Nearly three months ago, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, were found unresponsive on a bench in Salisbury, England. Investigators at the scene determined that the two were victims of a nerve agent, a type of chemical weapon that effectively shuts down the nervous system, including the mechanisms that facilitate breathing and heartbeats. Though the chemical may have done irreparable damage to the Skripals’ nervous systems, it was not fatal. Sergei Skripal is no longer in critical condition, and Yulia was released from the hospital a couple weeks ago.
Skripal was an ex-Russian spy who had been arrested in Russia in 2004 for his work as a double agent for MI6, the United Kingdom’s foreign intelligence service. He allegedly provided identities of many Russian spies to the British, and he was jailed in Russia as a result. In 2010, he was granted asylum in England as part of a “spy swap” between the United Kingdom and Russia.
Though Skripal posed no obvious threat to Russia—he had been out of the country and presumably out of contact with anyone tied to their intelligence forces for years—Russia is the prime suspect in his poisoning. The nerve agent was identified as “novichok,” a chemical weapon developed first (and, according to the many Western governments, only) in Russia. The attack also drew comparisons with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, another former Russian spy who fled for Britain in 2000 and whose murder in 2006 is widely considered to be the doing of two Russian agents.
However, the attack on Skripal is also in line with a broader pattern of Russia-linked political murders domestically and on foreign soil. Numerous opponents of the Russian government—outspoken ex-pats and internal investigators alike—have died in unusual ways and with surprising frequency. Many of these deaths have later been attributed to hard-to-trace poisons, reputed to be a favorite Russian tactic for targeted killings. Some, like novichok, were chemically engineered, and others were plant extracts or other natural materials. At least two of these suspicious deaths have taken place in the United States in the past three years. England, too, has been a target for the suspected political murders, especially because London in particular is a popular destination for both wealthy Russians and those who flee the country due to fear of political retribution.
Despite its similarity to previous incidents, the Skripal attack has received coverage whose tone differs from reporting on similar events in the past. Litvinenko’s murder was highly publicized, but the British government did little to address or punish the identified perpetrators or the Russian government in general. The various other deaths that are suspected to be Russian political murders have been labeled as unsuspicious or have not been investigated further by British police. In the Skripal case, though, the response was relatively swift: about a week after the attack, news broke that Britain would expel a number of Russian diplomats.
The expulsion was the first maneuver in what has proven to be an increasingly escalatory series of interactions between Russia and the United Kingdom. Initially, the British government requested an explanation from the Russian ambassador. When no explanation was provided, they moved to expel twenty-three diplomats from the country. This was part of what Prime Minister Theresa May characterized as a general crackdown on foreign intelligence agents, and the expulsion constituted the largest of such actions in more than thirty years. May also threatened increased security measures on freight and private travel between the two countries as well as scrutiny of Russian assets that might “be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents.” Targeting Russia’s financial assets in the United Kingdom would be one of the stronger measures Britain could take, and for this reason many are dubious that May will pursue action in this direction. Wealthy Russians invest in London, and hiding laundered money is made fairly easy due to lax British laws. However, cracking down on foreign investments risks retaliation from the Russians.
Despite this risk, many western countries have joined Britain in expelling diplomats. France and Germany both shied away from independently claiming that Russia was responsible for the attack, instead saying that they stand with the United Kingdom and that more investigation may prove useful. The United States has taken a harder stance than some may have expected given President Trump’s seeming unwillingness to criticize or condemn Russia. Condemnation of the attack, though, has come primarily from Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations. Since the UN Security Council meeting at which Haley characterized the attack as “an atrocious act,” the United States has ordered the expulsion of sixty diplomats and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle, effectively severing all Russian ties to the west coast.
