The reaction to Russia's alleged assassination attempt in the UK shows that Brexit hasn't broken the UK's global influence, but the response does show that there is little unity within the EU.

Earlier this week, Russia was hit with the news that 26 countries, along with NATO, were expelling more than 150 Russian intelligence officers. This was in response to the use of a Russian nerve agent during an assassination attempt of Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Skripal was a former Russian intelligence official who was caught spying for Britain in 2004. He was living in the UK with members of his family after being part of a spy swap with Russia in 2010.

The swift and coordinated nature of these expulsions came as a surprise to many. In the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Theresa May described these expulsions as “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history.”

The US alone closed the Russian consulate in Seattle and is kicking out 60 Russian officials thought to be intelligence officers — 48 from the Russian Embassy in Washington DC and 12 from the Russian mission to the United Nations in New York.  More expulsions are expected in the coming days.

While most of the media focus has been on the breaking news of the diplomatic expulsions, it is worth analysing what this means for British influence in the world and the unity of Europe when dealing with Russia.

A Closer Look

When looking more closely at the circumstances surrounding these expulsions, two important points stand out that have been largely overlooked.

First, the concern about the UK losing its global or European influence after Brexit is unfounded. Getting 25 other countries from around the world (and counting), along with NATO, to expel so many Russian intelligence officers took a lot of hard work behind the scenes by London. Equally impressive is that these announcements were made within 24 hours of each other.

The ability of the UK to coordinate such a broad and global response is testament to the influence that London enjoys around the world. If these mass expulsions show anything, they prove that Britain remains a global power and that the vote for Brexit has not changed this.

Second, on closer examination, the European Union is not as united as one might think. At the time of writing, only 18 out of 28 members of the EU have committed to expelling Russian intelligence officers.

The EU states that have not announced any expulsions are not surprising. They include countries that are known to have an uncomfortably cozy relationship with Moscow, like Greece, Malta, Cyprus, and Slovenia. The decision by Austria not to expel any Russian diplomats shows how much influence the far-right and Kremlin-linked Freedom Party has in the ruling coalition.

Even France and Germany are only expelling four diplomats each — a paltry number considering the size of the Russian diplomatic missions in Paris and Berlin.

Clearly, beyond rhetoric, the European Union is not united on this issue.

Russia’s Response

So what will Russia’s response be? It is too early to know, but it is clear there will be one. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated, “Certainly, we will not tolerate such impudence.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs even conducted a twitter poll asking followers to select which US consulate in Russia should be closed: St. Petersburg, Vladivostok or Yekaterinburg.

St. Petersburg won.  

While this was just a flippant twitter poll, Russia will treat its response to these expulsions very seriously and the West needs to be aware of this.

Russia has a number of options at its disposal to retaliate.

First, it could do a tit-for-tat expulsion of an equal number of foreign diplomats from Russia and close a US consulate. Alternatively, Russia could up the ante and expel even more foreign diplomats.  However, Russia limiting its options only to expelling foreign diplomats is too predictable, and not really Vladimir Putin’s style.

It should be expected that Putin would be bolder with Russia’s response coming high off his recent election victory. While it is likely there will be diplomatic expulsions, Russia’s real response to recent events will likely take a different form.

There are many opportunities for Moscow to bring pressure onto the West. Russia could ramp up the fighting in eastern Ukraine or raise tensions in Georgia. Russia could also use its immense influence in Syria as a way to respond to the West. It could take a more aggressive military posture in the Black Sea or increase Russian Air Force incursions into Baltic airspace. 

Russian cyber and information warfare activity cannot be ruled out. Russia has shown a propensity in the past to use non-traditional ways to respond to Western actions, so there is no reason to suspect that this case will be any different.

A Diplomatic Victory

It remains to be seen what impact, if any, the expulsion of almost 150 Russian diplomats will have on Putin’s behavior. It is reasonable to assume that the immediate impact on Russian policymaking would be minimal.

After all, Putin has shown a willingness to withstand Western sanctions and the Russian people seem content on tolerating this.

The 60 diplomats expelled by the US is almost double of what President Obama expelled for election meddling in 2016 and more than President Reagan’s expulsion of 55 Russian diplomats in 1986.

The coordinated response from so many different countries is unprecedented and it shows the seriousness in which many take the assassination attempt by Russia using an illegal nerve agent. While it will not fundamentally change Putin’s way of doing business in the short-term, it demonstrates that British influence around the world remains strong after the Brexit vote.  

If these expulsions achieve anything, it is a much-needed diplomatic victory for the United Kingdom. 

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