Spy poisoning: UK considers ‘full range’ of retaliation

LONDON (AFP): Prime Minister Theresa May has warned that Britain is considering a “full range” of retaliatory measures if it concludes that Russia was responsible for a nerve agent attack in an English city.

Options mooted in recent days include the expulsion of Russian diplomats, a retaliatory cyber attack and asset seizures of Russian nationals suspected of human rights abuses, as well as possible joint international action with the EU or NATO.

“The UK can convince EU countries to adopt sanctions against Russia, but it will be difficult,” Sam Greene, head of the Russian Institute at King’s College London, told AFP.

“Opinion in Europe is already divided,” he said, stressing the need for “very careful diplomacy”.

In a similar case, Britain expelled four Russian diplomats in 2007 after Russia refused to extradite the main suspect in the radiation poisoning death of former agent Alexander Litvinenko.

Britain was also an active proponent behind the current EU diplomatic and financial sanctions on Russian political and business leaders imposed over the conflict in Ukraine.

Here are the main possible responses to the current crisis provoked by the poisoning of former double agent, Sergei Skripal, in the English city of Salisbury on March 4:

Cyber attack

“Offensive cyber would be something in the arsenal. It would be considered or even likely,” The Times on Tuesday quoted a senior Whitehall source as saying.

The paper said such an attack could include attacking Kremlin computer networks or websites publishing fake news and the output from state-sponsored cyber-troll installations.

Greene however warned that a cyber response could lead to “a logic of escalation that doesn’t make anybody safer”.

In the past, Britain has accused Russia of cyber interference.

Britain last month said that Russia was behind the devastating “NotPetya” ransomware attack in 2017, calling it a Kremlin effort to destabilise Ukraine which spun out of control.

Asset seizures

May suggested to parliament on Monday that the government was looking at a British version of the US “Magnitsky Act”.

The legislation, passed in 2012, was designed to punish Russian officials involved in the death in custody of a lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who had denounced official corruption.

The measures would make it easier to seize the British assets of Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses.

“We do want to ensure that we get the maximum possible consensus across the House on this particular issue,” May told parliament.

Super-rich Russians, including some with close links to the Kremlin, have invested heavily in the London property market and sent their children to British schools in recent years.

Russian TV

The possibility of withdrawing British broadcasting licences for Russian state-owned news channel RT has been raised repeatedly by British lawmakers in recent days.

The broadcasting regulator Ofcom has said it will “consider the implications” of May’s statement to parliament on Wednesday.

Ofcom said it had a “duty to be satisfied that all broadcast licensees are fit and proper to hold a licence”.

RT responded saying: “It is regrettable to see RT so quickly proposed to be sacrificed as a political pawn, in one fell swoop doing away with any concept of press freedom in the UK.”

The channel said it played an important role in “completing the picture of news for its audience”.

Expelling diplomats

The expulsion of Russian diplomats could well be on the cards.

Britain sent away four Russian diplomats over the radioactive poisoning of Litvinenko in 2006 but the use of expulsions as a form of punishment goes back to the darkest days of the Cold War.

In September 1971 Britain expelled a record number of 105 Soviet diplomats and officials after Moscow refused to clarify the activities of 440 of its citizens in Britain.

There were further expulsions in 1985, 1989 and 1996.

World Cup boycott

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has told parliament that if Russian involvement is confirmed “it will be difficult to see how UK representation at the World Cup can go ahead”.

Officials later backtracked saying Johnson did not mean that the England team would not participate in the global football championship to be hosted by Russia this summer, although the Daily Mail on Tuesday demanded in a front-page headline: “How can we go to Putin’s World Cup now?”

May has said the government might consider a boycott by British officials and dignitaries of the World Cup.

Multiple British media outlets reported Wednesday that Prince William would now not attend, citing royal sources.