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United in Solidarity (?) – Thoughts from Brussels over the Salisbury Attack

Ana Andghuladze

Unprecedented solidarity was demonstrated from the West in response to the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia with the nerve agent “Novichok” on March 4th in Salisbury, UK. The attack that was assessed by the UK government as “highly likely being organized by Russia” has become the major incentive for Theresa May to finally make a bold response towards Russia’s actions in the UK and all over the world. Theresa May has managed to build a solidarity circle around the UK and as a result 29 states, including Georgia, have announced the expulsion of more than 150 Russian diplomats in total from their respective countries. Response came from the NATO as well, as it has deprived the accreditation of 10 diplomats working in the Russian mission to the transatlantic alliance. 

Russia had announced that its response would be “symmetrical” to the number of Russian diplomats that have been expelled by 29 countries. Consequently, Russia has expelled 60 U.S. and 23 British diplomats and closed the U.S. and British consulates in St. Petersburg. Russia has also retaliated to other countries by expulsion of the same number of diplomats as Russians expelled.  

It seems like the attack in Salisbury has become a turning point for the UK and the West in their relation with Russia. Strong British response, is a very important development not only for the UK but also to every country affected by Russia’s arbitrary and often aggressive interferences on foreign soils. For Georgia, Russian aggression is not new. Russia’s interests in the country and in the region are very high. Unlike the UK, other countries in the EU’s eastern neighborhood share borders with Russia and are even more vulnerable as demonstrated in 2008 in Georgia and in 2014 in Ukraine. Therefore, response from international community to Salisbury attack is interesting for Georgia as well. With this in mind, ISFED addressed members of the European Parliament and Brussels-based analysts working on the region about the recent development and how do they think it might affect the Eastern Partnership countries. 

UK’s response to the Salisbury attack and their success to persuade Western allies to act in unity has been welcomed by politicians and experts in Brussels. With the support towards UK and Western allies’ actions, the importance of putting forward the hard evidence of Russia’s involvement in the attack has been highlighted as well. 

British Labor Party MEP and S&D Group member Clare Moody, who is also a resident of Salisbury city, stressed the significance of firm response: “We have to push back, because we have seen before actions of this nature and if there is not firm enough response, then they keep happening.” However, Ms. Moody emphasized the importance of strong evidence for “not giving any ground to say that our choices on the response is illegitimate or somewhat questionable.” 

Ms. Moody also pointed the problem of Russian money in the UK. “There are a lot of financial links between some actors and London and we need to therefore take action in relation to that. It is not just us alone.” She has underlined that the recent developments are linked to Russia’s ongoing aggression towards its direct neighborhood as well. “Of course it has a link with Eastern Partner countries. The link is often being made between what happened in 2008 in Georgia and what happened in Crimea. These things do not happen in isolation.” “We have to recognize that we are all affected and therefore our responses need to be firm at every point.” 

German MEP and a long-time Kremlin critic Rebecca Harms from Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, sees the attack as the turning point of the West’s relations with Kremlin.  

“The attacks in Salisbury are a very serious reason to again reconsider our relations to the Kremlin.” Ms. Harms believes Western leaders should boycott the upcoming World Cup to be hosted by the Russian Federation. “Since the Kremlin decided to occupy Crimea and to wage war against Ukraine and even more since the terrible escalation of war in Syria with the direct involvement of the Russian army, I cannot comprehend how anybody can believe in love and peace during the World Cup in Russian cities. I therefore strongly recommend that politicians should stay away from this World Cup. Leaders should not strengthen the more and more authoritarian and anti-western path of the Russian President.” 

Beyond this, Ms. Harms emphasized the importance of taking more serious measures from the EU member states towards Russia. “The EU has to decide on common sanctions following the attack in Salisbury, but we should not exclusively consider a boycott of the World Cup as the only instrument. Our strength towards Putin and the Kremlin will be defined by how the UK government is dealing with Russian money in London, how Germany deals with Nord Stream II and how we unite in our non-military reactions. We cannot allow the Russian President to split the European Union.” 