No single factor explains why the outrage surrounding the Skripal case has been much longer-lasting and has produced more concrete action than in previous murder cases. Prime Minister Theresa May may be eager to reassert Britain’s status as an independent global player who can hold other countries accountable even without the backing force of the European Union, which Britain is in the process of exiting. It’s also possible that May is using strong language and the threat of substantive action to bolster her own domestic image, which has faltered as the British Parliament has shot down a number of her party’s policy moves. For the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and numerous other countries who have expelled diplomats, the reasoning is similarly multi-fold. In small European countries, the expulsion of a single diplomat is largely a symbolic move meant to express support for the United Kingdom. Russia has implied that these countries may have been forcefully or actively coerced into expelling diplomats. The more likely scenario, though, is that it’s simply easier to take action in a low-cost way than to not take action at all and risk international judgement or condemnation. As for the United States, the shuttering of the west-coast Russian embassy and the large-scale diplomat expulsion may be attempts from Ambassador Haley to effect some action against Russia in a Trumpian government that has been unwilling to speak out strongly against many other instances of Russian wrongdoing.
While Britain itself has taken a number of internal steps to respond to the murder, it has also employed other help. Upon the British request for an “independent probe,” the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an intergovernmental organization based in the Netherlands, opened an investigation into the source of the nerve agent used in the attack. They recently confirmed that the initial findings of the early British investigation were correct—the nerve agent was novichok. This does not definitely link Russia to the attack, and Russia claims that other countries have also developed the chemical. Indeed, various western officials have suggested that independent agents not affiliated with the state might have acquired the chemical, but they maintain that Russia would still be ultimately responsible for failing to adequately secure what is clearly a dangerous weapon. Russian requests to conduct a joint investigation and to be sent samples of the chemical were denied.
That the United Nations voted against Russia’s request to be involved in the OPCW investigation plays into one image that Russia is keen to cultivate: the picture of its people and government as under attack from all sides. Statements from a number of Russian officials speak to this with varying intensity. Some say only that Britain’s accusations are unsubstantiated; others have gone so far as to imply that the west is killing the spies themselves and blaming Russia, that Britain has doctored the story or the evidence of the attack, and even that Yulia Skripal may be under duress or coercion from the British government. The refusal of the British to send a sample of the nerve agent and the 15-to-6 vote against allowing Russian involvement in the OPCW investigation (with, as Russia pointed out, seventeen abstentions) have both ignited accusations of cover-ups and conspiracy. The Russian Embassy has used Twitter to further even the most extreme of these claims and to share the “daily” letters of support they have been receiving from members of the British public. All of this solidifies into one message: Russia is the victim, not the perpetrator.
At the same time, Russian actions paint a picture of a country (or perhaps more accurately, a man: President Putin) that is unwilling to let dissent or betrayal go unpunished, and that has the full power to carry out the punishing. As the attack on Skripal demonstrates in a very public sense, no one, not even those far in time and space from their Russian connections and anti-Russian activity, is safe. And not only can Russia—and Putin specifically—demonstrate their power by taking out their potential enemies one by one. They can also get away with it. Russian officials deny that the attack was Russia’s doing, of course. But many of these denials are mocking, conspiratorial, and hostile in tone, referring to the investigation as “nonsense” or “Project Fear” and May’s statement in Parliament as a “circus show.” It seems that little care is given to whether anybody outside of Russia actually believes in Russian innocence. Indeed, disbelief from European countries only strengthens Russia’s view of itself as the innocent scapegoat of the West. As long as the government can maintain loyalty at home and sow discord abroad, the status quo is ideal for Russia.
What remains to be seen (and, in fact, may not be seen for a long time, if ever) is the concrete impact that the western sanctions and the Russian response will have. The expulsion of diplomats is a political move by design, but the possibility that the foreign intelligence agents among them carried useful information about the countries they lived in is quite real.
International institutions may also suffer intangible but worrying setbacks. The credibility of the OPCW, for example, has been called into question by Russian officials at every turn. And if May fails to pressure Russia financially, her rhetoric that England will not “tolerate” Russia’s actions carries questionable weight. In her condemnation of the attack, May recalled the “stifling of due process and the rule of law” that Russian denial introduced into the investigation of the Litvinenko murder. But to a country that has largely escaped punitive measures regarding Litvinenko and subsequent targets, the breakdown of the rule of law is hardly a tragedy. The Russian State knows what it is doing. Other governments know, too. But until the consequences are more impactful, the political murders will continue.