Analysis |

Isolated From Europe and U.S., Britain’s Theresa May Has No Power to Threaten Putin

Expulsion of Russian diplomats over the poisoning of a double agent is unprecedented since the Cold War, but will cause little damage to Russia. And why is Benjamin Netanyahu silent?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, during a meeting Luxembourg's prime minister in London, U.K. on March 14, 2018.
Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, during a meeting Luxembourg's prime minister in London, U.K. on March 14, 2018. Credit: Bloomberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement on Wednesday that it was “highly likely” that Russia was behind the assassination attempt on a former double agent and his daughter was expected. The expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats accused of undercover intelligence activity in Britain – the sanctions May announced in response to the “military-grade” nerve agent used on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English town of Salisbury a week and a half ago – is unprecedented since the Cold War, but it’s hardly a major blow to the Kremlin. Moscow will very soon announce a reciprocal expulsion of British diplomats, and its interests will not be harmed by a cessation of high-level contacts with the British government.

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May didn’t announce the confiscation of Russian citizens’ assets in British banks or a boycott of the FIFA World Cup finals in Russia this summer. She just noted that no member of the royal family would be watching the games. For now at least, Russia is not going to have to pay for brazenly trying to commit murder in broad daylight – and exposing hundreds of British civilians, police officers and medical personnel to a deadly substance in the process.

Britain, in the process of detaching itself from Europe with Brexit, has not been so isolated since the early years of the World War II. Hopes of its historic “special relationship” across the Atlantic filling the vacuum have been dashed by the indifference of President Donald Trump, whose spokesperson didn’t even mention Russia in the initial White House statement on Monday. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a much fiercer condemnation of Russia but was fired a few hours later.

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Without a forceful response from the U.S., Britain will not get much more than words from NATO. The defense alliance’s leaders have strongly criticized the nerve agent attack on a NATO member’s sovereign soil, but there is unlikely to be any action beyond that. There was a chorus of support from European Union leaders, but Britain is clumsily leaving the EU and can’t expect it to jeopardize its interests for the U.K. now. Russian President Vladimir Putin, if it was indeed he who signed off on the assassination, knew that he couldn’t have chosen a more vulnerable moment for Britain. It is reluctant to strike Putin’s close associates where it really hurts: the billions that Russian oligarchs have salted away in British banks, real estate and other prestigious properties such as football clubs and newspapers. Such steps would endanger London’s status as a world financial center at a time when the economy is already suffering from the Brexit.

>>Nikki Haley tells UN: Russia responsible for chemical attack in U.K.

There is a silver lining in this for May. Her forceful stance against Russia has focused unwelcome attention on her opponent from the other side of the dispatch box in Parliament. The leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has been winning most of the arguments against May since his surprisingly strong showing in last year’s general election, which forced the rebellious MPs of his party to get in line behind him.

But Corbyn’s anti-American foreign policy is still deeply unpopular, and he found it difficult to muster any enthusiasm for May’s statements in Parliament. As a former regular guest on the Kremlin’s Russia Today channel, he barely tried to hide his skepticism over Russia’s culpability. Corbyn may be of the far left, but his positions on the Kremlin are most reminiscent of Trump’s. After Corbyn’s sour response to the prime minister, a number of senior Labour backbenchers stood up to laud May’s sentiments in what was a damning indictment of their own leader. The prime minister may not be able to rely on Britain’s foreign allies to join her in facing Russia, but at least Putin has helped to once again split Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Meanwhile, another British ally is missing. A prominent leader who in the past has been quick to warn about weapons of mass destruction in the hands of rogue states, and who early on in his career made his mark by calling out Russia’s involvement in sponsoring terror groups, has been notably silent since the Salisbury poisonings. Yes, it is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has not said a word of support for Britain or a condemnation of Russia in all this time.

Netanyahu’s silence on Russia is not new. He has never publicly criticized Putin, with whom he gets along so well. The same pattern occurred exactly four years ago, when the entire Western world and all democracies fiercely condemned Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea from Ukriane. Even when the Obama administration implored Israel to make a statement, what came out was a general exhortation “to both sides” to resolve their differences peacefully. Israel, which prides itself on always supporting the U.S. at the United Nations, was absent from the vote of condemnation in the General Assembly.

No politician in any country has been more eloquent than Netanyahu on the dangers of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in the hands of both state actors and terror organizations. The fact that he cannot muster some token statement on the assassination attempt in Salisbury and the predicament of Israel’s ally Britain shows just how much he is now beholden to Putin, the dominant force in the Middle East. It is also a damning indictment of just how badly both Obama and Trump have let down their allies.

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