There is a precarious balance between Russia and the rest of the world
British intelligence services worked swiftly to identify the two Russian GRU (Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye), military intelligence service agents, who were responsible for the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury UK.
After their entire itinerary was detailed, along with CCTV footage of every stage of their mission -- including the reconnaissance phase prior to the actual attack -- the two Russian operatives offered a comical explanation of having life-long ambitions to visit the famous Salisbury cathedral.
A far-fetched account, which seemed to have been desperately cooked up only after they were exposed. It seems no prior thought was put into a plausible cover story for such a brazen mission. Only last week, we were informed of another blatant and amateurish attempt when Russian spies tried to target the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in April.
Dutch authorities showed copies of four consecutively numbered passports of GRU agents who flew directly from Moscow, with no stop-over. The agents used public wifi hotspots which was not encrypted, so all their login details were easily obtained. The vehicle they hired was intercepted by Dutch intelligence, and was full of incriminating material.
So why does Russia’s GRU continue to attempt global operations which are so poorly conceived? This is after all a country, which was dominated by the once globally feared and respected KGB.
One explanation might be that since the West has consistently failed to respond adequately to Russian assertiveness in recent years, whether in Syria, or in Crimea, or in their ongoing cyber and intelligence efforts to undermine the social and political structures of the West, there is simply no need to go the extra mile.
After all, the only response has been sanctions, and though they have done considerable damage to the Russian economy, they have done nothing to undermine Putin’s domestic political position. Quite the opposite.
So, in effect, the West is rewarding Putin with increased domestic political support by helping him rally popular nationalist support in defiance to Western pressure for his increasingly ostentatious behaviour.
Another side of the story might be that Putin is not expecting that the West could do much more in response, even if they wanted to. Sure, there will be a strongly worded statements from allies in the West. But as far as Russia’s international standing goes, that’s hardly going to change anything. The West is already taking a pretty dim view of the Putin government as it is -- with Trump the only notable exception.
Can Europe realistically pose a military challenge to Russia? Hardly. Can they inflict further economic pain on the country? Perhaps, but that avenue is already near exhaustion. Anything else? Then Putin will likely be able to turn around, and spin that as an act of British aggression -- once again with a positive effect for Putin’s domestic position.
That said, however, if Europe were serious about retaliation, it does in fact have an avenue to respond. Putin may be the keystone of the Russian political system, but he is not floating in air. He needs the support and loyalty of the oligarchs to remain in power. And most, if not all, of those oligarchs have huge investments and flourishing money laundering operations running, primarily, out of London.
What is more, the British government has the legal authority to freeze assets and crack down on the loosely-regulated vehicles used for money laundering in the City. The British government does, therefore, have the power to do serious damage to the Russian plutocracy, and can use that leverage to pit Putin’s power base against him.
Putin is not stupid. He knows this. But he is betting that this will not happen. And he may have a point. If Downing Street goes for the “nuclear option,” that creates a dangerous precedent: Suddenly, Chinese billionaires, or African presidents, find that London can take an interest in their assets, and can usurp them for political reasons.
Even if the city’s status as the world’s foremost financial centre for dubiously wealthy individuals and companies was not already threatened by the spectre of Brexit, this would definitely be a huge blow all by itself. So why not goad London a little bit more? After all, when have they ever put principle before the interests of the city?
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim. This article previously appeared on Al-Arabiya.