Espionage analysis: PM’s statement notable for what is missing

Expulsion of Russian diplomats and extension of anti-terror measures unsurprising

British PM Theresa May: “We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents.” Photograph: PA

British PM Theresa May: “We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents.” Photograph: PA

 

After days of sabre-rattling, British PM Theresa May’s response to the Salisbury attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal was, on the face of it, a modest one.

The expulsion of diplomats and targeted financial sanctions were well trailed and she had nothing tangible to show in terms of international solidarity.

The most important measures are targeted at Russia’s espionage network in Britain and the 23 diplomats sent packing represent 40 per cent of the Russians on the diplomatic list. May told MPs that the 23 had been identified as intelligence personnel operating under diplomatic cover and that their expulsion was aimed at disabling Russia’s espionage capacity in Britain.

A second significant step involves the extension of anti-terrorism measures to what May described as hostile state activity.

“This will include the addition of a targeted power to detain those suspected of hostile state activity at the UK border. This power is currently only permitted in relation to those suspected of terrorism,” she said.

She promised, as expected, the government’s support for Labour’s proposal for a version of the US Magnitsky Act, which targets individuals implicated in human rights abuses and large-scale corruption in Russia. And she suggested that existing laws could be applied with more energy against Russians with dubious sources of wealth and links to Vladimir Putin.

“We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents. And, led by the National Crime Agency, we will continue to bring all the capabilities of UK law enforcement to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites. There is no place for these people – or their money – in our country,” she said.

Forensic teams work at an address in Gillingham, Dorset, as they remove a recovery truck used following the Salisbury nerve agent attack. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Forensic teams at an address in Gillingham, Dorset, as they remove a recovery truck used following the Salisbury nerve agent attack. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Her statement was notable too for what was missing, including threatened action against the Russian television channel RT and any evidence that Britain’s allies are ready to co-ordinate countermeasures against Moscow. Britain is seeking an urgent discussion of the Salisbury attack at the United Nations Security Council but Russia will have a veto on any proposal for action.

If May’s statement was an anti-climax, a note of scepticism in Jeremy Corbyn’s response outraged Conservatives and enraged some Labour backbenchers. Corbyn condemned the use of a nerve agent, but asked if the government had asked the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to help determine if Russia was responsible rather than a rogue actor.

As Labour MPs who were cheerleaders for every disastrous military adventure from the Iraq war to the allied attack on Libya spluttered with indignation, Corbyn’s spokesman pointed out that the Labour leader had a better record on international affairs than most of them.

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