Salisbury poison attack embarrassing for Britain
As yet the police have not determined who was responsible for the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on March 4. They were found on a bench in Salisbury in a comatose state. A police officer, the first on to the scene, was also in a serious condition. What is clear though is that, with hundreds of police officers and soldiers, this is no minor investigation. The unknown nerve agent is clearly extremely toxic.
Skripal was a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service. He was jailed in 2006 after sharing the names of Russian intelligence agents with European agencies. In 2010, he was swapped for 10 Russian sleeper agents. His wife Lyudmila died, it is said, of natural causes in 2012, while his son Alexander died on a trip to St Petersburg in circumstances that are far from clear.
Who is responsible? Most eyes are on the Russian regime. Nerve agents are not something one can rustle up in a shed. They require a sophisticated infrastructure and the technology of an advanced state. Was it ordered by Vladimir Putin, a Russian mafia hit, or something totally unrelated to Russia? Many argue that the line between President Putin and the Russian mafia is thin to non-existent.
Joseph Stalin infamously declared that “death solves all problems. No man, no problem.” Putin is certainly a follower of this savage adage. A public inquiry in Britain determined Putin “probably approved” the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. This Kremlin opponent was liquidated by radioactive polonium 210 in his tea in a hotel across a square from the US Embassy in the center of London — an act of nuclear terrorism using perhaps the most poisonous substance known to man, and an expensive one too, as the quantities used had a value of tens of millions of dollars. Parallels are drawn with Skripal because of the dramatic nature of the poison, and the fact it was hardly a subtle attack.
Who else has the Putin regime targeted abroad? Boris Berezovsky was found dead in his bathroom in 2013 and, although it was concluded he died by suicide, many are far from convinced, including US intelligence, as he had been working with Litvinenko to oppose Putin. Meanwhile, Russian whistle-blower Alexander Perepilichny was apparently poisoned in Surrey in England in 2012, but by whom?
Questions remain as to how the West will handle a resurgent Russia, which is dedicated to interfering in democratic elections, invading other countries, and excusing chemical weapons use in Syria, and boasts a sinister record of eliminating opponents abroad.
The history of assassinations of Russia’s opponents, including by the use of poisons, is a long one. Assassinations abroad were called “wet jobs.” The most spectacular was the killing of Leon Trotsky with an ice axe in Mexico City back in 1940, which was ordered by Stalin. Russian banker Ivan Kivelidi was killed after cadmium — a substance that is lethal to touch — was spread on his phone in 1995. The Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, was killed by a ricin-tipped umbrella on Waterloo Bridge in London in 1978. Amir Khattab, the Chechen leader, was killed by a poisoned letter in 2002. In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western presidential candidate in Ukraine, only just survived an attempted poisoning with dioxin. Oleg Gordievsky, another former Russian spy, claimed he was poisoned with thallium in 2007.
Putin’s opponents have a short life expectancy in Russia itself. The journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in Moscow, while in 2015 opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed close to the Kremlin.
The Russian regime’s views on traitors is crystal clear. Kirill Kleimenov, a presenter on a government news program, said: “I have a warning for anyone who dreams of such a career. The profession of a traitor is one of the most dangerous in the world.”
It is embarrassing for Britain either way. If it was Russia, it highlights the contempt the Kremlin has for Britain. If it was not Russia, then Britain looks foolish, not least those who rushed to conclusions in what the Russian embassy will depict as yet another example of “black propaganda” and Russophobia.
In response, Britain might use new powers called Unexplained Wealth Orders to target Russian oligarchs. It could pass its own version of America’s so-called Magnitsky Act to allow the seizure of assets. Around £90 billion ($124 billion) of illicit funds are laundered in the UK every year, much of it of Russian origin — dirty money from organized crime and tax evasion — especially since the fall of the Soviet Union. Questions are also being asked about sizeable donations made to the Conservative Party from organizations linked to Russia. The lame British response to the Litvinenko killing may have emboldened the Kremlin to go after Skripal.
Many suspect that the authorities do not want to upset the mega-rich Russian diaspora in Britain that has invested so much. Hundreds of multi-millionaire Russians live in Britain, and the capital is often nicknamed Londongrad. It took 10 years for British leaders to agree to a public inquiry into Litvinenko’s murder and his wife Marina was scathing: “The British Government should, perhaps, think less about the money these people are bringing in and more about the safety of people in this country.”
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the “government will take whatever measures we deem necessary.” Tougher sanctions are the likeliest step. Yet questions remain as to just how the US and European powers will handle a resurgent Russia, which is dedicated to interfering in democratic elections (most recently Italy), invading other countries, and excusing chemical weapons use in Syria and a sinister record of eliminating opponents abroad.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech