Sergei Skripal case: Blaming Russia does not necessarily mean action

By Michelle Bentley 
Royal Holloway, University of London

Sergei Skripal – a 66 year-old Russian former military intelligence officer – was poisoned in the United Kingdom last week, alongside his 33 year-old daughter Yulia.

Skripal had been a double agent for British intelligence during the 1990s and early 2000s. Russia’s Federal Security Service arrested him in 2004, and he was convicted of high treason. He was released from prison in 2010 as part of a spy swap and settled in Salisbury – a quaint English countryside town (not the type of place you would associate with political killings).

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May says it is ‘highly likely’ this was an attempted political assassination by Russia. May on Monday issued an official demand that Russia explain what happened or else the U.K. government will declare Skripal’s poisoning a deliberate act of military aggression.

The deadline for that explanation has now passed with no response from Russia. May is now threatening to target Russian allies with financial assets in the U.K. and diplomats, as well as asking broadcasting regulator Ofcom to investigate media outlets including Russia Today.

The allegations seem clear-cut. The most compelling evidence is that the chemical agent used to poison Skripal was a Russian-made Novichok. Novichoks are a series of advanced nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Skripal’s poisoning wouldn’t be the first time Russia has carried out political assassinations on U.K. soil. In 2006, Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko was murdered with polonium in London. Skripal is said to have feared for his life after both his sons died in suspicious circumstances. Former spy Victor Makarov has said all Russian defectors worry they will be killed. He commented: “They will try and shoot me in the back of the head, but they might use poison. They never forget.”

In 2010, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview: “Traitors will kick the bucket, believe me … Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.”

Russia denies the allegations. Instead, it accuses the U.K. of carrying out the attack – either to undermine Russia’s presidential election or to bolster a boycott of the next football World Cup. Russian officials point out that the Porton Down chemical military facility is just a few miles from Salisbury. They claim this could have been the source of the poisoning.

Russia has also refuted that Skripal was important enough to kill. Even British intelligence has no clear answer as to why Skripral was targeted. Oleg Kalugin – a former KGB general – said the poisoning would be a ‘confusing’ move if it had been carried out by Russia.

He said: “I do not see it as professional. I do not see a reason why he [Skipral] would be killed. He is not the kind of figure that would be dealt with in that way.” But Kalugin still does not rule that Putin could have been involved in the attempted killing and that the President “would use poison, if necessary.”

Despite these caveats, the UK is treating Russia as culpable. Blaming Russia, however, may not be enough to carry out any meaningful response. The U.K. will need support from its allies to do this – but these are potentially in short supply, not least thanks to Brexit.

Boris Johnson, the U.K. Foreign Minister, says France is willing to support the U.K., and the French Foreign Ministry has declared that Salisbury was “a totally unacceptable attack.” Yet France’s President Emmanuel Macron has recently come under criticism for engaging with Russia, even despite the latter’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has said Putin’s re-election could open up new opportunities for the Minsk peace process. Italy’s new right-wing government is unlikely to take a hardline on anything that Russia does. And in terms of the European Union as a whole, why would any member rush to the aid of one who wants to leave? Other countries may find their own political needs come first, including maintaining relations with Russia.

On the other side of the Atlantic, support is also uncertain. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the chemical agent used to poison Skipral “clearly came from Russia” and that this would “trigger a response.” But this statement was made just hours before Tillerson was fired. Who knows what his successor will think, especially in an administration that has been extremely ambivalent towards the Kremlin. Indeed, political commentators say Tillerson was forced out because of his aggressive policy on Russia.

In contrast, U.S. President Donald Trump has been far from enthusiastic. He said of the U.K.’s allegations: “It seems to me they [the U.K.] think like it’s Russia and I would certainly take that finding as fact. If we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.” Despite the illusion of support, therefore, this statement shows that Trump has effectively refused to commit to any real action at this stage – or even accept that Russia is responsible.

As such, May will need to do more than simply establish Russia’s culpability in order to take action. The international community may express support for the U.K., including publicly condemning Russia’s actions. But whether any other state is actually prepared to back the British government in terms of challenging Putin remains to be seen.

Michelle Bentley is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Director of the Centre of International Public Policy at Royal Holloway, University of London.

All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.

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