On the 4th of March Police in Salisbury, a small city in England, were notified of a man and a woman acting suspiciously, while sitting at a bench in the local park. Passersby recall the couple behaving strangely, with the woman seemingly passed out, and the man waving his hands erratically in the air. Authorities suspected that some kind of drugs or stimulants were being used by the pair and rushed them both to the hospital for treatment and to confirm their suspicions. Little did they know, that this seemingly innocuous couple, would become the subject of an international diplomatic incident, one that would go on to involve every major state around the globe.
Once the police had moved the affected pair to the hospital, it did not take long for them to identify them as 66 years old Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, 33-year-old Yulia. As doctors racked their brains for a possible explanation for the symptoms being exhibited by the duo, it became increasingly clear that they were suffering from something that none of the medical staff had ever encountered before in the past. It would take two whole days before doctors were finally able to confirm their prognosis; the couple had been affected by a deadly nerve agent.
On the 7th of March, Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations of the Metropolitan Police Service and National Lead for Counter Terrorism Policing, Mark Rowley, relayed the news to the public as well, informing them that “this is being treated as a major incident involving attempted murder by administration of a nerve agent. We believe that the two people originally who became unwell were targeted specifically. These two people remain critically ill in hospital”. The commissioner also updated the public on the condition of the first responders at the scene of the crime, ruing the fact that “the police officer who was one of the first to attend the scene in response to the incident is now also in a serious condition in hospital” and that the Police’s main role would now be to “establish who is behind this and why they carried out this act”.
A tale of secret agents
Sergei Viktorovich Skripal came to prominence in 2006, when he was convicted by Russian authorities on charges of espionage and treason. Skripal, who had been a member of the Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU, the Russian secret service, was accused of having sold sensitive State information to foreign intelligence communities, mainly the UK’s MI6. He was sentenced to serve over thirteen years in jail, however this sentence was commuted after he became part of the 2010 spy swap between the US and Russia.
Reports suggest that Skripal had been working for the MI6 for almost a decade before he was finally caught. In this time, he assisted the British by using his position as a high level member of the Russian Foreign Ministry to pass on significant state secrets, as well as by identifying several hundred Russian spies and officials situated around the world. These acts made him a highly unpopular figure in his country of birth and made him susceptible to acts of vengeance by aggrieved Russian officials.
Once the identity of the poisoned couple was made public, it did not take long before members of the media and public started to speculate whether the Russian government was in any way involved in this incident. The case drew parallels with that of Alexander Litvinenko, a former member of the Russian Secret Service, who defected to the UK in 2000 after being dismissed from his job by future Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
In 2006, Litvinenko suddenly became very ill, and died twenty-three days later, after being poisoned with the deadly radioactive nuclide Polonium-210. A 2016 public enquiry in the UK concluded that his death was an act of revenge from the Russian State and that his death might have been orchestrated by Putin himself. While there was never any conclusive evidence to suggest Russian State involvement, the incident did manage to drive a wedge between the two countries, and it took quite a long time for relations to improve. However, the latest incident involving Skripal seems to have derailed that process once again.
As the investigation in to the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter continued, the evidence against Russian state involvement kept piling up as well. In her address to the commons, Prime Minister Theresa May revealed that the nerve agent used in this case was part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok, that had been developed by the Russian government back in the seventies and the eighties. “We have information indicating that within the last decade, Russia has investigated ways of delivering nerve agents, probably for assassination, and as part of this program has produced and stockpiled small quantities of Novichok. Clearly, that is in contravention of the chemical weapons convention”.
She added that that “either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others”, and that “should there be no credible response (from the Russians), we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom”.
May also highlighted the Russian’s record for conducting “state sponsored assassinations” in the past and their apathetic response to the entire episode. She stated that “the Russians have provided no credible explanation that could suggest they lost control of their nerve agent. No explanation as to how this agent came to be used in the United Kingdom; no explanation as to why Russia has an undeclared chemical weapons program in contravention of international law. Instead they have treated the use of a military grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance”.
She added that “this (incident) has taken place against the backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian State aggression across Europe and beyond” and that “there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr. Skripal and his daughter- and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury (as well)”.
Theresa May then went on to underline the UK’s response to this “appalling act against (the) country”. To begin with, twenty-three Russian diplomats would be expelled from the country, as they had been identified as “undeclared intelligence officers”. These expulsions were expected to “fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come” and would be supplemented with “new legislative powers to harden (the UK’s) defenses against all forms of Hostile State Activity” including “the addition of a targeted power to detain those suspected of Hostile State Activity at the UK border” as well as “new counter-espionage powers to clamp down on the full spectrum of hostile activities of foreign agents in the country”.
