In a strongly worded statement to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that it was ‘highly likely’ that Russia was behind the attack of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. The statement follows over a week of investigation in the small town of Salisbury. Recent news has revealed that scientists at the top-secret military facility Porton Down finally discovered the weapon used to try and kill both targets.
In her statement, Theresa May revealed that experts have confirmed the use of a powerful military-grade nerve agent know as Novichok which has mostly been manufactured in Russia during the 60s and 70s. While most of the chemical structure of the agent, as well as its ingredients and overall manufacture, are a classified secret, the name applies to a group of chemicals which are said to be deadlier than conventional nerve agents.
Theresa May went on to say: “Either this was a direct action 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.” However, she made it the Russian government was the most likely suspect, pointing out its state-sponsored assassinations against defectors who they consider to be legitimate targets. Indeed, many of the recent killings involving Russians have been high-profile critics of Vladimir Putin or have defected to the UK. In some cases, such as the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the target fitted both categories.
The statement has been strongly rejected and criticism by Moscow officials. Russian authorities dismissed the statement as provocative and misleading, arguing that the Russian state had no part to play. Boris Johnson met with the Russian ambassador to express the outrage of the British people and demand an explanation.
In the meantime, it has been revealed that one of the first responder, a local policeman, was also affected by the nerve agent. Up to five hundred people, including eyewitnesses, passers-by, and nearby diners where Seregi and Yuli ate, are being warned to wash their clothes thoroughly as traces of the nerve agent may have settled on clothing. Traces of the chemicals were found on a table in the Mill pub where the two last ate and on a table at a nearby restaurant, close to where both were found.
The fact that innocent lives have been put at risk was highlighted in May’s speech, saying that the attack “was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk. And we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.” May also connected the attack to what she described as a backdrop of Russia’s state-sponsored aggression including meddling in the 2016 US Presidental election, the illegal annexation of Crimea and violating the airspace of European countries.
Elsewhere, in the UK political arena, the widow of murder spy Alexander Litvinenko has called upon the current Conservative government to return all donations from Russian oligarchs and citizens living in Britain. While the government has insisted that the donations were legal and were in line with the electoral law, a growing number of people are calling for the government to be more transparent with its ties to Russian oligarchs, many of whom fled Russia after Putin came to power.
Theresa May’s statement was an unusually direct attack on Russia and a sign that UK-Russia relations are worse than before. However, the options to respond are few and far between. Some have raised the prospect of EU-wide sanctions, but such actions would only affect a limited few while opinions on Russia range widely among European nations. Brexit is a further stumbling block and is, ironically, considered to have been a strategic goal for Putin and the Kremlin.
Regardless, the first blows have landed. With the revival of such attacks on Russian defectors, Britain and Russia find themselves re-enacting parts of the Cold War.