After the alleged Novichok nerve agent attack on Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury at the beginning of March, the diplomatic relationship between Britain and Russia has hit a new low. The incident has major implications for western relations to Russia, but the whole murder case provides more question than answers. It’s a highly complicated crime that may never get proven beyond reasonable doubt. Yet still, its ramifications may be huge.
The Novichok Nerve Agent Attack
It’s been a tumultuous two weeks in Great Britain after the deaths of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, and we are no closer to answers than we’ve been back then. Skripal is a former Russian agent. He was sentenced to prison in 2002 for treason as a double agent in Russia but was later released in an exchange deal with Britain and granted refuge in the country. His daughter Yulia was found unconscious at his side at the beginning of March. Both of them and a police officer remain in critical condition following an alleged nerve agent poisoning, identified by Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May as part of the Soviet Union developed Novichok agents. May went on to give Russia a 24-hour ultimatum to explain the nerve agent attack, declaring:
“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.”
While the ultimatum did not further the situation on any side, May has since begun asking for both support from allies like the US, France, and Germany and to proceed with extensive sanctions against the Russian state. Several Diplomats were expelled as a result, a step Russia has promised to answer by also expelling British diplomats on their side. Further sanctions were implied as well.
Back to the Cold War
The bottom line is that western countries are once again rallied up against Russia in a situation that looks decidedly grim. While there is no definitive proof yet about how the Novichok nerve agent was administered or where exactly it came from, Russia has to be the prime suspect. Russian media has, of course, come out and condemned both the allegations and the harsh diplomatic reaction.
Russian officials were appalled by the direct allegations without definitive proof and access to the actual nerve agent to conduct their own investigations. Sentiments, on the whole, were split with either backing the Russian or British victim narrative, citing either strong indications or the absence thereof as proof for their side of the argument. It definitely is a case where definitive proof is absent, and yet, it really doesn’t change the outcome.
Crisis Between Britain and Russia is Inevitable
The use of WMD chemical weapons in any country has to lead to strong and decisive reactions by their government. Following the nerve agent attack, where more people could have gotten injured in the long run, Theresa May had only one chance to deliver a strong response. And that she did in maybe her best and strongest speech she has given in a while, at least since the most recent election last summer. A chemical attack is not easily swept under the rug. It is a matter of international importance and can’t necessarily wait until everything is fact-checked for weeks. This is not a simple murder where the murder weapon may be found around the corner, including decisive prints. This is a serious and complicated nerve agent attack against a former Russian spy, that will take its time to be fully uncovered, if at all.
Is the Novichok nerve agent enough to conclude Vladimir Putin ordered the hit himself? Maybe not, but as a substance developed on Russian soil during the Soviet era it is enough to conclude some sort of involvement. It was a chance for May to get back on track as a strong leader, especially coming from several previous murders in connection with Russia, some of which were proven, that the British government failed to react to in an adequate manner. And let’s not forget the rather weak response to Russia during the Ukraine/Crimea conflict.
This new case also lead Britain to reopen some of these previous cases with possible Russian connections, as well as one new case concerning the most recent death of Russian refugee Nikolai Glushkov, just before his hearing in relations to a lawsuit brought against him by Russian airline Aeroflot. Glushkov had previously stated he feared for his life, as his name was on a Russian hitlist.
What does Britain Have to Gain by Faking it?
In the end, we have to look at what both sides would have to gain out of this. The west surely likes to paint Vladimir Putin as the devil and to reinforce the image of an external threat to western principles – especially in connection with the previous 14 possible assassinations by Russia in Britain alone. On top of that, Theresa May needed to position herself and Britain in the face of Brexit and earn much-needed respect as an independent nation outside the EU. It’s important to show that, regardless of the EU, they still have their western allies and are no push-over nation.
Recently published articles do indicate Russia may already have a huge influence in the nation by financing major parts of the political landscape, as well as rumored interference in the Brexit vote. On the other hand, Boris Johnson, not necessarily opposed to Russia, has already said that it is “overwhelmingly likely” that Putin gave the order for the nerve agent attack.
That may have been one reason why Britain has not, as is international law, allowed Russia to inspect the substance they claim to be the described Novichok nerve agent. We may see a distortion of truth either way, as Russian sources may claim that it’s not a nerve agent from the region, while the west will claim otherwise – no matter who gets to research the agent.
Russian Benefits of the Nerve Agent Attack
So what about Russia then? Russia will hold their elections this weekend, March 18th, with Vladimir Putin already highly unlikely to not win by a landslide. This incident is curiously close to the national election, which some Russians have already remarked could be an attempt by the west to influence the outcome. However, the incident itself will hardly harm Putin’s chance, it is rather likely to help him tremendously.
The act of establishing an external threat and creating the internal need for strong leadership, which no one except Putin can deliver at this precise moment, goes both ways. This incident, shortly before the election, with the whole western world looking down on Russia could be an orchestrated act to achieve exactly this. If Russia was behind the act – using dangerous weaponry – they must have been certain it would trigger an outcry.
A Russian Warning Shot
It could also be a warning. Vladimir Putin gave a speech praising Russia’s new and advanced nuclear weapons system just a few days before the nerve agent attack on the Skripals. It may also tie in with the speech to send a clear message to not engage and, especially, not to interfere with Russian elections. After the alleged involvement of the Russians in the American election, retaliation may be a motivation to send a clear message of what the country could be capable of. Bluntly: Terrorism on foreign soil.
The next argument would be deterrence. Britain is the favorite refuge country for Russians escaping Russian prosecution. And while Russia obviously isn’t admitting any involvement, their media outlets do kinda imply Skripal had it coming, amplifying pressure on other Russians seeking refuge.
Bear in mind, this is all still highly speculative. However, Russia is still most likely the origin of the nerve agent and Putin maybe even gave the order. It is highly unlikely we will hear the whole truth here and it will surely continue to push east and west further apart. It may even create the furthest divide since the cold war.
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