Have you heard of Novichok? Until a few days ago very few people had, but now it is on the lips of every political commentator. Not literally of course. If it were, they would be dead, as Novichok is a deadly nerve agent. Novichok was developed during the 1970s and 80s near the closed city of Shikhany, situated 130 kilometres from Saratov. The report of its existence was sent several years ago by Russia to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). In the next few days, experts from OPCW will be arriving in the UK to test for this poisonous agent, which has been used in a quiet British city to attack a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. The UK government has accused Russia of using Novichok to try to murder the Skripals, which has raised tensions between the two countries to a point not seen since the end of the old Cold War. NATO countries have rushed to support the UK, expressing deep concern that this is the first use of a nerve agent on any NATO territory since its foundation. “Not us” insisted Vasilly Nabenzia, the Russian ambassador to the UN, when the matter was discussed in the Security Council this week. Nabenzia insisted on “material proof” that Russia carried out the attack, accusing “high levels of the UK government” of making “unsupported accusations which have far reaching consequences”. Unlike polonium-210, which killed the former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 and which was traced to the Avangard plant in the closed Russian city of Sarov, the gas Novochok leaves a less-positive fingerprint and it will take some time to produce the “material proof” demanded by Nabenzia. Until then, it is substantial circumstantial evidence, which points the finger at Russia, resulting in the action taken by the UK government.
“Traitors will kick the bucket”, said President Vladimir Putin as diplomatic tensions rose following the attack on Skripal. He was referring back to a Russian law passed in 2006, which formally permits the extra-judicial killings abroad of those Moscow accuses of “extremism”. This law is very specific and permits the President alone and apparently without consultation to take the decision for Russian agents to kill abroad. He is not obliged to disclose the location of the operation, which units are involved, or the timescale for its execution. Sergei Skripal, now a British citizen, is a former Russian military intelligence officer who acted as a double agent for the UK’s intelligence service, known as MI6, in the 1990s. Arrested in his Moscow house in 2006, he was convicted for high treason and espionage and sentenced to 13 years in a high security jail, being stripped of his military rank and decorations. Skripal was freed as part of a spy swap in 2010, moving to the UK where he settled in the medieval cathedral city of Salisbury. Although now a free man, he nevertheless was considered a traitor by Putin. So was the 2006 law used in this attempted assassination? If so why, and why now?
An early reaction came from Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, when he told journalists that Moscow was prepared to help, disingenuously adding that “we don’t have any information on what could have led to this, what he was doing”. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, was more forthright describing Prime Minister Theresa May’s accusation against Moscow as a “circus show”, emphasising they were not to blame for the attack. He claimed that Moscow didn’t have any motives for the attack “only those who wanted to continue this Russophobic campaign had motives”.
But Russia does have motives. The openly visceral hatred that Putin has for “traitors”, coupled with the attack on Skripal, could be intended to signal “this will happen to you and your family”, thus deterring potential defectors. A further motive could be to boost Putin’s vote in the presidential elections being held today. While there is no doubt that Vladimir Putin will win by a huge margin, he is concerned about a low turnout, which could undermine his victory. The brutal calling card of Novochok, with the inevitability of its discovery leading directly to Moscow, could be calculated to galvanise Putin’s conservative base and boost votes. A prominent Conservative Member of Parliament, Tom Tugendhadt, said this week that the attack “if not an act of war, was certainly a warlike act by Russia”. The retaliatory threats to Russia from the West would lead to the familiar “rally round the flag” syndrome requiring a strong President. Guess who! Some argue that the attack was to test the UK’s resolve at a time of weakness owing to Brexit. With the UK preparing to leave the European Union, Russia might see UK as increasingly isolated. A further motive might be to encourage the UK government to take action against the numerous oligarchs who have chosen to make London (Londongrad!) their home. If the UK government takes this path and the Russian occupants of multi-million-pound homes also feel that the UK is a dangerous place to live, a message being strongly promoted by Russian media, this could destabilise London.
When May was Home Secretary at the time of the brutal murder of Litvinenko, she was heavily criticised for a weak response, dragging her heels in taking any judicial action against the Russian alleged assassins, Lugovoi and Kovtun. This time she has been more robust, expelling 23 Russian diplomats and promising further action. Allies on both sides of the Atlantic have rallied round, confirming their support. The Kremlin will take retaliatory action in dispelling British diplomats from Moscow. There have been loud calls for further sanctions by the West against Russia and Baltic States governments are calling for more NATO troops on their borders to counter the build-up of Russian troops. Are we witnessing the start of a second Cold War?