ANALYSIS: Putin’s provocation is a major test of Brexit, Trump and Western cohesion
"Who would be happy if we left?" David Cameron asked rhetorically at the World Economic Forum in June 2016. "Putin might be happy. I suspect [ISIL leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi might be happy."
Perhaps weary after months of incendiary claims on both sides, the Eurosceptic backlash to this intervention, made just under a week before the EU referendum, was relatively muted. Boris Johnson, the torchbearer for the Leave campaign, only went as far as saying the comments were “a bit much, really”.
The assertion was rebuked strongly in the days following the Brexit result, relegated down the news agenda by Cameron’s own resignation and the mass exodus from Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench. And the condemnation came from Vladimir Putin himself, saying the former PM’s allegations “have no basis and never did”.
"As we can see, even this did not bring the right result for those who did it … after the vote, no one has the right to make statements about some position of Russia," he said.
"This is nothing more than a demonstration of the low-level of political culture."
Russia has been busy in recent times. The New Statesman’s cover feature last week elucidated on the Kremlin’s plans to take advantage of the melting polar ice caps, which not only frees up unique shipping lanes but grants access to a new well of fossil fuels and provides a strong military outpost. The country has continued to invest heavily in its military capability, including the development of a nuclear-powered cruise missile with an effective unlimited range. Russia spends more than 5% of its GDP on defence, two and a half times that of the UK, and is building up conventional forces, particularly near the Baltic states. The country has carried out cyber-attacks on foreign soil and paid interest to elections in western democracies.
And, as Theresa May confirmed today, there is "no alternative conclusion other than that Russia was culpable" for the nerve agent attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.
The attack is being framed as a litmus test for Britain’s might in the context of Brexit. It is an important moment to assess just how united the UK’s allies are in dealing with the threat posed by Putin.
It got off to an inauspicious start, with Rex Tillerson taking a far stronger line than the White House in identifying Russia as being behind the chemical weapon attack. He was unceremoniously sacked as Secretary of State a day later, though the White House insisted that the decision was taken the previous Friday. For an administration that has been dogged by accusations surrounding its connection with the Russian Federation, the timing was a little off.
Elsewhere, European leaders have expressed solidarity but the incident comes as the UK renegotiates its future relationship with the EU, including on security and counter terrorism. Europe’s appetite for collective retaliation might not be as strong given the UK is an outgoing member, notwithstanding the added geopolitical complications for European states, their reliance on Russian energy sources and existing divisions on how to handle the Putin question. Though Donald Tusk, in expressing his "full solidarity" with Theresa May, said he would put the issue on the communique at next week’s EU Council.
"For real friends, this should be obvious: At a time of fake news spreading, meddling in our elections, and attacks on people on our soil with nerve agent, the response must not be transatlantic bickering but transatlantic unity," he tweeted.
If the attack then was a calculated move to take the temperature of western cohesiveness, as the brazenness of the events would indicate, much rests on the speed at which the UK can conjure up a unified front. Putin will be watching intently to see whether the recent isolationist approaches of countries such as the US and the denigration of international institutions such as the European Union have affected the West’s ability to collaborate. In Trump and Brexit lie two belief systems in which much weight is placed on the nation state away from collective institutions. It is for this reason perhaps why critics claim Putin was in favour of both endeavours.
The coming days will also illuminate the level of goodwill to which Britain still carries among its European neighbours amid the contentious negotiations to which it is engaged.
The early signals are of some concern. The United Kingdom’s closest ally, America, is yet to formally identify Russia as being behind the attack. Warm words are trickling out of Europe but as yet no collective action has been agreed. And the likely Prime Minister in waiting, Jeremy Corbyn, has come under pressure for his response to events and apparent unwillingness to point the finger at the Kremlin. This has split open the deep schism within the Labour party on issues of foreign policy, which had been plastered together by a better than expected general election campaign.
Should this be a vicarious consequence of Russia’s actions, with the country instead having sought to send a message to its former operatives, then that will only embolden Putin. Should the attack have been a deliberate provocation then Putin will be pleased with how the early chips have fallen.
The Russian president denied that he was in any way partial on the outcome of the referendum. But if the West fails to formulate a collective, proportionate response to Russia’s actions in Salisbury last week, David Cameron’s rhetorical question will be answered.