Has Putin miscalculated with brazen Skripal assassination attempt?
Death in a perfume bottle. But this attempted murder was hardly a difficult puzzle to solve, even if its implications will resound across security establishments worldwide. The lethal contents of a counterfeit Nina Ricci vessel coated on to a door knob were as potent as any poison yet made, whose use potentially imperiled the lives of up to 4,000 people, killed one and had four fighting for their lives.
As the UK Parliament returned from its summer break, Prime Minister Theresa May reported to a pretty stunned House of Commons a major update in the investigation into the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal on March 4 in the city of Salisbury.
May not only pointed the finger at Russia and its leadership, but named the two agents, or at least their aliases, and the details of their journey, backed up by their images on CCTV. British investigators had determined that they were active members of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov have been accused by British prosecutors of conspiracy to murder. May was insistent that such an action could only have been carried out with the consent and knowledge of President Vladimir Putin himself.
In the dirty art of the political assassination, this was decidedly amateur hour. They were caught frequently on CCTV, even window shopping, and left traces of Novichok in their hotel room. But this is the point. It is the deliberately casual, carefree approach of the GRU that is so chilling. They make little or no attempt to cover their tracks because exposure is exactly what is desired. One can be assured that many Russian assassinations go unnoticed when performed using more traditional tradecraft.
Turn the clock back to 2006 and Russian agents took the radioactive substance polonium into the heart of London not once but three times to eventually kill Alexander Litvinenko, another of Putin’s opponents. Here too the assassins were rank amateur, leaving behind an easy trail for detectives; their every movement highlighted by their radioactive baggage. In fact, British detectives believe another of Putin’s opponents, who was found strangled in March, had nearly died from a 2013 poisoning in Bristol. So many of Putin’s opponents suffer early appointments with the grave.
The evidence is just overwhelming, despite the tired official Russian protestations and deflections. Russian agents tried to kill a Russian opponent using Russian nerve agent developed only in Russia
Conspiracy geeks, denialists and truthers persist in fantasizing of another reality, trying to promote their largely inane theories, all easily debunked. The Russian state propaganda knows how to feed this frenzy with dozens of novel claims about what might have happened. The evidence is just overwhelming, despite the tired official Russian protestations and deflections. Russian agents tried to kill a Russian opponent using Russian nerve agent developed only in Russia.
Why else would two Russian men fly in for just 50 hours to visit Salisbury at exactly the time of the Skripal murder attempt? Salisbury is a lovely city for sure, but hardly a top destination for a two-day break, or rather two visits — one for reconnaissance on the Saturday and then a return journey the following day to try to commit the murder.
Putin sent a message and will send many more like it. Using terrifying weapons rather than guns or knives is all part of the theater, a way of grabbing attention rather than avoiding it. That his GRU agents were spotted, photographed and tagged is irrelevant to a leader who cares not a jot. They made close to zero effort to disguise their presence. His men are back in Russia and Britain is left to flail around searching for a meaningful response.
How should Britain respond? It expelled 23 Russian diplomats in March. Key allies have once again rallied around. A joint statement from the leaders of the US, Canada, France and Germany stated: “We have full confidence in the British assessment that the two suspects were officers from the Russian military intelligence service... the GRU.” But what appetite will they show to get truly tough with Putin?
Russia might think it has won this round and won handsomely. For the moment, Britain looks weak, but so do other states, which likewise would have little or no protection from any such Russian activity in the future. Putin has sent a message to his opponents: You are not safe in Russia or abroad — the Russian state will get you and there is nowhere to head and no lengths to which it will not go.
Yet Putin is perhaps just too cocky. Yes, Russia is too big a bear to skin, but it can still be hurt. Putin gambles that London cannot afford, not least during its self-inflicted Brexit shambles, to turn away the billions of Russian rubles stashed away in the UK. Yet this could be a miscalculation, as the mood for further sanctions is getting stronger.
But it is also a gamble that triggering a new Cold War will be in Russia’s interests. The UK is threatening various acts of cyberwarfare against Russia, no doubt prompting tit-for-tat actions. It is hard for the UK to just soak this up and be seen to do nothing.
This matters, and not just to Britain. Both radioactive and chemical weapons have been openly and defiantly used as methods of assassination. GRU agents were just last year accused of the 2016 attempted assassination of Montenegro’s prime minister. These activities will continue unless opposed. Every state should take notice, and every state should work to end this now, before it becomes the norm.
- 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