrity of states upheld by the Charter of the United Nations (1944), the Helsinki Act (1975) and the Charter of Paris (1990), later providing a basis for the process of the revision on borders in Europe.
- In 2014, Russia violated the territorial integrity of a sovereign European state, Ukraine, for a second time, by annexing the Crimean peninsula.
- In the same year, Russia provoked an armed conflict in the Eastern Ukrainian regions, later followed by a full military intervention in the quasi-local conflict taking place there, making Europe and the whole Western world face a new reality by attempting to disintegrate the aforementioned country.
- The attempts of the European Union to continue the process of Europeanization and gradual integration of the Balkans and the Eastern European states were answered by Russia by facilitating a coup in Montenegro, supporting anti-European forces in Serbia and coercing Armenia to refuse signing the Association Agreement with the European Union, taking similar action towards Ukraine as well.
- Russia pulled out of the international agreement on conventional arms forces in Europe, increasing the risk of escalation in the region.
- From 2014, Russia boosted information warfare against the democratic world, including the United States and the European Union. It intensified the usage of hybrid warfare methods, including against the United States and the EU members through numerous cyber-attacks, meddling in the election processes of foreign states (US Presidential Elections of 2016, German Bundestag Elections of 2017, French Presidential Elections of 2017, the 2017 “Independence Referendum” in Catalonia and so on).
- Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict directly through the use of military force, making itself a party to the conflict and even though Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations (right to individual and collective defense) formally allowed it to do so, it confronted the population rebelling against a tyrannical regime, ignored the principles of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (right to rebel as a last resort), and practically preserved power for the inhuman regime. In return, it managed to secure its military bases on the banks of the Mediterranean for a long time, through which it will be able to monitor the movements of the NATO naval forces stationed in the region.
- Since 2008, Russia has been boosting its military potential, fully modernizing the armies of all type and increasing its military-strategic capacities. In addition, it is ramping up its anti-Western rhetoric, more specifically, its high ranking officials are already trying to discredit Western values and weaken the basis of their stability.
As a result, the European and US elites have come to a realization that they are in fact in a state of one-sided warfare with Russia and that sooner or later they will have to formulate response measures and adopt new approaches.
What has changed in the European Union?
An economic and financial crisis started in the United States and the whole Euro-Atlantic area from 2008, making the Western democracies relatively vulnerable. The influx of migrants as a result of on-going wars in Libya and then Syria affected the stability of the European Union. The influence of nationalist, Euro-skeptic and far-right forces on the societies increased. Russia was actively facilitating these processes.
The decision regarding the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, which was made based on the results of the 23 June 2016 referendum, was prompted by the existing situation; however, multiple facts also indicate that by using the British information networks and the social media, the Russian government directly influenced the results of the referendum by creating public opinion favoring its objectives – the government of the UK has no doubts about this either.
In addition, whilst the EU was resolving the problems created by the financial crisis in some of the member states (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal) through enormous efforts, the Russian government hoped that the weakened European Union would start disintegrating, whilst it continued probing EU resilience through hard or soft power, using propaganda or other hybrid methods. Russia was also testing the resilience of the Euro-Atlantic alliance, hoping that the unity of NATO would also be undermined after the election of Trump as the new US President.
Unfortunately, even when realizing all this, the process of withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union had already begun and it was quite impossible to reverse it.
The anatomy of Brexit
In 2017 the United Kingdom and the European Union (27 member states) started negotiations on UK’s withdrawal, based on Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. In 2016, the leading countries of the European Union as well as high ranking officials of the EU institutions, supported revoking all privileges to the United Kingdom after its withdrawal, which would mean that up to three million British workers would have to leave the EU member states, the customs barriers would once again be erected between the UK and the EU, the UK would leave all policies of the European Union and its citizens would have to get visa to travel to the European Union, losing the right to work or live there. Cooperation in foreign and security fields would also cease, as well as the participation in EU financial institutions such as the European Investment Bank and the European Investment Fund. British companies would be denied the right of freely establishing and operating on the territory of the European Union and so on. All of this would be wholly damaging for both the United Kingdom as well as the European Union. On the other hand, such an approach would weaken the motivation and standing of the proponents of leaving the European Union in other member states.
