By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
MARCH/APRIL 2018- Just days after a Russian double-agent and his daughter were killed on British soil by a designer nerve agent made in Russia, British Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a stirring speech on the floor of the House of Commons labeling the attack “an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom” and vowing, “We will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.” In a phone call with May following the attack, President Donald Trump told his British counterpart America would stand “with the U.K. all the way.” That’s exactly the posture Washington should take with America’s closest ally—and against Vladimir Putin’s thuggish regime. But what exactly does standing with Britain “all the way” look like in this latest example of Russian aggression?
Before getting into the U.S.-U.K. response, it’s important to put Russia’s actions in context. May did this cogently during her address. First, she went out of her way to point out that the assassination by poison was carried out with “military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia”—and only Russia. Thus, she noted that there are “only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on the 4th of March. Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.” Neither alternative is comforting, and May wanted Britain’s lawmakers—and allies—to contemplate that.
She clearly is leaning toward the former—and understandably so, given Putin’s record of assassinations and aggression. May noted that the assassination “happened against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression,” including: “Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea…the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation has forcibly taken territory from another in Europe,” the “fomented conflict in the Donbas” region of Ukraine, Russia “repeatedly” violating “the national airspace of several European countries,” Moscow’s “sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption,” Russia’s “meddling in elections and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defense and the Bundestag,” and Putin’s highly-provocative use of a video “modeling…attacks on the United States with a series of warheads impacting in Florida.”
Translation: We’re all targets—Britons, Americans, Europeans—and so we must stick together. That helps explain why May cited NATO in her remarks. “Our commitment to collective defense and security through NATO remains as strong as ever in the face of Russian behavior,” she declared—a not-so-subtle reminder to Moscow and to allied capitals that this could technically be an act of war. Indeed, May suggested the incident could amount to “an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom” and vowed “to take the full range of appropriate responses against those who would act against our country in this way.”
Not surprisingly, some observers have speculated that May could be considering invoking Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty—NATO’s “all for one” collective defense clause, which obliges members to come to the aid of another member that has been attacked or is under attack. Importantly, the NATO secretary general has labeled the assassination an “attack.”
That brings us back to Trump’s commitment to stand beside Britain “all the way.” President Reagan’s response to the invasion of Britain’s Falkland Islands serves as a helpful guide. When Prime Minister Thatcher vowed to reverse the aggression, President Reagan told his staff, “Give Maggie everything she needs.” Washington allowed the British expeditionary force to use U.S. bases at Ascension Island for resupply; provided weaponry and logistics support; and was prepared to loan the Royal Navy the amphibious carrier USS Iwo Jima.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called Russia “responsible for the attack” and blamed Russia for “an atrocious crime.” That’s interesting language, and it highlights the crux of the issue: Was the assassination a crime or an attack? If it’s the latter, it could indeed trigger an Article V response. The only time NATO has ever invoked Article V was after the 9/11 attacks. But invoking Article V in response to a terrorist attack that claimed thousands of lives is a far cry from invoking Article V in response to a targeted assassination.
Still, NATO is the proper forum for coordinating, developing and delivering a response to Putin—largely because of the long litany of Russian aggression May detailed in her remarks—and Washington has a range of options short of direct military action it can leverage to assist Britain.
May could consider a NATO Article IV action, under which Britain would “bring any issue of concern, especially related to the security of a member country, to the table for discussion within the North Atlantic Council” in order for the alliance to develop a coordinated response. Turkey invoked Article IV to seek and receive allied assistance in the face of aggression and instability on its southern borders in 2015, 2012 and 2003, and Poland and Lithuania requested Article IV consultations in 2014 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In these cases, NATO members answered the call for help from fellow members with tangible evidence of allied solidarity.
In the same way, the allies could back Britain with a joint diplomatic-economic counterpunch. For example, May has expelled 23 Russian diplomats—the most since a 1971 incident. Washington’s decision to expel dozens of Russian officials and close the Russian consulate in Seattle underscores America’s commitment to Britain. Other NATO allies are following suit and expelling members of the Russian diplomatic corps—many of whom use their diplomatic status as cover for espionage activities.
In addition, the U.S., Britain and Germany—NATO members all—could move to shut down Russian access to banking and financial systems.
NATO could form the nucleus of an international sanctions coalition by targeting firms and individuals involved in the development, manufacture and production of Putin’s poisons.
The U.S. and fellow NATO ally Canada could increase oil and liquified natural gas deliveries to enable allies in Europe to gain independence from Russian energy supplies, weaken Putin’s economy and thus limit his ability to build up the Russian military.
Other combined allied responses to Putin’s attack include expediting Macedonia’s entry into the alliance, which Russia opposes; further fortifying NATO’s deterrent capabilities in the Baltics, Poland and the Baltic Sea with the deployment of permanent defensive assets and construction of permanent bases in those territories; making a commitment to promote security, lawful access and development in the Arctic by authorizing NATO’s Arctic members—the U.S., Canada, Norway, Denmark and Iceland—to form a joint Allied Command-Arctic; and launching a NATO-wide effort to provide training and defensive weaponry to Ukraine. The U.S. would be key to each of these initiatives.
These and other measures could be unveiled at the NATO summit in July—or more dramatically, at a special Article IV gathering, with NATO defense ministers issuing the list of responses in a highly-visible act of solidarity alongside Britain. Either way, NATO leaders should make clear that these actions are in response to the nerve-agent attack on British territory. This will help Putin understand that there are real costs to his actions.