After the poisoning this week of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter last week, using a deadly nerve gas, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has come out stating that the Russian government bears responsibility for the attack. May, in a meeting with the House of Commons, stated that the nerve gas used was “Novichok,” a Russian-developed military grade nerve agent that is tightly controlled. Therefore, it was either directly ordered or sanctioned by the military or security services, or a rogue agent with high level access was able to procure the weapon. Therefore the government either bears direct responsibility, or it has lost control over some of its most fearsome weapons. Theresa May set a deadline of midnight on Tuesday for the Russian government to produce an explanation, or she has said the government will convene to consider retaliatory measures, which could include sanctions, or expulsion of Russian diplomats.
Sergei Skripal was roughly caught, and prosecuted within Russia, before being pardoned, released and sent to the UK under a prisoner swap carried out under former president Dimitry Medvedev. Some speculate that the sense of betrayal felt within the Russian intelligence community against the turncoat never faded, and that there remained deep antipathy towards him within Russia. The question still remains over whether this a state sanctioned act, or carried out by former military or security operatives, further, if so, why was this attack carried out now, years after the pardon, and if it was carried out with full state support, then why wasn’t the assassination attempt successful.
Russia’s foreign ministry representative called May’s speech “a circus act.” The Russian presidential election, being held this week, fuels speculation that this was carried out to prove to the Russian electorate that Putin remains strong, and can act with relative impunity abroad to promote the interests of the Russian federation. Russia, the recent years after the Ukraine conflict, has taken a turn for the violently nationalist. Their support for Russian military incursions abroad, and an extremely assertive foreign policy, has shaped Putin’s own actions as he seeks to solidify power at home by flexing Russian military might, while acting within a global geopolitical landscape where bad actors routinely go unpunished.
Responding from the United States, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders utterly failed at messaging. She offered sympathy, and generally “condemned” the actions, stopping short of stating that the UK had found Russia to at least be partially responsible.
She stated, “the use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage. The attack was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible. We offer the fullest condemnation, and we extend our sympathy to the victims and their families, and our support to the UK government. We stand by our closest ally and the special relationship that we have.” When pressed, she again refused to explicitly back May’s assertion that Russia was behind the attack.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went significantly further, blaming the Russians, saying, “we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior. From Ukraine to Syria — and now the UK — Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.”
He backed May’s claim, saying “We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week.. [the attack] clearly came from Russia… [and the poison used] is a substance that is known to us and does not exist widely. It is only in the hands of a very, very limited number of parties.”
Rex Tillerson has been increasingly and publicly at odds with the stated foreign policy of the Trump administration. On the surface, at this point, his job seems to be maintaining foreign policy normalcy and relations with American allies, while the Trump administration continues to be making little effort to placate its allies, rather initiating a series of alienating threats and policies that isolate the United States.
Meanwhile, the United States House of Representatives has ended their Russia investigation for apparent lack of evidence, against calls of obstructionism and partisanship by Democrats. Representative Adam Schiff (D) of California, said “by ending its oversight role in the only authorized investigation in the House, the majority has placed the interests of protecting the president over protecting the country, and history will judge its actions harshly.” He had publicly complained that a number of witnesses were never compelled to testify, with the requests for their interviews blocked by Republicans.
The Republican-led panel is set to issue a report, in which they will agree with the intelligence agencies’ assessments that Russia sought to spread discord and interfere with the election, but that there is a lack of evidence of outright collusion between Trump administration officials and the Russian administration.
Representative Tom Tooney (R) of Florida, a member of the committee, has also stated that the committee had found explicit evidence that the Russian efforts aimed to both harm Hilary Clinton’s candidacy, and help Donald Trump’s. He said that the investigation was instead ending because the committee had lost all credibility, amid partisan infighting. This conflict culminated in the release of two popularly hyped memos earlier this year, against the wishes of the intelligence community, scarring the public image of their impartiality.
The investigation, led by former FBI chief Robert Mueller, is still ongoing, and has led to several indictments and guilty pleas from members of the Trump campaign and transition team for a variety of crimes related to collusion with foreign governments. It is still unclear when this investigation will end. The man overseeing the Mueller investigation, Robert Rosenstein, stated this week that he doesn’t believe there is, “any justification at this point for terminating the special counsel,” a sign that the investigation will likely continue for some time
Staff writer: Ari B