The French corner

Paris, Kremlin’s new ally in Europe?

March 15, 2018

It didn’t take much time to Prime Minister Theresa May to react to the apparent poisoning of former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Youlia. A few days after the Salisbury Hospital confirmed identification of the nerve agent to which the Skripals and other collateral victims were exposed, the British Prime Minister announced before the House of Commons a set of retaliation measures in response to what she called “a use of military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance”. Many senior members in the Cabinet and the Tory party pointed out that however worrying and serious this affair was (the Litvinenko Affair is still in everyone’s mind in London, and in Theresa May’s more than anyone else’s, who had actually a ringside seat in the Litvinenko inquiry as Home Secretary), it wouldn’t be wise to venture into hasty conclusions. It is nevertheless the path chosen by the Prime Minister, who may well have seen an opportunity to breathe new life into Britain’s voice on the world stage. A voice which has so far suffered from the tragic Iraq War on the one hand, and been weakened by Brexit on the other.

In spite of tough words before the Commons (denouncing the attack as an “unlawful use of force”), the British Prime Minister has thus far limited her retaliation to an accusation before the UN Security Council, the boycott of the Football World Cup by the Royal family, and the expelling of 23 Russian diplomats (a scale that had not been seen in 30 years), or so-called “undeclared intelligence agents”, to whom she left a week to leave the country. The Prime Minister also called for an “economic war” on Russia… one that may, once again, prove to be beneficial to no one and hurting for both parties.

Although Mrs. May is reported to consider the option, we’re actually still far from the triggering of Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty, that provides for a consultation within the North Atlantic Council should one of the member-States feel threatened (last invoked by Turkey in 2015). The British Government has also hinted they were ready to deploy malware in Russia and to launch cyberattacks on Russian Government’s websites. But once this first step is made, no one knows where nor how this will all end. With a renewed pride in its modernised nuclear arsenal, Moscow doesn’t seem to fear anything from Europe. Will London risk to trigger an escalation of which they can’t predict the outcome?

In the interim, Number 10 has been looking for support abroad. Donald Trump asserted that he would condemn Russia [only] “if they poisoned” Skripal. In other words, if the Russian Government’s implication was supported by concrete evidence. But the most surprising, for rather bold, reaction came from its closest neighbour and ally: France. In a much-commented press conference, Benjamin Griveaux, the spokesman of the French Government, indicated that France wouldn’t jump to any hurried conclusions, and that Mrs. May’s accusation of Moscow seemed to him as “fantasy politics”, thereby crushing -at least for now- London’s hope to build an anti-Russian front in Europe. Mr. Griveaux went on to stress that France preferred to wait until the investigation’s conclusions are made public. In these rather diplomatically frantic days echoing the most strained hours of the Cold War, Russia may well have indirectly tested the resilience of its relationship with Europe; and what is certain is that France clearly stood out. In all this fog, some light may well have emerged. Let us hope it doesn’t dim too fast.



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