Security and Foreign Policy

Russia vs. Britain: From A Poisoning Case To Missile Strikes

While the Skripal case is far from settled, the situation in Syria has largely worsened with accusations from Russia that the chemical attack was a diversion from the Skripal case. As relations between Russia and Britain deteriorate, Ruoyin Zhang recaps the events leading up to the crisis.


Russia and Britain’s tension has reached a breaking point following the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter. The two countries’ disputes have escalated after the alleged chemical attack in Syria.

The dispute now has many different faces starting with the Skripal poisoning. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence, who later defected to the UK, was found poisoned by a military grade toxic nerve agent along with his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in Southern England. According to the investigation, the national security advisor of the UK claimed that only Russia has the technical means, operational experience, and motive for the attack on the Skripals. Russia denied such accusations. Sergei Skripal is now in a critical but stable situation, while his daughter has already been discharged from the hospital to a secure place.

This case soon devolved into a serious diplomatic crisis between Moscow and London, the most serious since Russia’s invasion of Crimea. UK Prime Minister  Theresa May, ordered the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from Britain. The United States, along with 14 other European countries, joined Britain in the expulsion of Russian diplomats. Together, more than a 100 Russian diplomats were told to leave by Western countries.

Moscow then retaliated by asking more British diplomats to leave Russia. The British ambassador in Moscow, Laurie Bristow, was told that the UK had a month to cut its diplomatic mission in Russia to the same size as the Russian mission in Britain. At the end of March, Moscow told Britain it must cut over 50 more of its diplomatic and technical staff in Russia.

This round of “war of words” was a grand victory for the UK prime minister, especially at a time when the UK-EU relations are strained as a result of Brexit negotiations. It shows a degree of solidarity among western Countries when facing Russia, a degree that might be out of President Putin’s expectation. Will the West define Russia as their common enemy and put aside their disagreements in order to counter Russia? Quite possibly. Especially if they find Russia to be a threat than internal disputes.

The Russia-Britain diplomatic crisis has worsened as the situation in Syria devolved into a more confusing and unstable situation. A number of NGOs, including the White Helmets, stated that chemical weapons were used in Eastern Ghouta on April 7. The Russian Foreign Ministry slammed this report as fake news. Later on, footage of chemical attack in a city called Douma, near Damascus, was released. However, the Russian Defense Ministry accused Britain of staging a fake chemical attack as an attempt of provocation and diverting the attention of the public from the vaudeville around the Skripal case, a bold charge vehemently denied by Britain as a “blatant lie.”

On Monday April 9, US President Donald Trump threatened to take military action against Syria’s authorities over the alleged use of chemical agents in the Syrian city of Douma near Damascus. Moscow warned Washington of serious effects of the possible US’ strike over Syria if Russian citizens are injured in this operation.

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the missile strikes against Syria’s military and civilian infrastructures was carried out by US warplanes and naval ships in cooperation with the British and French air forces between 03:42 and 05:10 Moscow time on Saturday, April 14, 2018. The United States, the UK and France said the strikes were a response to the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria’s Douma.

Who could have thought that the poisoning case of a double agent would lead to real warfare thousands of miles away and probably lead to an escalation of worldwide disputes. It is a true demonstration of the “butterfly effect”. However, this situation can keep escalating, and lead to a severe global problem, what many policy experts have deems the new “Cold War”. While the situation concerns the global population, it raises the question whether “diplomacy” is still a possible solution for Russia and the West.

Ruoyin Zheng holds a bachelor of Political Science and a master degree of Russian Studies from Yale University. She has specialized in Russian-China relations and has conducted in-depth research on this matter.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.


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