Twenty-three Russian diplomats and their families have just left London; 23 British diplomats and their families will return from Moscow before the week is out. The departures are the most visible evidence of a diplomatic standoff that has only escalated since a former Russian double agent and his daughter were found slumped on a bench in the quiet English cathedral city of Salisbury on a Sunday afternoon, their nervous systems in near-total collapse.
Now, it does not take much imagination to see a Russian hand behind what would appear to have been a botched attempt to kill 66-year-old Sergei Skripal and perhaps his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, too. Even if you accept that, however, the question is, whose Russian hand, and why? And this question is as far from being answered more than two weeks after the event as it was at the time. Indeed, it could be argued that it is actually further from being answered because of the anti-Russia smokescreen that has been thrown up in the meantime.
Using the language of the intelligence services, Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “highly likely” that the Russian state was responsible (and has only hardened her language from there). Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson capped that by saying it was “overwhelmingly likely” that Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the order. The novice defense secretary, Gavin Williamson, put it more crudely when he said that Russia should “go away” or “shut up.”
Such a hue and cry has been raised against Russia that the opposition Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been widely pilloried as a “Kremlin stooge”—including by some in his own party—for daring to suggest that the UK government had rushed to judgment and that more consideration of the actual evidence might be in order. That Russia has consistently protested its innocence—Putin himself took the unusual step of issuing another denial on the night of his reelection—has been met with a British chorus of, “Well, they would, wouldn’t they?”
One of the many difficulties in getting at the truth—aside from the pervasive anti-Putin sentiment that has long lurked just below the surface of political discourse in the UK—is what ministers, officials, and MPs all refer to as a “pattern of Russian behavior.” By this, they mostly mean the 2006 death-by-radiation-poisoning of another Russian spy, which was laid at the Kremlin’s door by a very delayed and not-very-public inquiry.
The shadow of the Alexander Litvinenko case looms large over the official UK response to the Skripal case—and not in a good way. For all the superficial parallels, the two cases are very different. Sergei Skripal was the beneficiary of a spy swap (the same one that took the glamorous Anna Chapman home to Russia from the United States) and, as such, could expect not to be pursued by the country he had betrayed, as this would jeopardize all future exchanges. Skripal had worked for UK intelligence in Russia. Litvinenko sought political asylum in the UK as a whistle-blower and failed to be hired by MI6 as the full-time James Bond he aspired to be.
A key to the official frenzy in the Skripal case, however, is less the grim fate of Litvinenko than what was seen, in retrospect, as the UK’s timid response. The then-Labour government took eight months to expel four Russian diplomats, and the then-Conservative home secretary (Theresa May, as it happens) cited damage to “international relations” as a reason for postponing the legally required inquest. “Soft on Russia” is the charge that, as prime minister, May has tried to disprove—at a time when she needs also to prove she will not go soft on Brexit.
The speed with which she has elevated a heinous crime—but still a crime—into something tantamount to an act of war (the first use of a nerve agent in Europe since, it is being said, World War II), however, risks two types of damage. The first is to the prospects of solving the crime. With the investigation transferred almost immediately from the regular to the counter-terrorist police (and the intelligence services), the only public theme is the culpability of Putin’s Russia. It is still not known—or if it is known, the UK public and Parliament have not been told—exactly when, where, and how the attack happened, or even whether any culprits are being sought.
Nor is the one piece of definite information as solid as it might once have appeared. British scientists may have identified the poison as “military-grade nerve agent” from the Soviet-era Novichok family of chemical weapons, but this does not mean it was either produced in or came from Russia, still less under Kremlin oversight.
The second area of damage is not just to the UK’s (already bad) relations with Russia, but potentially to relations with allies. The United States, the EU, and NATO may (after some UK diplomatic effort) have voiced their qualified solidarity with Britain, but the UK will soon have to present some proof of the charges it has leveled with such confidence. London seemed surprised by the Kremlin’s early call to observe the procedures of the Chemical Weapons Convention, but woe betide the UK if it has overplayed its hand. A past “pattern” would not win a conviction in a court of law.