Fortunately, exiting the European Union is not immediate and two years are allocated for withdrawal negotiations, planned to be completed in 2019, with a transition period of two more years, until the end of 2020. In this time, the UK will practically still be serving as a member of the European Union and will benefit from all the associated privileges, yet it will no longer have a voice in the EU institutions.
In reality, the institutional divorce of the United Kingdom from the European Union was not as big of a challenge, as severing the functional ties, perspective of which was clearly visible at the outset of the negotiations.
Influence on Brexit results
If we carefully observe the withdrawal negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom, it is noticeable that:
The position of the European Union was quite strict prior to negotiations. The roadmap created in summer 2017, the Negotiating Position, clearly determined giving the status of a third country to the United Kingdom in all fields, after it had left the European Union. It is important to note that with such a status the UK would find itself in the ranks of countries which have no treaties with the European Union, which would bring catastrophic results, especially to its economy.
The UK government had a different kind of hope (although the opinion here is divided between the proponents of more independence and more cooperation). Prime Minister Theresa May believed that her country would remain in the single market of the European Union, would not lose the visa-free regime or the right for its citizens to work in EU, conduct business freely and so on.
In terms of economic stability, this was of course also in the interests of the EU member states; however, political sensibilities, due to the aforementioned arguments, did not allow for such concessions.
A unifying impulse was necessary in order to “forgive” Britain for its arrogance and forget the harm that it did to the image of the European Union. As is well known, threat unites even the strongest of people and states. In reality, the threat had existed for a long time, which was Russia’s growing ambitions and assertiveness, its attempts to dismantle European unity, clearly visible for the governments of the EU and its allies. Despite this, it was difficult to fully communicate this threat to the population of Europe, who had for years heard from their own governments that “Russia is not the enemy” and that “constructive cooperation with Russia” was possible.
The negative influence of the Russian actions on the unity of Europe and the West in general, as well as their stability and security, reached a critical margin at the same time as the EU was facing a risk of being fully distanced from one of its largest members.
The new context, where on the one hand the threat coming from Russia became very real and on the other hand, the future of the UK faced some serious challenges, explains the different, timely and relatively stricter response of the United Kingdom to the assassination attempt of Sergei Skripal, as opposed to the one it had adopted after the assassination of Litvinenko. The high level of solidarity exhibited by the EU during such an insolent attack conducted by Russia facilitated the mending of splits between the UK government and the Union, opening the way for conducting the Brexit process more normally and less damagingly to either of the parties. EU’s forgiveness towards the UK was not limited to expelling Russian diplomats and possibly imposing new sanctions on Russia. On 23 March, the European Council adopted new guidelines for Brexit negotiations, which:
- Express regret that the United Kingdom will not be able to participate in the Single Market after leaving the Union;
- Envisage the signing of a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the UK in order to soften the negative effects;
- Hint on the creation of an agreement which would enable the free movement of citizens;
- Envisages close cooperation in the fields of fighting crime, transport and free entrepreneurship, new forms of Post-Brexit cooperation in the field of security and defense, and so on.
All this sparks hope that after exiting the European Union, the United Kingdom, much like Norway and Switzerland, will remain a closely integrated country with the EU.
Hence, as a result of the event of Salisbury, we have not only got the full solidarity of the European Union towards its “departing” member state, but also towards the whole democratic Euro-Atlantic area, including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova (which also joined sanctions against Russia). The Skripal Case served as a catalyst in the process of consolidation of the democratic countries of the Euro-Atlantic area (although this would have happened sooner or later), which became inevitable given the mounting confrontation with Russia, and the Russian government will now find it difficult to reverse the course of these events.