A casus belli in British-Russian relations – to what end?

A casus belli in British-Russian relations


Analysis of the situation and its potential

The poisoning of double spy Sergei Skripal has evoked Great Britain’s response, which in turn raises a number of questions. Skripal was a GRU agent who was convicted in Russia for spying for the British MI6. In 2010 he was released within the framework of a spy exchange and arrived in the United Kingdom. At the beginning of March this year he was poisoned with a paralyzing and convulsive substance in Salisbury. The British government accused Russia of using chemical weapons on the territory of a sovereign state. PM Theresa May demanded explanations from Moscow and even went a step further, saying: “Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom”.1) As can be seen, London is trying to spark off a diplomatic dispute, and it can be even said that the British PM regards the event as a casus belli. The Kremlin has dismissed the accusations as unfounded and warned Great Britain against ill-considered actions.2)

The Gefira team has analyzed a possible scenario of events.

Military intervention

Great Britain’s military potential3) is nothing compared to that of Russia,4) which has over eighty times more tanks and nine times more fighter planes and assault aircraft. Although the British forces have two aircraft carriers (Russia has one), they are not able to threaten the Russian space, whereas the United Kingdom as an island state is much more vulnerable. Russia has 15 destroyers and 63 submarines (of which about 30 with atomic propulsion), whereas the United Kingdom has 6 and 11 respectively. Furthermore, Russia, according to the concept of Heartland, occupies strategic areas in central Eurasia, which are very difficult to conquer in contrast to the external borders of Europe and Asia, which are more difficult to defend. The involvement of NATO countries, despite the declaration of solidarity in the face of the British-Russian conflict,5) is unlikely due to the lack of legal circumstances allowing for the application of Art. 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.


Though London has one of the world’s strongest cybernetic potentials, a cyberspace attack on Russia seems unlikely because the parties to the conflict are technologically equally advanced to guarantee mutual destruction in this respect. Russian retaliatory actions may hit foreign companies that have their headquarters in the United Kingdom and that’s something that the British government will take into consideration since a cyberwar escalation could lead to the paralysis of a globalized world. The only retaliation that the United Kingdom might resort to is the disclosure of credit card information of Russian politicians, oligarchs or diplomats, which, however, would only adversely affect individuals rather than the interests of the Russian state.

Economic sanctions

The imposition of economic sanctions not only by London, but also by the EU Council is highly possible. Their effects, however, will be marginal. Also Washington is likely to support the introduction of economic restrictions on Moscow. Similarly to the 2014 sanctions, these will apply to the banking and financial sector, oil companies, embargoes on the sales of arms and advanced technologies or the freezing of assets of individual Russian politicians and oligarchs. The relations that hold between the Kremlin and the largest European players, such as Berlin and Paris, especially in terms of energy supply seem to be more important than a dispute over a former double-agent. After all, limitations of gas supply would afflict Europe more severely than European sanctions could harm Russia.

Diplomatic sanctions

And that’s where it will all end. The decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats from the UK6) is the largest such procedure since the end of the Cold War. The cancellation of all bilateral meetings announced by Prime Minister T. May and her announcement of lowering the rank of the football world championships held in Russia this year only expose the helplessness of British diplomacy. Neither can the UN do anything about the event since Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, may veto any decision.

In conclusion, it is highly likely that PM Theresa May, rather than trigger off an international reaction, used the occasion for the needs of her domestic politics by creating an external enemy. Making threats without being able to carry them out – whether due to one’s own weakness or lack of international support – is equivalent to sabre-rattling. What captures our attention is the assiduous attempt on the part of the European leaders to persistently look around for an external enemy, at the same time turning a blind eye to the profound demographic changes that are taking place on the Old Continent.


Original article

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1. Russian spy poisoning: Theresa May issues ultimatum to Moscow, The Guardian, 2018-03-13.
2. Russia will kick out UK media outlets if London shuts RT – RIA, Reuters, 2018-03-13.
3. 2017 United Kingdom Military Strength, Global Firepower 2017.
4. 2017 Russia Military Strength, Global Firepower 2017.
5. NATO to UK: Count on our solidarity, Euronews, 2018-03-15.
6. Britain expels 23 Russian diplomats over nerve attack on ex-spy, Reuters 2017-03-14.