Despite a propaganda blitz meant to shift the blame for the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the U.K. earlier this month, Russia looks set to face bruising consequences. The newfound unity among European Union leaders on the matter and the appointment of fierce Russia hawk John Bolton as President Donald Trump’s national security advisor are potential precursors of collective Western action against Russia.
The difficulty lies in figuring out how far that action could go without releasing President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin from any remaining trace of civilized restraint. Risk aversion may still prevail at the end.
Mindful that the Skripal case is essentially about the use of a chemical weapon on foreign territory, official Moscow decided, after a brief period of hiding its collective head in the sand, to push back hard against the U.K. government’s conviction that it was behind the poisoning. On March 21, the foreign, defense and trade ministries held a conference for foreign ambassadors in Moscow, claiming Russia did not produce the toxic agent named by the U.K. government and that since its formula had been published by the Russian whistleblower Vil Mirzayanov, anyone could make it, including Western nations. It crowned two weeks of denials and alternative versions offered by state-owned media and officials in a pattern familiar from the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in July, 2014. As then, Moscow has worked to confuse rather than convince, at the same time questioning the formal right of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to help the U.K. with independent analysis.
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That behavior hasn’t boosted Moscow’s credibility with European heads of state. While Greece, Italy and several other countries weren’t inclined to jump to conclusions in the run-up to Thursday’s EU summit, the final wording was harsh. The European Council, made up of EU national leaders, said it “agrees with the United Kingdom government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation.”
This is a rare success for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May who, thanks to Brexit, isn’t a popular figure with fellow EU leaders. May owes it to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is back as a fully fledged leader now that Germany has a stable government. Merkel shepherded the Council when it introduced sanctions on Russia following the Crimea annexation and the MH 17 incident, and she appears to be doing it again.
The precise nature of the response isn’t clear yet. The EU has recalled its ambassador in Russia “for consultations” and more measures are expected next week. “It’s much harder than during the Cold War,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said. “There were some rules back then. Now everyone is so tough that I’m not optimistic.” Borisov also said he asked for definitive proof of Russia’s involvement -- but added that “what’s important is that despite Brexit, the U.K. and EU showed they are one and the same.” That’s the same spirit that resulted in Russia sanctions the last time around.
The pressure from Merkel to take a united stand and the help she gets from Russia’s unfriendly neighbors create a window of opportunity for Russia hawks in the U.S. administration to achieve, for the first time since 2014, a consensus on more punishment for Russia. Coincidentally, with Bolton’s appointment, the hawks’ influence in the Trump administration has just been boosted.
Predictably, foreign ministry official Vladimir Yermakov cited the erroneous claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction as a precedent for the Skripal-related accusations against Russia. Well, Bolton is an unrepentant advocate of the U.S. military response to these claims. He has also called for a stronger response to the Skripal poisoning than diplomat expulsions. And if his predecessor H.R. McMaster was considered tough on Russia and part of a camp inside the administration pushing Trump to ignore his instinct to “get along with Russia,” Bolton’s views are even more extreme: According to his previous public statements, he doesn’t believe one can make any kind of deal with Putin and other authoritarian rulers because they can never be held to their commitments.
The question is whether even Merkel and the strengthened U.S. hawks can put together a convincing response. Relatively soft, personalized sanctions against Putin friends and state-owned companies were largely exhausted in previous years. Now, only a list of far stronger options remains open: Sanctions against Russian government debt, restrictions on its energy exports, an end to the NordStream-2 pipeline project to supply more Russian gas directly to Germany, an attempt to get Russian banks removed from the Brussels-based Swift transfer-facilitating system.
These moves are risky. They could prompt an asymmetric response from the Kremlin -- perhaps even military action somewhere the West doesn’t quite expect. I’ve never believed Putin capable of raising the stakes so high that an all-out war against the Western alliance becomes a real possibility. But given his record of seeking to assert Russia’s power rather than work out mutually acceptable rules, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to me that Putin might make a surprise move in the Middle East or even in Ukraine in response to tougher economic sanctions. Post-Communist countries in Europe also have things to fear from him -- if not all-out military attacks, then all kinds of subtler subversion.
Pushing for a united European response to the Skripal case is a no-brainer for May who needs to show Britons both authority and solidarity against an external threat. It might even make Brexit talks a little easier by showing continental Europeans that they have an enemy in common with the U.K. But most EU leaders are too risk-averse to be pushed into an escalation with Russia. Even Merkel hasn’t been responsive to demands that NordStream-2 be terminated. Trump, for his part, has proved remarkably resistant to all attempts to force his hand on Russia.
That’s a lot of inertia for Russia hawks to overcome on both sides of the Atlantic. Real -- and admittedly dangerous -- action against Putin is only possible if the chemical weapons situation acquires a dynamic of its own and inaction becomes untenable without loss of face. The discussion at the EU summit and Bolton’s appointments are two steps in that direction.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.