UK-Russian relations could get worse before they get better, the deputy director general of a prominent security think tank has said.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers, from the Royal United Services Institute, highlighted how diplomatic links between the two countries are currently at “the lowest point” since the end of the Cold War.
His comments come amid allegations that intelligence officers from the Kremlin tried to hack the Foreign Office and the international body investigating the Salisbury nerve agent attack.
“UK-Russia relations are at the lowest point they have been since the end of the Cold War,” Prof Chalmers told the Press Association.
“There are a number of areas which Russia could begin to dig out of this hole, and I think there would be many in the UK who would want to reciprocate.
“But, I think the balance of probabilities is that things could get worse before they get better.”
On Thursday the Foreign Office, Dutch authorities and US Department of Justice disclosed information on a number of malicious cyber activities allegedly conducted by Russia.
Dutch authorities revealed that with the help of UK intelligence they thwarted an attempted cyber attack on the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague.
Peter Wilson, the UK ambassador in The Hague, also said both the Foreign Office and Defence and Science Technology Laboratory at Porton Down were also targeted by a group of GRU military intelligence service hackers in Russia known as “Sandworm”.
The US Department of Justice also revealed it had indicted seven suspected GRU officers for “malicious cyber activities” against the US and its allies – including some of those named in connection with the OPCW attack.
Taking place within hours of each other, Prof Chalmers said he thinks the disclosures were an example of western countries coordinating their response.
“This is a deliberate information operation by western governments because they want to remain on the front foot in relation to what Russia has been doing,” he said.
The British Government is not going to sanction assassinations or indiscriminate cyber attacks on Russia. So it can't use the same tools. What it does have is sanctions and what it does have is information.Prof Malcolm Chalmers
Prof Chalmers said so far the coordination of announcements has been a “pretty successful attempt to gain information advantage”.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the disclosures were “hard evidence” of the “unacceptable” activities of the GRU which Britain has previously blamed for the attack in Salisbury.
He said the Government would now be entering into discussions with allies on what new sanctions could be imposed against the Kremlin.
Prof Chalmers said: “The British Government is not going to sanction assassinations or indiscriminate cyber attacks on Russia. So it can’t use the same tools.
“What it does have is sanctions and what it does have is information,” he added.
“I think it is a real possibility that there will be further sanctions… but I think there is a risk the intensification of counter sanctions against that will dig us progressively into a deeper hole of confrontation.”
On Thursday, the National Cyber Security Centre said the GRU was “almost certainly” to blame for hacking the Democratic National Committee during the US presidential election in 2016.
Asked whether Russia could have interfered with the divisive Brexit referendum, Prof Chalmers said he has “not seen a totally convincing narrative” to suggest they did.
Warning how a “very close eye” must be kept on any reports of that, he stressed this is imperative because it is entirely possible the UK may have a national vote in the next year.
“I think the UK authorities need to be vigilant in ensuring that there is no outside interference in any national vote we may have,” he said.
Following the revelations, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson accused Russia of acting like a “pariah state”.
Prof Chalmers said he does not think Russia is a pariah state yet, but that it is “moving in that directions by its actions”.
“The British Government doesn’t want Russia to be a pariah state, they prefer to have good relations,” he added.
“But in order for that to happen Russia has to adhere to basic international norms.”