What Сan Britain Do in Response to Russian Nerve Attack?
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Andrey Kortunov

Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Moscow, Russia





Director General
ORCID 0000-0002-3897-6434
Scopus AuthorID 24782993000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: +7 (495) 225 6283
Address: 1 Bolshaya Yakimanka Str., Moscow 119180, Russia

The UK Government  has concluded «it is highly likely that Russia was responsible» for a “brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil,” Theresa May told the Commons on Monday after a nerve agent was used on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury.

With the Prime Minister calling on Britain’s NATO allies to back “extensive measures” to punish Russia for the attack, we asked Andrey Kortunov, Director General at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) what Britain’s options really are, and how Russia might respond.

Cyber warfare 

British action: The Prime Minister said on Monday that what happened was either a “direct act by the Russian state” or Russian had lost control of the “potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others”.  There has been speculation that the UK could invoke Article 51 of the United Nations Charter which enshrines the right to respond to an attack in self-defence.  Such a move could include a cyber counterattack with reports suggesting that ministers are preparing for such an eventuality.  That could include attacking Moscow’s computer networks. 

Russian response: A ‘cyber counterattack’ might mean a broad variety of actions from the British side. Some of them — like an attack on one of Kremlin’s sites or on Russian electronic media like RT or Sputnik — will be regarded as a nuisance. But more serious hostile acts in the cyber domain (e.g. an attack on select objects of military, urban or financial infrastructure) could provoke a whole set of retaliation measures from the Russian side with unclear, but undoubtedly very dangerous consequences for both sides.   

World Cup 

British action: The prospect of England boycotting the World Cup which is taking place in Russia and starts in June has been constantly talked about since the poisoning took place.  Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, has suggested that England’s full participation could be in doubt if Russia is found to be responsible for the attack. It is thought that would mean officials and representatives not travelling to Russia for the tournament.  But there are growing calls for even more drastic action and for the England team to boycott the event. There are also calls for other nations to do the same. 

Russian response: If the World Cup in not attended only by the British officials, it is not likely to impress the Russian leadership too much. The absence of the English team and British fans would be more visible, not to mention a more general boycott from a number of leading football nations. On the other hand, if such a boycott does take place, Russia will get a lifetime opportunity to  punch above its weight in global football. Though it is still hard to imagine Russian football matching the success of Russian ice hockey at the recent PyeongChang Olympic games.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty

British action: Article 5 dictates that “an armed attack against one or more” members of the group “shall be considered an attack against them all” and that they will respond together.  Mrs May said on Monday that the UK’s “commitment to collective defence and security through NATO remains as strong as ever in the face of Russian behaviour”.  Meanwhile, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said it was “in touch with the UK authorities on this issue».  There has been speculation that the UK could invoke Article 5 and bring about a full NATO response.  However, Dominic Raab, the Housing Minister, suggested on Tuesday that the UK was not pursuing such a course. 

Russian response: Anything consolidating NATO members against Russia, should be a matter of concern in the Kremlin. However, the current state of NATO-Russia relations is so poor now, it is not clear what NATO can do now to punish Moscow for its alleged actions. The reality is that NATO used most of it leverage at the early stage of the Ukrainian crisis back in 2014; in Moscow today expectation for future cooperation with NATO remain very low. On the other hand, NATO is not an institution that can make fast decisions even in a challenging environment.  The odds are that the immediate NATO reaction will be mostly rhetorical.      

Joint statement 

British action: Britain could call on the support of its closest allies to put the pressure on Moscow in the form of a joint statement of international condemnation.  Such a statement could be issued from leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, warning Russia that such actions will not be tolerated. However, the key question would be whether US President Donald Trump would sign it. The White House has been seemingly reluctant so far to formally blame Russia for the poisonings. 

Russian response: In Russia they are trying to start restoring relations with both Paris and Berlin. For example, Emmanuel Macron is planning to come to Russia in May for the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. There are expectations of an early Russian – German summit after the new government in Berlin gets down to business. If the UK talks its partners out of these plans, it would be a serious setback for the Russian leadership.  As for the United States, I think that the initial Russian hopes to enter into a grand bargain with the Trump Administration have already vanished into the thin air. Not much is expected now of the friendship with Donald Trump.   


British action:The Government could move to immediately expel senior Russian diplomats from the UK.  It has happened before: The murder of former spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 led to a severe deterioration in British-Russian ties and in July the following year, four British and four Russian diplomats were expelled from their respective embassies.

Russian response: The Kremlin is ready for expulsions. The United States and Russia played this game last year and they added a new dimension to it, closing down diplomatic missions and recreation facilities of each other. The question is how significant these expulsions will be in the UK case. For instance, expulsion of the Russian Ambassador in London would be a very strong signal – even the US so far has chosen not to go that far.

Financial sanctions 

British action: Individuals linked to the Kremlin could be hit with financial sanctions including the withdrawal of visas and the seizing of assets. Tough new sanctions against Russian officials involved in corruption and human rights abuse have been floated.  A series of sanctions were imposed by the European Union and United States after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine in 2014, targeting access to capital markets, the oil and gas sectors and individuals. The EU could tighten these measures, which it has not kept current, in the wake of the Salisbury attack to increase pressure on Russia.

Russian response: Sanctions against individuals are not likely to scare the Russian leadership. In fact, the Kremlin might even profit from these sanctions – they can assist the current state policy of trying to bring Russian money and Russian businesses back to Russia. If the United Kingdom is no longer perceived as a safe haven for Russian fat cats, the cosmopolitan faction of the Russian economic elite might be forced to seek protection back home. However, a new level of EU sectoral sanctions against Russia, affecting finances, energy, hi-tech, etc., would be a completely different ballgame.  It would constitute a real problem for the Kremlin.    

Source: The Telegraph