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The West must respond firmly to Russia’s nerve agent attack

The West must respond firmly to Russia’s nerve agent attack
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The London nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter has been specifically ascribed to Russia by the United Kingdom prime minister, fully supported by the White House and American officials including at the United Nations. That attack itself – the first attack using weapons of mass destruction on NATO soil – calls for a significant response. But such a response is even more imperative when placed in the context of Russia’s ongoing hybrid warfare against the West and against vulnerable neighbors like Ukraine.

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In recent years, Russia and its surrogates have engaged in other instances of low-level use of force such as the attempted assassination of the prime minister of Montenegro in 2016 and the kidnapping of an Estonian border guard in 2014; the use of direct cyber attacks such as the NotPetya attack which affected multiple countries and resulted in significant losses; the hack-and-release actions against the French presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee in the United States; and the continued disinformation campaigns undertaken by entities such as RT and Sputnik as well as cyber trolls working under Russian government auspices.

The nerve agent attack should be a trigger for actions that the West should undertake in a coordinated fashion to underscore that Russian aggression will not go unchallenged. The responses should be both by nations, particularly the United Kingdom itself supported especially by the United States, France and Germany, and by the NATO and the European Union as organizations. The joint statement issued by the four countries demonstrates solidarity but further decisive actions are needed.

The United Kingdom’s response is a necessary first step and it should go beyond the expulsions already announced by Prime Minister Theresa May. Most importantly, the UK should undertake to freeze and/or forfeit the assets in the United Kingdom of high-ranking Kremlin officials and close associates including Russian oligarchs. More generally, it should sharply curtail what amounts to money laundering of Russian funds through the financial firms in the City of London.

The United States should likewise undertake parallel and supportive steps, utilizing the legislation that authorizes sanctions against Russian entities. The sanctions just issued because of attacks on the 2016 election process and the NotPetya attack are a good start, but a much broader effort is required.

Working with the United Kingdom, a joint effort should target the finances of Putin’s ruling elite and devote resources to identifying Putin’s own wealth. Congress authorized such activities last year under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” which also required the so-called “Kremlin Report” on key Russian oligarchs close to President Putin. Coordinating with the UK and more broadly with Europe generally, a significant effort can choke off flows of dark Russian money to London, Miami, New York, and elsewhere in the West and can let Putin know that the West is able to target his own wealth.

France and Germany also have key roles in generating an effective response. Both should undertake parallel anti-money laundering actions, but each can take important additional steps. Having been directly subjected to Russian attacks during its presidential campaign, France can lead appropriate responses in the European Union and at NATO focused on enhancing the resilience of Western nations to such attacks and to expanding the cooperation between the EU and NATO on responses to Russian hybrid actions. An expanded menu of activities can be approved at the NATO July 2018 summit.

Germany can support all of the foregoing, but it should take a particularly significant step by cancelling the planned Nordstream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. There are already many reasons for that pipeline not to be built, including the fact that it will increase the dependence of Europe on Russian gas (contrary to the EU’s own energy policy) and exacerbate the vulnerability of eastern NATO and EU members, as well as Ukraine, to Russian gas manipulation. The oft-heard response from some in Germany is that Nordstream 2 is just a commercial activity. This is debatable. But in any event, now is not the time for commercial “business as usual” with a Russia that has consistently violated international norms.

The Russian nerve attack should be a call to action for the West. NATO has already undertaken to enhance its collective defense capabilities since the invasion of Crimea by placing an enhanced force presence in the Baltic States and Poland. At its July summit, it should further approve initiatives to strengthen its readiness and reinforcement capabilities focused on deterrence for both the Baltic and Black Seas regions. The European Union has in place sanctions against Russia because of Crimea and attacks into Ukraine. Given the multiplicity of other hybrid actions against NATO and EU countries, the basis for those sanctions should be expanded, and Russian money laundering and other financial flows should be subject to greater scrutiny and limitations.

The West is far stronger than Russia, but it is important to demonstrate political will as well as capability. A collective response is required to show that aggression will be appropriately met so that there is no possibility of miscalculation by the Kremlin. Russia has pursued an anti-Western course in recent years, but a Western collective approach that demonstrates resolve is the best route to Russian de-escalation and return to compliance with its international obligations.

Alexander Vershbow is a former ambassador to NATO and Russia and deputy secretary general of NATO. Daniel Fried is a former assistant secretary of State and Sanctions Coordinator for the State Department; Franklin D. Kramer is a former assistant secretary of Defense. The writers are distinguished fellows at the Atlantic Council.