As expected, Russia has responded to the expulsion of 23 diplomatic personnel from the UK over the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal with expulsions of its own. However, the Putin regime threw in a new wrinkle, one which might create another round of diplomatic sanctions. As part of its retaliation, Russia has ordered the closure of a British consulate, a step from which Theresa May had refrained:
Russia announced Saturday it will expel 23 British diplomats and close the British consulate in St. Petersburg as part of its response to London’s decision to expel Russian diplomats in an escalating row over the poisoning of a former spy and his daughter in Britain earlier this month.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said that “23 diplomatic personnel from the British Embassy in Moscow have been declared persona non grata” and have one week to leave. The closure of the consulate in St. Petersburg was not given a firm deadline, with the Foreign Ministry saying only that they will be given sufficient time to wrap up their work there.
Russia also ordered the end of all British Council activities in the country. The British Council operates in over 100 countries and offers cultural and educational exchange opportunities, but Russia has described it in the past as a front for British intelligence operations. The organization has been the target of diplomatic retaliation before, most notably when the UK expelled Russian diplomats after the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko under conditions very similar to that of the Skripal attack in Salisbury earlier this month. Russia also tried to sue the British Council over alleged tax violations, a case that was largely dismissed.
The Telegraph pointed out the escalation and the potential for more action by the May government in response. However, Russia only has one consulate in the UK, in Edinburgh, while the UK still has another that will be allowed to operate in Yekaterinburg, so an escalation in consulate actions may not be in the UK’s best interests. The next steps, warn the Tory chair of the foreign affairs committee in Parliament, will get more personal than diplomatic:
When asked what the Britain should do next, Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative lawmaker and chair of the foreign affairs select committee, told the BBC: “I think what we got to do is focus entirely on the Putin regime, the Putin family, and the Putin henchmen and focus on their money, much of which is hidden in Western Europe.”
That’s likely to happen anyway, if May and the rest of the Western alliance has finally woken up to the threat from Putin. Diplomatic expulsions are little more than public statements; if you want to truly punish bad behavior, you have to go after the money. Putin and his oligarchs need the West much more than the West needs Russia, and Putin needs his oligarchs to remain rich in order to hold onto power. The way to make the point stick in Moscow is to start cutting off access to funds and markets, and let the Russian economy in an oil-glut world do the rest.
The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador, Laurie Bristow, to deliver their response. Bristow remained defiant after the meeting, telling reporters that the UK “will always do what is necessary to defend ourselves.” Bristow accused the Putin regime of conducting an attack “upon the international rules-based system on which all countries, all countries including Russia, depend for their safety and security.” In other words, if Russia expects to benefit from the orderly application of rules, they’d better start behaving themselves.
Otherwise, they might find that their wealth has suddenly begun evaporating. Russia has a lot more to lose in that exchange. Let them figure that out, the hard way if necessary, until they come clean on Novichok and their assassination operations on expatriates.