The Death of a Spy: How An Already Weak Britain-Russia Relationship is Falling Apart

Written by: Jasmine Owens

Tensions have heightened the past few weeks between Britain and Russia as the mystery surrounding the poisoning of two British citizens remains unsolved. On Sunday, March 4th, two citizens, Sergei Skripal, a former double agent for Russia and the United Kingdom, and his daughter, Yulia, were found slumped unconscious on a bench outside of the Maltings Shopping Centre in Salisbury, England.

In Britain and around the world, suspicion of Russian involvement in the attack has been mounting. The nerve agent used to poison Skripal and his daughter was Novichok, a highly lethal nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It is known that Skripal was a spy for Russia, until he was turned by the British in 1995. Despite these facts, Russia has denied any connection to the attack, insisting it has “no information.” Bolstering these claims, major news outlets in Russia have taken a similar stance. Russia believes that the blame falls on Britain, who allegedly performed this attack “to feed their Russophobia.”

Prime Minister Theresa May blamed Russia for the attack. May gave Russia until midnight Tuesday to explain the event. Russia ignored the deadline, claiming it was not enough time to respond. Just a few days later, May expelled 23 Russian diplomats, giving them one week to leave the country. This has been the single largest expulsion of Russian diplomats in Britain in more than 30 years. She also announced that no British ministers or royals would attend the World Cup this summer in Russia. 

Experts have mentioned multiple tougher avenues Britain could pursue in punishing Russia. One example was for Britain to advocate for tighter economic restrictions on Russia by the international community. However, there is already an extremely strained relationship between Britain and Russia since the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, another former spy for Russia. Further action taken by Prime Minister May has the potential to increase the  pressure on the already fragile relationship between the two countries. In response to May’s announcement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov threatened that an expulsion of British diplomats from Russia would be happening soon. A spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin said “it won’t be long until” he decides on retaliatory measures. 

For Britain to maintain their foreign policy of “a global Britain,” it would not be wise to damage the London-Moscow relationship beyond repair. Experts note that despite the animosity, there needs to be some semblance of a diplomatic relationship. A diplomatic relationship will be especially important when, and if the time comes for Britain to deliberate with Russia over the rebuilding of Syria once the war ends. As well, Britain and Russia need to remain civil in order to continue the discussion of deterring North Korea from nuclear weapons production and protecting the Iran Nuclear deal.

Britain called on its allies to also criticize Russia for its alleged role in the attack. In a joint statement, Britain, the United States, France, and Germany denounced Russia, calling their role in the poisoning a “breach of international law.” After initial silence from the Trump administration on the matter, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the attack “an egregious act” that “clearly came from Russia.” Going further, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley condemned the Russian state, demanding a firm international response. Recently, President Trump himself agreed that Russia was likely behind the poisoning, despite their denials. 

How this event will play out over the near future is still unknown. The world waits as Russia contemplates a response to Prime Minister May’s expulsion of Russian diplomats. While there is a chance for tensions to rise and the crisis to escalate, it would be in Britain’s and everyone’s best interests to ensure that does not happen.