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6 March 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 10:11am

British government likely to be muted over the collapse of ex-Russian spy

Even if Sergei Skripal’s condition is found to be the result of foul play by Russia, the UK has Brexit to think about – which the Kremlin sees as in its interests.

By Stephen Bush

Sergei Skripal, who worked as a British mole in Russian intelligence is in a critical condition after having been exposed to an unknown substance.

Skripal, who was arrested by the Russian security services, came to the United Kingdom as part of a swap deal that saw ten Russian sleeper agents, including Anna Chapman (she of tabloid “Get me a picture of that fit Russian spy looking fit” fame), go the other way in 2010.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the incident, although most of the press are reprinting Vladimir Putin’s remarks from 2010, when his government swapped Chapman and co, that “traitors always end badly” and that “secret services have their own laws” and drawing the obvious conclusion. (It should be noted that Putin was referring to the people who revealed the presence of those ten sleeper agents rather than the spies he let go the other way.)

Regardless of what befell Skripal, it puts the government’s (at times contradictory) Russia policy back in the headlines. The British government is one of the most hawkish EU member states. But the government also minimised its own report into the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, which found that the Kremlin was very likely involved in his poisoning.

The British government is also, of course, implementing Brexit, which the Kremlin has long seen as in its strategic interest, in part because of its wider implications for the EU’s Russia policy. (One thing to watch out for during the transition period is that while EU directives in post areas don’t change very quickly, foreign policy can – and does – change every month, when foreign ministers of member states meet and reach decisions, which is another possible stress point for the government during that time.)

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So even if Skripal’s condition is found to be the result of foul play by the Russian state, the British response will likely be muddled and muted: while the organisation that could exert itself more effectively will become more dovish as a result of the United Kingdom’s department from the EU.

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