Mar 8, 2018 - World

What happens if the U.K. concludes Russia poisoned Sergei Skripal?

Skripal in Moscow District Court in 2006. He was convicted of providing information to MI6. Photo: TASS\TASS via Getty Images

Former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition after being poisoned with a nerve agent in the English town of Salisbury on Sunday, and suspicion has naturally fallen on Russia.

The bottom line: Senior members of the British government have said they aren't ready to "point fingers," but that there will be a robust response if a "state actor" (ahem, Russia) is determined to be the guilty party. The question is when such a determination will be made, and what that response would look like.

The Litvinenko precedent

Alexander Litvinenko, a defector from the Russian security services and outspoken critic of the Kremlin, was murdered with radioactive polonium in London in 2006.

  • Nearly three months after Litvinenko was first poisoned, police named a former Russian spy as the prime suspect, but Russia refused to extradite him to face charges.
  • The case caused a frostiness in U.K.-Russia relations, though little action was taken publicly beyond the expulsion of four diplomats over Russia's refusal to cooperate.

This time around

BBC Security Correspondent Gordon Corera writes that the Litvinenko case "shows that expelling diplomats alone may not be regarded as much of a deterrent to future acts." 

"It may take days - even weeks - for the government to be confident enough to make a public statement, because it will not want to risk getting any details wrong. But if suspicions about Russia are confirmed, then some kind of action seems inevitable," he writes.

Corera suggests that economic sanctions on "the Russian elite" are one option, that would require significant "political will."

Axios' Steve LeVine, author of Putin's Labyrinth about the murders of Putin's enemies, says Theresa May will be in a political box if a Russian role is found:

Litvinenko caused a huge international incident and a lasting diplomatic breach. If they die, this will be murder, again, in a major Western country. The Brits could cut off relations, recall their ambassador, and so on — to which Putin would protest, "show us the facts. The West again is hysterical" — but May will be forced to take demonstrably stern action. Against the backdrop of Crimea, one might see her seek an EU-wide response, though given the changing politics on the continent, that could be hard to achieve.

What they're saying

  • Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said it would be "difficult to imagine" the U.K. would send dignitaries to the World Cup in Russia if the Putin regime is found responsible. "We will have to have a serious conversation about our engagement with Russia," he said Tuesday.
  • Home Secretary Amber Rudd was vague, saying she didn't want to get ahead of the investigation: "We will do what is appropriate, we will do what is right, if it is proved to be the case that this is state-sponsored," she said.

Worth noting: It's not just Litvinenko. In-depth investigations from Buzzfeed News document 14 Russians who died under suspicious circumstances in the U.K.

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