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Even if a Russian hit on British soil is confirmed, what can London do about it?

Officers in protective suits prepare to secure the police forensic tent that covers the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious a few days ago in Salisbury, England. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

British police announced Wednesday that former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter had been “targeted specifically” with a nerve agent in an apparent attempt on their lives. Skripal, 66, and 33-year-old Yulia are in a hospital, just days after they were found unconscious on a bench in the English city of Salisbury.

An apparent assassination bid on British soil is a major problem for Prime Minister Theresa May's government, but in this instance, its response is severely complicated by one big factor: The Russian government is suspected of being the perpetrator.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Tuesday that the Skripal case had “echoes” of the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB operative and a fierce critic of the Kremlin who died in 2006 after drinking tea that had been laced with radioactive polonium — a high-profile hit that a British investigation found was “probably approved” by Vladimir Putin himself.

Russian's foreign minister confirmed March 16 the country would expel British diplomats after Britain made a similar move for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal. (Video: The Washington Post)

Indeed, as Britain and its grandiose capital have become a home for many Russian emigres, an alarming number of Kremlin critics residing in the country have died in mysterious circumstances. Although British authorities have rarely pointed the finger at the Russian government, the use of a nerve agent in the Skripal case has renewed concern about Kremlin involvement.

The Russian government has repeatedly denied any role. On Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused Western media of simply stoking “the anti-Russian campaign” with “fake news” about the Skripal incident.

British Home Secretary Amber Rudd said Thursday that authorities were avoiding speculation but that Britain “would respond in a robust and appropriate manner” and that it was committed to bringing the perpetrators to justice, “whoever they are and wherever they may be.”

But if a Russian state link is confirmed, that may be easier said than done.

Calder Walton, a British lawyer and author of the book “Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War, and the Twilight of Empire,” notes that one reason British authorities were ultimately able to link the Litvinenko case to the Russian government was that the polonium used in his killing had left radioactive contamination in several locations, creating a trail that investigators could follow.

Even with a literal trail of evidence, however, Britain was unable to bring to justice the main suspect in that case, former KGB bodyguard Andrey Lugovoy, as Russia refused to extradite him. Lugovoy, now a member of Russia's parliament, still denies involvement. “If something happens to a Russian, they immediately start looking for a Russian trail,” he said of British authorities after Skripal and his daughter were hospitalized this week.

Some argued that the lack of a robust response from Britain to Litvinenko's death, even though it cast a pall over relations with Russia, had emboldened Moscow.

“Because it did happen to another Russian person, it shows lessons were not learned and people asking for protection, for political asylum or refugees, or even this guy, who was exchanged, they can’t be safe, can’t be protected,” Litvinenko’s widow, Marina Litvinenko, told The Washington Post this week.

Skripal was imprisoned in Russia in 2006 for passing secrets to British intelligence. He was pardoned and released from custody in 2010 as part of a spy swap with Britain.

British police have not specified what nerve agent they think was used against him and his daughter, and it is unclear what evidence they can uncover about the suspected perpetrators.

However, as such toxic chemicals are difficult to produce, they are generally considered state-level weapons. Walton said Britain's intelligence services will probably “scramble to find out what happened,” with the Security Service (MI5) taking the lead and receiving assistance from the government's chemical research facility, Porton Down, as well as GCHQ, Britain's signals intelligence agency.

The circumstances of the Skripal case make it more complicated. Not only had the Russian been pardoned as part of the 2010 spy swap — a detail that would traditionally make him off limits under established international norms in the intelligence community — but also it is unusual to target a family member, as his daughter was.

Mark Galeotti, head of the Center for European Security at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and an expert in the Russian security services, wrote in the Moscow Times this week that these factors may suggest a dangerous shift in how Russia is operating abroad. This should challenge “Western states to come up with new ways to respond to and deter these kinds of outrages,” Galeotti argued.

But what should that response be? Johnson has hinted that Britain may respond with some kind of official boycott of the World Cup, due to be held later this year in Russia. It is also possible that Britain could expel Russian diplomats, Calder says, if British intelligence concludes they were involved.

More inventive approaches are possible, too. Britain's intelligence services might adopt asymmetric tactics, such as releasing information embarrassing to Russia. Bill Browder, a former fund manager in Russia who is a major critic of Putin, suggested using London's appeal to Russia's wealthy as a tool to punish the Kremlin.

“The main leverage the UK has is property owned by Russian officials and government connected oligarchs in London,” Browder wrote in an email. “Britain now has the legal tools to seize those properties through the Magnitsky Act, which would be a big blow to the Putin regime,” he added, referring to a 2012 U.S. law that inspired British legislation last year that allows it to impose sanctions on Russian officials accused of human rights violations.

Ultimately, London may balk at going quite so far. Britain has far worse relations with Russia than do peers such as Germany or France, to little clear benefit. And in a post-Brexit world, Britain may be cautious about doing anything that could threaten London's reputation as a major financial center — even if that means turning a blind eye to deep-pocketed Kremlin allies in the British capital.

Russia doesn't seem too concerned about a response from Britain — and there seems to be little sympathy for the plight of Skripal or his daughter. Yury Filatov, Russian ambassador to Ireland, told the BBC on Thursday that “the British territories are very dangerous for certain types of people who are under the jurisdiction of the British government,” while the Russian Embassy in London tweeted caustically that Skripal was a “British spy” rather than a Russian one.

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