All of Putin’s Poisons
In the latest news from Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin chronicles: British Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday that it is “highly likely” that Russia is responsible for the attack on former Russian spy and British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on British soil, and that the weapon was a highly potent, Soviet-era nerve agent.
In a speech to the House of Commons, Mrs. May revealed the Skripals were attacked with a “military-grade” chemical weapon from the Novichok family. Novichok was developed in secret in the waning years of the Soviet Union, and its existence was disclosed by dissident scientists in 1992. At the time they claimed Novichok was five to 10 times more lethal than VX nerve gas.
Novichok was produced in Uzbekistan, and in 1999 the U.S. helped that country dismantle the facility after the Soviet Union collapsed. But the Soviets lied for decades about their chemical programs and stockpiles, and it’s likely the Russians retained some Novichok in violation of chemical weapons treaties.
The attack on the Skripals occurred in Salisbury, a city of more than 40,000 people. Local authorities waited several days to advise residents to wash their clothes and put unwashable items like cell phones into sealed plastic bags. Some 500 people may have visited areas traveled by the Skripals on the day of the attack.
The attack also violates an unwritten code among competing spy agencies that prevailed even in the worst days of the Cold War. In 2010 the Skripals were exchanged for 10 Russians caught snooping in the U.S. Even in the black arts of espionage, agents who are exchanged are typically off-limits to future attacks. Family members aren’t targeted.
The Novichok news raises questions about the extent of Russia’s current chemical weapons arsenal. Britain demanded Monday that the Kremlin provide a full accounting of its Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. But if form holds, Russia will deny any role in the attack on the Skripals and deny that it holds chemical stockpiles. So much for the parchment promises of arms-control agreements.
Mrs. May called the Skripal attack “an indiscriminate and reckless act,” but it was probably neither. The attack was likely deliberate and specific in sending a message to all who oppose the Russian state that they are never and nowhere safe.
Mrs. May added that if Moscow failed to provide an accounting Britain would “conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom” and enact retaliatory measures. The rest of the world should do the same.
Appeared in the March 13, 2018, print edition.