Putin and May's perfect storm

Manal Lotfy , Sunday 25 Mar 2018

The current standoff between Russia and the UK plays in the hands of their two leaders

Putin , May
Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Theresa May (Photos: Reuters)

How best to describe the recent standoff between UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the aftermath of the attempted killing of an ex-Russian spy on British soil?

Some would say the “crisis” came in perfect time, too.

The attempted poisoning of Mr Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, using a nerve agent, in Salisbury on 4 March, was by all accounts a horrendous act.

Mr Skripal and his daughter remain critically ill in hospital, while the relationship between London and Moscow is colder than the Siberian winter.

However, for both Mr Putin and Mrs May, this diplomatic storm is not all bad news.

The crisis gives Mrs May an opportunity to look strong, decisive and in control, which she did not since the UK snap election in June 2017.

Just before the poisoning attempt, Mrs May was struggling to convince the nation, her own Conservative Party, and the EU, that she has a plan for Brexit.

She looked weak, tired and unable to deliver her ambitious Brexit vision amidst open civil war within her party and government.

European Council President Donald Tusk harshly rejected her plan for exiting the EU as “pure illusion”.

“I am glad the UK government seems to be moving towards a more detailed position. However, if the media reports are correct, I am afraid the UK position today is based on pure illusion,” said Mr Tusk after a summit of the EU-27 members in Brussels, 24 February.

When he met Mrs May in London days later, Mr Tusk told the prime minister that EU leaders were “not happy” with her negotiating stance, which made progress very difficult.

The attempted killing of Mr Skripal and his daughter presented an opportunity to Mrs May, who was the longest-serving home secretary in over 60 years before becoming premier.

Security is her strong point and in all opinion polls, she always outperforms Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when it comes to who can protect the UK.

Faced with accusations of being weak and unable to control her party, let alone the country, Mrs May grabbed the crisis with Russia to reimpose her authority internally and internationally.

Even before the investigation was complete, Mrs May expressed her conviction that Russia is “culpable” for the attack.

And in a major diplomatic boost for her, the European Union formally backed Britain over the Salisbury spy poisoning.

The bloc issued a joint statement in which it said it “takes extremely seriously” the UK’s conclusion that it is “highly likely that Russia is responsible”, calling for Moscow to “address urgently” questions over the “reckless and illegal act”.

NATO and US President Donald Trump gave Mrs May their full support, too.

It was the first time since Brexit that all the UK’s international allies stood together behind London in face of adversity.

As for President Putin, the accusations to Moscow, which came just days before the Russian presidential elections, helped to mobilise high turnout that gave President Putin 76 per cent of the vote, according to the Kremlin.

Moscow even thanked the UK for helping Mr Putin to win the vote in a landslide.

“Turnout is higher than we expected, by about 8-10 per cent, for which we must say thanks to Great Britain.

We were pressured exactly at the moment when we needed to mobilise voters. Whenever Russia is accused of something indiscriminately and without any evidence, the Russian people unite around the centre of power.

And the centre of power is certainly Putin today,” said Andrei Kondrashov, Mr Putin’s campaign spokesman.

In his first speech after the result, Mr Putin denied Russia was behind the incident.

“Russia doesn’t have such substances; we destroyed all our chemical weapons under the control of international observers,” he said.

Putin also denied UK accusations that Mr Skripal had been attacked with a “military-grade” nerve agent.

“If that had been the case, many more people would have died in Britain… any reasonable person understands that it would be total rubbish, ravings and nonsense for anyone in Russia to allow themselves such antics ahead of the election and the World Cup,” emphasising that Moscow was “ready for cooperation” with London.

The nerve agent crisis plunges Anglo-Russian relations into their worst state since the Cold War.

So far, Britain has expelled 23 Russian diplomats, while the UK police launched a murder investigation after the death of Russian businessman Nikolai Glushkov in southwest London on 12 March, after a post-mortem examination revealed Mr Glushkov, who was 68, died from “compression to the neck”.

Moscow also ordered 23 British diplomats to leave, as well as closing the St Petersburg consulate and the British Council’s programme in Russia.

In the coming days and weeks, eyes will be focused on the investigations and the possible new measures Mrs May might choose to take against Russia should Kremlin involvement be confirmed.

Many options will be on the table, but none will be simple.

The expulsion of a number of diplomats, the freezing of some assets, the end to intelligence cooperation and going after Russian media in the UK, such as Russia Today TV, already seams as a weak possible response.

Such measures were taken immediately after the murder of the Russian opposition figure Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 with little effect.

So, Mrs May must show more resolve against Moscow if the accusation against the Kremlin is proven true.

However, it won’t be easy. Not only because Britain after Brexit is weaker and with fewer friends, but also because Brexit suffocates the air from the government’s lungs, leaving very little time and focus for anything else.

And with make or break local elections on 3 May, and Brexit talks with the EU entering the tough stages, the prime minister’s concentration will be changing.

According to pollster predictions, she faces a local elections meltdown with the Conservative Party on course for their worst ever result in London as the party could lose more than 100 councillors in the capital. If that happens, Mrs May can kiss her troublesome premiership goodbye.

On the Brexit front, Mrs May is under fire over the Brexit transition deal that was announced 19 March. Senior Tories criticise her concessions to Brussels on issues ranging from immigration to fisheries.

Mr Jonathan Powell, one of the chief architects of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, warned Mrs May in an article in The Independent that her failure to deal with the Northern Ireland border issue with the EU will bring talks “crashing down”, accusing her of committing a negotiator’s “worst possible sin”, and that is postponing difficult issues and boxing herself in with limited options.

Mr Skripal’s attempting poisoning might have given Mrs May and Mr Putin fuel to face their internal doubters during the Russian presidential elections and tough Brexit talks, however, this is only temporary. For the two leaders, the incident only temporarily hid complicated issues internally and internationally.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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