Britain has been signalling its weakness to Russia for years — and now Putin fears no reprisal

Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd L) toasts guests in the presidential lounge after the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Photo: David Goldman – Pool/ Getty Images.
  • The attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal is a result of Britain signalling weakness to Russia for years, according to Chatham House.
  • Russia’s reaction to the nerve gas poisoning suggests President Vladimir Putin believes he is beyond reprisal.
  • Putin is thought to be testing how isolated Britain is following Brexit.

Britain has been unintentionally signalling its weakness to Russia for years – and it may have paved the way for Vladimir Putin’s poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal.

Skripal lies stricken by a military grade nerve gas in a hospital bed, and Russia has responded with what Prime Minister Theresa May said was “sarcasm, contempt and, defiance” to Britain’s demands for an explanation.

Putin even appeared to smirk when asked about the incident by a British journalist this week. It suggests the president fears no reprisal from the UK.

Russia experts at Britain’s highly respected Chatham House think tank said the events are the result of the UK having “communicated weakness to Russia without any intention of doing so” for more than a decade – and that Putin is now testing the country’s resolve.

James Sherr and John Lough, associate fellows of Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme, date Britain’s vulnerability back to the assassination of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

In a blog and Twitter thread, they said the UK’s failure to launch a public inquiry into the defector’s death until 2014 suggested that consecutive governments have been “disinclined to name and shame Russia for fear of harming attempts to rebuild ties.”

Sherr and Lough pointed to three other ways in which Britain has signalled its weakness:

  1. “The winding down of a fair portion of the UK’s maritime reconnaissance and warfare capability in northern waters was regarded with disbelief by Russia.”
  2. “David Cameron’s government chose to absent itself from the Russia-Ukraine ‘Minsk Process,’ a signal to Moscow that Ukraine is a low priority for the UK.”
  3. “Brexit – from Moscow’s perspective, the UK’s position at the EU top table enhanced US and British influence simultaneously. That advantage has been thrown away.”

Theresa May
Theresa May. Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

Sherr told Sky News on Wednesday that the attempted murder of Skripal is designed as a “test to see how isolated we are” following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016.

“If the UK chooses to act toughly, will its allies support it or simply send their best wishes?,” he added in the Chatham House blog.

Among a raft of retaliatory measures against Moscow following the Skripal poisoning, May announced plans to expel 23 Russian diplomats and cancel a delegation to the football World Cup this summer.

Eyes will now turn to Britain’s allies, particularly in Washington, to see if their words of support translate into action against the Kremlin.

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