Theresa May, U.K. prime minister. (Photographer: Caitlin Ochs/Bloomberg)

May Served Secrets Over Dinner to Win EU Allies for Russia Fight

(Bloomberg) -- For a war zone veteran who as U.K. national security adviser deals daily with terrorist threats, cyber attacks and now the use of a Russian nerve agent on British soil, Mark Sedwill is a very good sleeper.

When he flies long haul for work, the 53-year-old reclines his business class seat, wraps up in a blanket, pulls his seat-belt tight -- and meditates. Sedwill drifts into unconsciousness with the same kind of professional efficiency that has won him the total trust of Prime Minister Theresa May.

This week, he proved his worth again.

May faced an uphill struggle to convince European Union allies to join her in blaming Russia for the March 4 poisoning of a former double agent in the provincial town of Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, as well as his daughter Yulia, remain hospitalized in critical condition.

Based on comments from EU leaders, and interviews with officials as well as diplomats -- some speaking anonymously to discuss confidential information -- this article traces how May persuaded the bloc to unite behind her hard line on Russia. This was a task viewed as a critical test of the U.K.’s ability to rally international support after Brexit.

Several EU countries including Lithuania and Latvia, once unwilling members of the Soviet Union, and the Czech Republic said they’re considering following Britain’s lead and expelling Russian intelligence operatives. Others raised doubts, though they still signed up to the tough language in the collective communique from this week’s EU summit in Brussels.

How Summit Unfolded

When May said on March 12 that Russia was “highly likely” to blame for the attack, it was imperative for Britain to find international allies to back up her assessment. That need became urgent two days later when she ordered the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats who she said were actually spies.

Yet support was slow to materialize. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, the French president, first gave a muted response -- whilst still expressing shock and sympathy with the British. Some suggested Macron wanted more evidence before committing himself to blaming the Kremlin, though one official familiar with the matter said this interpretation was mistaken and that the French leader was solidly supportive from the start.

On March 15, May won some breathing space with a coordinated joint statement from herself, Merkel, Macron and U.S. President Donald Trump, saying they were “horrified” by the attack and shared the British assessment that there was “no plausible alternative explanation” to Russia being responsible.

Key Test

After British officials made their case to the United Nations and to NATO, they turned their attention to the EU. Despite the U.K. leaving, May has said she wants to maintain close security ties to the bloc after Brexit, and the Skripal case was a test of that policy.

Leading up to this week’s EU summit, British officials worked overtime to explain the nature of the Russian attack to members. Doubters were said to include Greece, Hungary, and Italy.

This is when Sedwill showed his value to May, traveling with his team to Brussels to share detailed intelligence in person. Specifically, he told each one of the 27 other EU member states exactly which so-called Russian Novichok nerve agent was used in the attack.

The U.K. had two key objectives: to persuade all EU leaders to sign up to a tough statement blaming Russia explicitly for the attack; and to help individual countries understand the need to take down Putin’s spy networks -- potentially by expelling agents posing as legitimate diplomats in the way May had done.

Falling Short

But despite Sedwill’s efforts, British lobbying appeared to be coming up short. By Wednesday, the day before the summit opened, the language contained in draft conclusions that leaders would sign up to was weak. Rather than blaming Russia directly, it said that the summit “takes extremely seriously” the U.K.’s assessment that Putin’s government was responsible.

So now it was May’s turn.

When she arrived at the Europa Building in Brussels on Thursday afternoon, May met with Nordic-Baltic allies, including the leaders of Denmark, Sweden, Latvia, and Lithuania. These countries understand the threat posed by Russia in their immediate neighborhood and gave May their backing.

At 7.15 p.m., May met her staunchest security allies in the EU -- Macron and Merkel. She updated them on the U.K.’s investigation into the nerve-agent attack, and it was this short meeting that provided the crucial template for the broader late-night discussions that followed.

‘Strong Message’

The three leaders agreed that the EU must send “a strong European message in response to Russia’s actions,” the British government said in a statement afterward.

All the EU leaders then gathered for dinner in the summit center, and at 8.30 p.m., the prime minister made her pitch.

“What happened in Salisbury on March 4 was not only a crime against the Skripals or the people of Salisbury,” May said. “It was an attack on the rules-based system and European values which all of us hold dear. The depth of outrage across Europe is a clear recognition of this.”

Macron and the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar supported her, arguing for tougher language to be included in the summit text. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki pushed for a “strong response, one showing solidarity” with the U.K. over the “scary” attack, he said later.

Resistance

Again May met resistance from others. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras seemed the most uncomfortable. He spoke to Putin by phone for half an hour on Thursday, congratulating him on his re-election. An official said there was “good chemistry” between the two leaders and revealed that Putin had invited Tsipras to visit the Kremlin.

During the dinner, the Greek premier questioned whether the leaders’ summit was the right forum to go into a criminal investigation of this kind. He opposed hardening the language of the summit conclusions, and cautioned that the EU’s declaration must not be so strong as to make sanctions inevitable.

Italian premier Paolo Gentiloni also had doubts, according to some diplomats, along with Austria’s chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who argued against recalling ambassadors from Moscow on the grounds that May had left the British envoy in place.

Shortly after the summit ended, Gentiloni told reporters he endorsed the EU’s decision, but cautioned against an escalation or closing off the dialogue with Russia.

Intense Talks

The debate over dinner was sober and intense, and lasted more than two hours without an agreement. To those in the room, it appeared that May and her two chief allies -- Macron and Merkel -- had agreed tactics beforehand.

The German chancellor, so often the linchpin of the EU, then made two interventions, arguing firmly that the bloc must not shy away from laying the blame where the evidence pointed: At the Kremlin door.

Then at 10.41 p.m., European Council President Donald Tusk announced an agreement. He set out the key phrases in a tweet he posted while sitting at the dinner table: “EUCO agrees with UK government that highly likely Russia is responsible for #SalisburyAttack and that there is no other plausible explanation.”

May’s officials were delighted -- and surprised. Persuading the EU to take such a line as a group of 28 individual countries can take months. The bloc even went further, taking the unprecedented step of recalling its ambassador to Moscow for talks on the crisis.

By Friday morning, several leaders were openly discussing how they would follow words with deeds, which could include expelling Putin’s spies from their own territories. In his summing up, Tusk suggested some countries will announce their next steps on Monday.

“It’s not the end of our actions,” he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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