On Sunday 4th March, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia Skripal, were both poisoned in Salisbury. They went for drinks in The Mill pub, before eating in a Zizzi restaurant. The two were later found in critical condition on a park bench. Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey was also hospitalised upon attending the scene.
The poison used was a nerve agent called ‘Novichok’, and it was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. The nerve agent was meant to be destroyed, but since the attempted assassination of the Skripals, UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson announced on The Andrew Marr Show that evidence exists that Russia has been stockpiling Novichok for over a decade, specifically for the purposes of assassination.
Sergei Skripal was a double agent, spying for Russia before turning over to spy for Britain, which makes him a traitor by Putin’s standards. The Kremlin, Russia’s government in Moscow, has a history of going after what they call “dissidence”. Most notably, Alexander Litvinenko, another Russian defector to Britain, died three weeks after being poisoned by polonium. Scotland Yard determined that his death was an assassination by the Russian state.
The government reacted quickly, seeing Theresa May call for an immediate response from Russia within 24 hours. When Russia refused to respond, May announced that 23 Russian diplomats, identified as “undeclared intelligence officers”, had under one week to leave the UK. May stated in the Commons that “this will be the single biggest expulsion in thirty years”. May’s aim in this response is to derail Russian intelligence networks in the UK for good.
Theresa May clarifying her stance in the Commons (Source: Youtube)
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition, avoided directly accusing the Kremlin, asking the Commons to remember the “dubious” fortunes the Conservatives regularly receive from Russian oligarchs, and their “political influence in British party politics”. Despite the boos of disapproval coming even from his own backbenches, Corbyn hit back that the government should be “focused on reducing conflicts and tensions rather than increasing them”.
Whilst May decided to prioritise national security, Corbyn did not think this was worth damaging relations with Russia in the current political climate. Labour MPs such as shadow chancellor John McDonnell, have attempted to go back on Corbyn’s stance in the Commons, stating that Labour agree “completely” with the prime minister. Despite the importance of Russia in future Brexit negotiations, the consensus seems to be that the UK has to stand up to Russia on this, whatever the cost.
The leaders of the UK, the US, Germany and France have all come to together, condemning the Salisbury attack as “an assault on UK sovereignty”.
Russia has responded in retaliation, by sending 23 British diplomats out of Russia. GOV.UK have now issued a travel advice statement, telling British nationals currently in Russia: “due to heightened political tensions between the UK and Russia, you should be aware of the possibility of anti-British sentiment or harassment at this time”.
During the press coverage of the Salisbury attack in the UK, Russia have been in the thick of their presidential elections. Putin, seemingly unaffected by May’s 24-hour ultimatum, has now secured a large margin of victory, giving him a strong mandate from the Russian people to make important decisions on behalf of the country for the next six years.
Putin on his victory after the election (Source: The Washington Post)
Andrei Kondrashov, a spokesman for Putin’s campaign, announced that ten days ago sociologists had believed that the turnout of the election would be about 50 to 60%. “Now,” Kondrashov tells us, “we can see that the number is higher than we expected. Much higher. This is largely thanks to the UK. So I would like to thank the UK for helping us with this high turnout, which we ourselves could not have dreamt of.” It seems that the Kremlin are directly thanking May now for her hard line approach regarding the attack, further undermining her authority.
It’s interesting to note, however, that on the day of the election, independent monitoring group Golos reported countless irregularities, including papers being stuffed into ballot boxes, and webcams in polling stations becoming suspiciously obstructed by balloons.
So whilst Putin’s government seem to now claim that this event has only strengthened their resolve in Russia, our prime minister is attempting to derail any resolve Putin’s intelligence network may have established here on UK soil.
It’s now a waiting game. The attack has had knock-on effects to all Russian-UK relations. Not only are potential Brexit deals in question, but England’s participation in the next World Cup, to be hosted in Russia, is also up for debate.
What we know for now is that the nerve agent used in the Salisbury attack is under scrupulous tests in labs currently. Until we know where this particular dose of Novichok was manufactured, no further decisive steps will be made.