According to Amanda Paul, the senior policy analyst of the Brussels-based think-tank, European Policy Centre, expelling diplomats from wide range of countries are rather “symbolic”.  

“It is quite symbolic. It is a positive sign of solidarity but obviously it will exacerbate an already difficult relationship between Russia, the EU and the West. The United States is expelling the majority, some (60) diplomats. This is quite a high number. If you look at some of the EU member states the number is very low and in some cases, for example in Belgium, they were practically forced into doing it and some countries have not expressed any desire to expel the Russian diplomats from their countries – for example Cyprus and Greece.”  

Ms. Paul is skeptical about whether the follow up actions from the Western allies will go beyond expulsion of Russian diplomats. “Many people did not expect such solidarity, particularly because the UK is in the process of leaving the EU. Such solidarity was not demonstrated during the Alexander Litvinenko case. However, I don’t think for the time being that this solidarity will go beyond these measures, because there is no appetite from most Member States.” 

Amanda Paul also stressed the seriousness of Russia’s financial links with the UK: “We should take into consideration how many Russians are living in the UK, thousands of them and hundreds of them are extremely rich people including many oligarchs and they are everywhere, in media, in business, in the corridors of power, etc. Many are enemies of the Kremlin. It is like a spider-web. And also amount of Russian money that flows around, reportedly including Theresa May’s own Conservative Party: It is alleged that the Conservatives have money donated from Russian sources, oligarchs or business connections.” 

While the united actions of 29 states might seem as a strong message towards Russia, Amanda Paul points the problem of disunity inside the European Union in relations with Russia. “For the Russians, strategic objective is always more important than anything else and President Putin still manages to have good relations with quite a number of EU member states. There is a change in Italy with the new government, we don’t know exactly what shift it will be, but it seems likely that it is going to be the most Russia-friendly government in Italy for the long time. But not only in Italy, there are more and more member states that are looking to have reengagement with Russia and have more pragmatic approach. Business relations still go on to. Nord Stream II is a good example. Yet at the same time these states remain committed to sanctions despite the fact that some member states believe that the way we are dealing with Russia at the moment is not helping and we are just going around in a vicious circle that gets nowhere. This double approach has become the new status quo for relations.” 

Interestingly, the German Foreign Minister has already announced that Germany is ready to continue dialogue with Russia, since the West “needs Russia as a partner” and Austrian PM Kurz declared he is not going to expel any Russian diplomats as he is seeking better relations with Russia. 

Amanda Paul also questions the EU’s approach towards Russia over the conflict in Georgia. “I am sure that the EU was very concerned about what happened with killing of Archil Tatunashvili, but it did not result in anything more than a statement. Personally, I would have put sanctions on Russia following the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and ongoing occupation and failure to fully implement the ceasefire agreement. I don’t see what the difference is between Ukraine and Georgia in terms of what Russia has actually done there. Key difference is that Ukraine is much closer to the EU than Georgia and that at the time of the Russia-Georgia war the West seemed to believe it was a “one-off” and would not repeat itself. This demonstrated a total lack of understanding of Russia’s current leadership.” 

With all these comments from Brussels in mind, it is important that Georgia ceases the momentum of current firm response towards Russia while it lasts. Georgia’s decision to expel one Russian diplomat from the Russian Federation interest section of the Swiss Embassy in Tbilisi is especially important following the killing of Georgian citizen, Archil Tatunashvili, while in the custody of the Russian-backed Tskhinvali regime a few weeks ago. While Tbilisi’s decision to join the Western allies in the united response is a positive sign, Georgia still needs to step up its efforts internationally to increase awareness about the situation in occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In fact, this might be a good opportunity for Georgia to put its interests in the international agenda, especially in light of the upcoming NATO summit. 

The unprecedented global solidarity towards the UK has created serious tensions with Russia. While it is unclear what will come next in relations between Russia and the West, one thing is certain, that West needs more strategic and consistent approach towards increasing threats posed by Russia. Response to Salisbury attack could be a start.