George Tarr

The Skripal Case

The Event

On the 4th of March, Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned on park bench in Salisbury, by a devastating nerve agent which left them both in critical condition. Skripal is a former double-agent, who was jailed in Russia in 2006 for transferring crucial intelligence documents to the British government. Released four years on as part of a diplomatic exchange, he has lived in the UK since.

The Response

Britain has responded severely, declaring outright the responsibility of the Russian state and expelling 23 Russian diplomats from UK territory. Her allies, particularly France, Germany and the US, have followed suit, with the EU recalling its envoy to Russia, Markus Ederer, and Trump expelling 60 Russian diplomats. The UK claims strong evidence against Russia, although this has not yet been publicly presented. Russia denies all involvement and promises retaliation in response to what it considers rash and short-sighted posturing.

The Problem

The problem with May’s response is that there is no foreseeably good outcome. While she is right to think the response appears tough, and right that it deals a blow to Russian intelligence, it is difficult to see how the response can be drawn to a close, other than with eventual, quiet backtracking. Simply, Russia will never confess and diplomatic expulsion cannot continue forever. The most probable outcome is a gradual re-opening of diplomatic posts, with little achieved.

An Alternative

A better response would be this: The UK should demand that the Russian Federation stand trial in the ICJ for failure to destroy or maintain control of illicit chemical weapons and unjustified use of force. Indeed, as discussed here, the latter may be a false characterisation of the poisoning under international law, despite British claims. In any case, Russia will inevitably deny this request and refuse to stand trial. Stated in advance, the penalty for this should be a fixed term economic sanction, as punishment – not for the poisoning – but for refusal to refer to the ICJ.

This measure, unlike the current diplomatic response, is consistent with:

  1. Not punishing states for crimes as yet unproved in an official international tribunal: Unlike Russia, Britain can continue to be seen as acting systematically and calmly in accordance with liberal international norms.
  2. Not eventually backtracking in the absence of confession: Diplomatic expulsions must end. A fixed term economic sanction saves face in advance.
  3. Not cutting diplomatic channels: Diplomatic channels are the whole life-force of the international community. They are the means to resolving diplomatic crises, not a line to be cut at the first sight of one.
  4. Still punishing Russia: Russia still gets a hit on the nose for the poisoning – a deterrent against future antics – but with refusal to stand trial as a proxy charge.

In both the short and long term, this seems like a better response to the Skripal case.


As my good friend Matt Burwood points out, the problem with sanctions is that they tend to punish citizens rather than states. Nevertheless, as he adds, the Russian response to the UK harms citizens too. How do we balance these harms?

One might argue that it is simply better for the UK if such harm to citizens is done by Putin, rather than May. That would undermine Russian domestic popularity, rather than increasing hostility of Russian citizens towards Europe. This sort of reasoning is often justified, however it is worth noting: British sanctions against Russia’s refusal to stand trial would be a considerable blow to Russian soft power, too, even given the resentment fostered by ensuing sanctions. If citizens are going to take a hit, let it be because:

  • Russia refused to correspond with the liberal international rule of law and Europe saw fit to punish it in a way which was harmful to citizens

Rather than because

  • Russia may have attempted the assassination of an unpopular national traitor, Europe eschewed its own liberal international conception of justice, saw fit to punish it by eschewing its own liberal international conception of diplomacy, and in doing so invited a Russian response which was harmful to citizens

The second is a lot easier for Russian media to sell. Take this recent tweet from the Russian ambassador to the UK:

Nevertheless, as Matt very sensibly notes, even the current response could lead to the building of a coalition and coherent strategy against the new hybrid warfare, of which this poisoning is a symbol.

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