After passing Theresa May’s Tuesday midnight deadline, the UK announced the explusion of nearly two dozen Russian diplomats in response to the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripov and his daughter in a London suburb. She also threatened to seize the assets of Russians suspected to be involved in illicit activities, with London being a popular place for oligarchs and dissidents to stash their wealth in real estate, as well as launder and conceal money.
She also called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the investigation. The EU’s response has been tepid, pending public release of the investigation results.
The only known link to Russia is the nature of the poison, a rare and difficult to acquire nerve agent, of which stockpiles Russia claims were eliminated decades ago. The UK claims the contrary is true, with Russia continuing to store and manufacture chemical weapons in contravention of the international Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 that both are party to.
The agent, Novichok, was developed within the Soviet Union during the cold war. One of the creators, Mirzayanov, exposed the development program in 1991, was charged with treason, and fled to the United States. He has stated that it is designed to be extremely lethal, and that those accidentally exposed, if left alive, are often left permanently disabled. It was also designed to be difficult to trace, and some experts have said the only reason a nerve agent was suspected, was that the victims were discovered before dying, showing telltale signs of nerve agent poisoning. Some have speculated this could have been deliberate, as a signal to the West, or to other former agents, letting them know who was responsible, while publicly denying responsibility.
This could play out well for Putin in the upcoming presidential elections, with his strongman persona very popular amongst most of the electorate, especially when aimed against enemies of the Russian state. It mirrors other public poisonings that have been attributed with near certainty to the Russian security services, including the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.
The poisonings thus far of the most unpopular ex-security workers have all been public, and gruesome. When Skripov was found, he was foaming at the mouth, and his daughters pupils had shrunk so small that first responders stated that her eyes looked completely white. Hundreds of people potentially exposed have been told to destroy their clothing, and even the police officer who first aided them has been treated for exposure. The poisoning of Litvinenko, which left him shedding hair and deathly pale while his organs disintegrated in a hospital room, was also public and horrifying. An investigation led to a trail of highly radioactive polonium, carried by a Russian agent through public thoroughfares before being ultimately delivered to Litvinenko.
This week, Nikolai Glushkov, another Russian exile was also found dead in his home in the UK, and the investigation has been referred the UK counter terrorism division. He was the former director of the state airline Aeroflot. He had a falling out with Putin, and was charged with money laundering and fraud. After spending five years in prison, he was granted asylum and fled to the UK.
He was extremely close to Boris Berezovsky, and he gave supportive evidence for Berezovsky in court against Roman Abramovich, another oligarch close to Putin. Glushkov also claimed that the Russian government wanted Berezovsky to divest his stake in ORT, a TV station within Russia. Berezovsky himself was found dead in 2013, hanging in the home of his ex-wife, and the coroner declared the death an open verdict.
Western relations with Russia remain at a historic low, and the state, if responsible, had little to lose by carrying out this act.
Staff writer: Ari B