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UK wants a strong line from the EU to send a message to Russia

It’s no coincidence that the Russian ambassador chose this morning for his hour-long news conference in which he tried to dismantle, bit by bit, the British assertion that Russia was behind the Salisbury nerve agent attack.

He spoke just a couple of hours before the leaders of the 28 members of the European Union gathered in Brussels for their March Summit.

Russia and Salisbury are high on the agenda, and the Kremlin has watched the EU’s mixed and evolving reaction to the attack.

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It’s taken a while to reach the point we’re now at where, in the words of Dutch PM Mark Rutte, the EU leaders will: “Come to [a] wording which says we are fairly and squarely behind Theresa May and her Government [and will] put pressure on Russia to come clean.”

Russia wants not only to sow doubt in the public’s mind, but also in the minds of the EU’s governments.

Some, like Italy and Greece, have political and economic reasons for being seen, in Russia’s eyes, to be not wholly behind the UK, before eventually falling into line.

The EU’s mixed message was neatly highlighted by the starkly different tone conveyed to Mr Putin on his election victory by the Presidents of the European Commission and Council, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk.

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Mr Juncker’s letter to “Excellency, Mr Putin” was gushing when compared to Mr Tusk’s refusal even to acknowledge the “reappointment” of Mr Putin as Russian President.

Germany’s Angela Merkel also wrote to Mr Putin, but her letter didn’t quite compare in terms of language. France’s President Emmanuel Macron chose a phone call instead.

When I spoke to the Russian ambassador to the Netherlands last week, who is also Russia’s representative at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, he told me that some EU countries were privately telling him of their scepticism around the British claim.

He would say that, of course, but coupled with woolly statements and gushing letters, it helpfully peddled the suggestion that there was some doubt and not a whole load of unity in Europe.

It’s true that the EU message has evolved. The meeting of foreign ministers earlier this week produced a much more united tone, though Greece reportedly had to be pushed a little.

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The foreign ministers’ statement talked of a “… reckless and illegal act. The European Union takes extremely seriously the UK Government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible… The European Union expresses its unqualified solidarity with the UK and its support, including for the UK’s efforts to bring those responsible for this crime to justice”.

Britain is looking now for a clear statement at “leader level”.

UK diplomats are placing some considerable importance in the ability of the “EU-28” – all 28 nations of the European Union – to respond with clarity, collective concern as well as solidarity.

Mark Sedwill, Britain’s national security adviser, spent Wednesday in Brussels briefing EU countries on Salisbury and why the UK places the blame at the door of the Kremlin.

The UK is sharing specific intelligence and information on Russian spies that may be operating in other EU countries. They are trying to encourage the disruption of Russia’s espionage operations across the bloc.

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The British Government doesn’t believe the EU fully recognises what they see as a pattern of “reckless” behaviour by Russia: the annexation of Crimea, to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine, the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the hacking of the German Bundestag and the interference in various European elections.

But further sanctions or other concrete measures against Russia are not likely to emerge from this summit.

I am told the UK is not looking for “specific action or a particular turn of phrase”. That’s probably because they know specific and united action is not achievable.

But they want an acknowledgement that the EU needs to have a much better level of preparedness to counter Russian behaviour.

As for the language that will emerge tonight: the UK believes Russia will listen if there is a strong statement at leader level.

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