Putin’s playthings

Nato's response to the Skripal poisoning has revealed its disunity

Jens Stoltenberg: Could have been tougher on Russia (Annika Haas (EU2017EE) CC BY-2.0)

Theresa May appeared to achieve her first foreign policy success on March 22 at the EU summit in Brussels. She managed to persuade her fellow members to harden their initial position on the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, issuing a joint statement that the only plausible explanation was Russian responsibility. May’s limited victory underscores the precarious position that the UK will find itself in after Brexit. More importantly it also illustrates the degree to which the EU has become Europe’s preferred form of defensive decision making when it comes to defence, much to Nato and the EU’s detriment. The EU’s decision to remove their ambassador to Russia is a surprisingly blunt measure limiting their diplomatic resources.

The week before, a joint statement by the UK, France, the US and Germany had been presented as a strong display of unity, despite its glaring omissions both in terms of content and signatories. The most important phrase was that it “threatens the security of us all”. This recognition of collective defence should more appropriately have been expressed by Nato but the divide between Europe and the US, particularly on the issue of Russia, has opened a fissure in the alliance.

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s response was to express support for the UK, whilst stating that this was not grounds for invoking Nato’s most serious clause, Article V, which would demand a response from all members. This was a diplomatic sleight of hand. Whilst he was correct that any response must be proportionate, there are steps short of Article V that Nato could have taken.

The response to what is merely the latest in a succession of “plausibly deniable” Russian military actions stretching from Crimea to Syria, should have been to invoke Nato’s Article IV to “consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.”

This would have sent a strong message of unity and triggered a special session to speed up a co-ordinated Nato response. Indeed, Theresa May’s carefully chosen language in her Parliamentary statement appeared to be intended to pave the way towards such international action in response to what she characterised as a state-directed attack on the UK.

Instead, the EU’s statement papered over the significant diplomatic gulf about how to actually tackle Russia that has divided Nato members since the invasion of Crimea in 2014. Expelling Russian intelligence agents operating under official cover is a sensible first step but it does not serve to ensure unity on further sanctions or other coordinated responses.

Mustering the support for this seemingly self-evident statement had initially proved challenging, following initial reluctance by the US and France to publicly blame Russia. It was an inadequate response to a week that raised extraordinary questions about foreign policy on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, an expression of solidarity that highlighted the silence of his President, cost Rex Tillerson his job as Secretary of State.

Revealing the depth of disunity between, and indeed within Nato members, however momentarily, is exactly the effect Putin hoped for. It totally negates the purpose of the joint statement and was apparent to even the most useful of idiots, Jeremy Corbyn, whilst he grasped for any explanation of events that didn’t directly implicate Russia.

As Putin celebrates his recent re-election he can be confident that Nato has failed to adequately respond to his challenge to the integrity of a member state, a blow to the collective security of all. This portends future obstacles to credible collective action, a signal that only likely to embolden Moscow further.

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