Following a chemical attack on U.K. soil, the British government is preparing to instigate an “economic war” against Russia, according to reports. Prime Minister Theresa May stated that Russia was “highly likely” to have used a nerve gas in the British town of Salisbury, and gave the Kremlin a deadline of midnight Tuesday to respond officially to the accusation – a deadline that passed without comment. Russia’s U.K. embassy has denied any involvement with the incident, and indeed there is no proof to link the country or its government to the attack.
May announced Wednesday that 23 Russian “undeclared intelligence officers” will be expelled, the largest expulsion of foreign diplomats in over 30 years. She also stated that the government would:
- Pursue new laws to “harden our defences against all forms of Hostile State Activity”
- Consider enhanced counterintelligence powers
- Seek to freeze Russian assets
- Increase checks on flights, customs, and checks
- Strengthen powers to impose sanctions
- Enhance “efforts to monitor and track the intentions of those traveling to the U.K. who could be engaged in activity that threatens the security of the U.K. and our allies” – powers increasingly used to detain and refuse entry to foreign journalists with no history of violence or terrorism.
May anticipated help from Britain’s allies to “defend our security…and send a clear message.” President Trump and Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have expressed support for the U.K. However, they have avoided pointing the finger definitively at Russia, unlike former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who condemned Russia and warned of “appropriately serious consequences” only a few hours before being fired by the Trump administration.
The President has tentatively said “It sounds to me like it would be Russia…As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”
The strike occurred last Sunday when a nerve agent identified as Novichok was used in an apparent attempt to assassinate former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who now reside in England. Skripal is in a stable yet critical condition in the hospital, while around 20 others have been medically treated, including police officers and members of the public. There is additional concern about possible wider exposure to the chemical, with trace amounts found in several locations around the town. Locals were told to wash their clothes and jewelry and warned that 500 people could be at risk of lifelong health complications resulting from exposure.
Skripal covertly passed information to British intelligence services. He was discovered by Russian authorities and imprisoned for six years. He cooperated with the prosecution and handed over British intelligence information to the Russian government. Despite this, he was later traded to the U.K. in a spy swap and has been living a quiet life in England since.
Jumping to Conclusions
The British government hasn’t hesitated to blame Russia for the attack, citing previous examples of alleged Kremlin sanctioned assassinations on British soil, such as the case in which the prominent Putin-critic Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with the radioactive polonium-210 metal. A sequence of Russian defectors and Putin enemies have died in mysterious circumstances thought to be connected to the Kremlin. Is this another episode in the series, or is the British government jumping to conclusions before bothering to do an investigation?
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has urged caution, and members of the public have expressed concern over the distinct lack of evidence connecting Russia to the attack. There are doubts as to what motivation Russia would have to so publicly poison a former agent now when they had ample opportunity to do so in the years he was held prisoner. Skeptics have raised some serious questions that cast doubt on Kremlin involvement and offered alternative explanations including rogue Russian agents, business rivals, and an unknown third party.
It’s also possible that contamination occurred accidentally, with defense laboratory Porton Down only seven miles from the infected site. Scientists at the lab identified the nerve agent as Novichok, a highly toxic substance that was developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War but never used until now.
Theresa May linked the chemical to Russian labs, telling parliament:
“Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”
However, according to the Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response Handbook, designed for use by emergency personnel, Novichok chemicals are particularly simple to make from common ingredients and facilities. The substance cannot be regulated due to the relative ease of covert manufacture.
Former Kremlin adviser Alexander Nekrasoff told Sky News that Novichok is “possessed by about 16 countries in their laboratories…Why do I know this?” he asked. “Because that’s how the antidote is developed.” He also told Sputnik News that:
“I’m sorry but every laboratory in the West including Porton Down which is only 7 miles away from Salisbury, has a sample of this so called ‘Novichok’, Newcomer, as they called it. They use these samples to produce the antidotes, so why isn’t this Porton Down facility being investigated? Why aren’t the people who work there being investigated and asked if they have lost a sample of this weapons grade chemical?”
The British government has refused to comply with a request by the Russian government to hand over a sample of the poison for investigation.
The Future of Anglo-Russian Relations
In line with Putin’s usual style, Russia has handled the matter with a mixture of disdain and humor but has warned that they would retaliate against any sanctions.
The past two years have seen a worrying ratcheting up of tensions between Russia and the West. Just as the Trump collusion story is dying down, the U.K. has become the latest arena for Russophobic anxiety, with many pointing out echoes of the Cold War. Britain is diving in head first. Will the U.S. join them, or decide to wait for some evidence first?