Rest of the world
While many were surprised by May’s firm response to the growing controversy, almost all of their allies lauded her tough approach and promised to follow suite. The response from the US was perhaps the most unexpected, with sixty Russian diplomats being expelled from the country. The EU and the NATO also expelled thirty-five and seven envoys respectively, with over a hundred and fifty Russian diplomats in total being expelled from twenty-eight different countries around the world.
The US, France and Germany, in a surprising move of solidarity with the UK, also issued a joint statement, calling the use of Novichok as “an assault on the United Kingdom’s sovereignty” and “a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law”. The countries also reiterated their support for the UK in this contentious matter and accepted the conclusions drawn by British authorities that the Russians were indeed behind this attack.
They stated that “we share the United Kingdom’s assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation, and note that Russia´s failure to address the legitimate request by the government of the United Kingdom further underlines Russia’s responsibility”. They also called on Russia to “provide full and complete disclosure of the Novichok program to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)” and to “live up to its responsibilities as a member of the U.N. Security Council to uphold international peace and security”.
In the end however, it was the comments of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that truly put the world on alert. In his annual report presentation, he stated that “NATO regards any use of chemical weapons as a threat to international peace and security” and that “the attack in Salisbury has taken place against the backdrop of a reckless pattern of Russian behavior”. He went on to talk about Russia’s changing geopolitical landscape as they put further effort into “modernizing its armed forces over the last decade, investing significantly, developing new weapons, including with nuclear capabilities”. He further went on to warn that “Russia has integrated conventional and nuclear warfare in its military doctrine and exercises. This blurring of the line between nuclear and conventional lowers the threshold for Russia’s use of nuclear weapons. And the blurring of the line between peace, crisis and war is destabilizing and dangerous”.
Finally, he concluded by saying that even though “(NATO) do not want a new Cold War and we do not want to be dragged into a new arms race”, there can be no doubt that “they will defend all Allies against any threat. We will maintain strong conventional forces, as well as a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent”.
While the world at large seems content to blame Russia for the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter, the Russian government has resolutely denied any involvement in the incident and have been adamant that the blame lies elsewhere.
In a series of tweets released by the UK Russian Embassy’s account, shortly after Theresa May’s speech to the commons, they stated that “the First Deputy FM Vladimir Titov strongly protested the evidence-free accusations by the UK authorities of Russia’s alleged involvement in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia”.
They called the allegations “clear provocation” from the UK authorities and stated that “Moscow will not respond to London’s ultimatum until it receives samples of the chemical substance to which the UK investigators are referring”. They also asked the British government to “comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention which stipulates joint investigation into the incident, for which Moscow is ready” and that without it “there can be no sense in any statements from London. The incident appears to be yet another crooked attempt by the UK authorities to discredit Russia”. The tweets ended with a stark warning to the UK, saying that “any threat to take ‘punitive’ measures against Russia will meet with a response” and that “the British side should be aware of that”.
The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went further and accused the British government of having poisoned Skripal themselves. He stated that “there are other explanations besides those put forward by our western colleagues who declare that it can only be the Russians who are responsible. There are other explanations. Experts say it could be highly advantageous to the British security services as well who are well known for their capacity to act with a license to kill. It could also be advantageous to the British government, who clearly find themselves in a difficult situation having failed to fulfill their promises to voters over Brexit”.
Since then, several other theories have been suggested by various Russian diplomats and politicians, yet none have been accompanied with any kind of proof. Many have suggested that this incident was just a ploy by the British and their allies to undermine Russia and President Putin, and discredit his government before the, then upcoming, Russian elections. Others have pointed to the presence of Novichok in several other European countries and suggested that perhaps they might be the source of the nerve agent used in the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter.
Regardless, the Russian government was incensed by the response from the UK and their allies, and decided to respond in kind, to their expulsion of Russian diplomats from their country. They ousted seventy-three British, sixty American and thirty-three EU diplomats from their country, with a total of almost two hundred diplomats from various countries and organizations around the world expelled in one fell swoop.
While there still remain many unanswered questions with regards to exactly what happened to Sergei Skripal and his daughter, and who was responsible for their poisoning, new updates are coming in every day. Even though tensions between the western bloc and Russia have not been this high since the Cold War, there is still hope that common sense will prevail, and unlike NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s dire warnings, the world will not experience a Nuclear winter anytime soon.
By Syed Murtaza Zaidi