Noting that 22 nations announced the expulsion of over 100 Russian diplomats said to be intelligence operatives, senior British officials praised the response of allies including the United States to the first use of military-grade chemical weapons in Europe since World War Two.
Stephen Lovegrove, Britain's top civil servant in the Ministry of Defence called the attempted poisoning in Salisbury, England of British citizen Sergei Skripal and his daughter using a Russian-made chemical weapon "a grotesque and outrageous continuation of the type of behavior Russia has been conducting" for some years. "It could have happened anywhere in the world", he said. Skripal was a spy for Britain who was traded for Russian spies in the United Kingdom. In such cases, longtime international agreements protect against retaliation, but British Prime Minister Theresa May has said there is little or no doubt Moscow was behind the attack.
The breadth of the international response, Lovegrove said--which included President Trump's decision to expel 60 Russians with diplomatic status in the U.S.--"must have given President Putin pause for thought".
His comments came at a breakfast discussion with the Defense Writers Group, a part of the George Washington University Project for Media and National Security, at GW's School of Media and Public Affairs. Through on-the-record face-to-face meetings between policymakers and journalists, the Project seeks to foster greater public understanding of important defense and national security issues.
General Sir Gordon Messenger, the Vice Chief of Britain's Defence Staff told reporters that despite the misbehavior of Russia, the U.K. will keep military to military channels of communication open. British forces are engaged in the Syria conflict in close proximity to Russians, 800 British soldiers are based near Russia on the territory of NATO ally Estonia, and British intelligence aircraft surveil airspace near the Russian border and over the Baltic Sea. "We don't want any misunderstandings", Messenger said.
That said, violations of international law such as the chemical poisoning attempt, and cyber attacks on voting in the U.K., the U.S. need to be responded to strongly enough, said Messenger, so that "the risks for the adversary outweigh the potential benefits". Britain is "taking a new look at deterrence" in light of the Russian apparent use of a chemical weapon on British soil, including the potential for additional moves against Moscow in the areas of diplomacy, intelligence and law enforcement.
The two British officials were in Washington for meetings at the Pentagon with their American counterparts. Discussions include U.S.-U.K. collaboration on a new generation of submarines--nuclear-armed deterrent craft as well as hunter-killer submarines. Britain will spend 25% of its defense budget over the next ten years on the new submarines and associated nuclear weaponry, Lovegrove said. He praised "the deep level of cooperation between our two nations", which he said has "never been closer". Britain also counts on the U.S. F-35 fighter to be its next main fighter aircraft. The U.K. is contributing technology for its development.
What about Brexit? Might the U.K.'s decision by referendum to withdraw from the European Union lead it to purchase more American equipment and weapons instead of European ones? Not necessarily. Lovegrove stressed that despite Brexit, London wants to maintain of military collaboration with Europe. "We need to stay very close to the European defense architecture", he said. Brexit, he said, does not mean that the British Isles will be "towed into the middle of the Atlantic".
David Ensor Director of the Project for Media and National Security and Walter R. Roberts Fellow