Opinion: Is Russia really behind the attempted murder of double agent Sergei Skripal?

OPINION: The relationship between Britain and Russia is now at its lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

The relationship decline began with the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. It then moved to disquiet about the Russian interventions in both Georgia and the Ukraine, the shooting down of flight of MH17, a suite of ambiguous deaths of Russian dissidents living in Britain, interference in foreign elections, and then provocative military exercises around western Europe.

Now, the attempted assassination of Russian Sergei Skripal with an illegal chemical weapon (with the collateral damage of his daughter and a police officer), has taken the relationship to its nadir.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has every right to be extremely angry. She sees the Russian provocations getting increasingly brazen and very close to home. These provocations strike at the core of one of the most fundamental ideas of sovereignty - that your citizens are safe, and especially from foreign countries you are not at war with.

Former Russian agent Sergei Skripal
Former Russian agent Sergei Skripal Photo credit: Getty

May is convinced the Russians are behind this most recent act. They have form in this area, no other country is known to have produced this poison, and the target is a Russian traitor.

Accordingly, May has expelled 23 diplomats, placed a small boycott for officials (and royals) attending the World Cup, and is starting to shake a number of bilateral niceties and relationships that Britain shares with Russia.

But this is a slap, not a punch. May has not even expelled half of Russia's UK-based diplomats. She could have called for an international boycott of the World Cup, or applied sanctions and restrictions on Russia that would actually hurt. So far, her bark is worse than her bite.

The Russians have called May's reaction ‘hostile, totally unacceptable, unjustified and short-sighted’. It is likely that Putin will respond in kind and expel an equal number of British diplomats. If they choose the same number or less, the issue will be forgotten within months and the empty seats will quietly refill in a few years.

Or Putin could choose to escalate the situation and expel a greater number of British diplomats, boast about his nuclear capability, or send out some military forces to taunt the Brits close to their territorial boundaries.

Russia must respond, because its defence is that it is being framed.

And there is a logic to its position.

Firsty, using Novichok - a chemical weapon near exclusively associated with Russia - is like leaving a gun behind at a murder scene. Secondly, if Russia wanted Skripal dead, they could have done it when they had him in custody in Russia. Thirdly, by killing someone who had been exchanged, Russia may have poisoned any hope for future spy swaps as no-one will ever believe the exchanged person is finally safe.

This is not to say that the Russians are innocent - only that there are important questions that need to be answered, and this is a time for cool heads.

For New Zealand, we need to sit back, and watch the storm in the Northern Hemisphere.

In so doing, we need to support any domestic initiatives in Britain into the full and transparent investigations into the possible killings of any and all Russian dissidents in Britain. We also need to support any international initiatives into how a weapon of Russian origin that is prohibited in international law came to be used in an assassination attempt in Great Britain.

If the situation degenerates into a full-scale expulsion of diplomats, and other countries join in, then we will need to work out where we stand.

This is not the time for friendly initiatives with Russia. For now, we need to keep any potential trade deals with Russia in the top drawer, until it is clear that they are a country that is worth doing business with.

Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at the University of Waikato.