With Theresa May’s assertion the attack was "highly likely" an act of aggression on behalf of Russia and her subsequent decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats – the single biggest expulsion for over 30 years – tensions have risen to their highest point since the Soviet missile crisis of 1983. So, what has happened to get us to this position, and where do we go from here?
What’s happened so far?
On a worn wooden bench stuck between the meandering Avon river and a children’s playground in the somnolent city of Salisbury, sat the bodies of 66-year-old Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, who were found slumped together on Sunday 4th March in “an extremely serious condition”. The discovery of a potent nerve agent that had sent the pair into a catatonic state set in motion a still-developing, bizarre story that has sent shockwaves through the quiet Wiltshire city – previously best known for its towering cathedral – and out to the rest of the world.
Who is Sergei Skripal?
After he was hospitalised, Skripal was revealed to be a former Russian spy, convicted of passing the identities of Moscow agents working undercover in Europe to MI6 in 2006. He arrived in the UK as part of a high-profile spy swap in 2010. After the exchange, he and another Russian were flown to the UK, with Skripal considered as the more important of the two. But rather than assume a new identity, Skripal continued to live under his own name in Salisbury with Yulia and the rest of his family.
Since moving to Salisbury, his wife and son have both died – neighbours claim wife Lyudmila was killed in a car crash, but her death certificate allegedly says disseminated endometrial carcinoma, a form of cancer. And although it is reported his son died in a car crash in St Petersburg last year, the family’s cleaner claims he died as a result of liver problems.
What poison was used?
The toxic substance, which was reportedly smeared on the door handle of Skripal’s car, was part of the novichok group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union’s military in the 1970s, Theresa May told parliament, and are believed to be five to ten times more lethal than commonly known nerve agents such as VX. Symptoms include constricted pupils, convulsions, drooling and, in the worse cases, coma, respiratory failure and death. The pair remain in a critical condition, and just days after the event, the police officer who was first to respond to the scene was also taken ill and is currently in a serious condition in hospital.
Rumours constantly swirl from one person to another, and fear continues to permeate the Salisbury residents. “People are warning not to go near that end of town, so local businesses are really suffering,” Olivia, a local resident, tells us. “Everyone’s still worried. It’s been said that anyone who might have come into contact with the nerve agent without knowing it might not feel the effects now, but more later in life.”
What’s the latest?
Upon the discovery of Sergei’s identity, it was almost immediately believed to be a state-sponsored Russian assassination attempt, and as such the government is to expel 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the poisoning. In a statement to parliament, May accused the diplomats of being Russian spies, saying, “those who wish to do us harm… are not welcome here.”
In a move that came after Moscow missed her 24-hour deadline to provide an explanation how a Soviet-era agent managed to be used in an attack on UK soil, the Prime Minister also announced the UK will freeze the assets of any Russians in the UK who are under suspicion of undermining the country’s interest, and revealed no government figures or members of the Royal Family will attend this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Has Russia responded?
Russia has since said it will not be responding to May’s ultimatum unless it is given samples of the nerve agent. It described the measures as a “very serious provocation” and suggested Moscow will take retaliatory measures against the UK. In a number of tweets, the Russian Embassy said any threat to take disciplinary measures against Russia “will [be met] with a response. The British side should be aware of that.”
Earlier in the week, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned the UK against making threats, in reference to Moscow’s nuclear arsenal.
How has the international community responded?
Overnight the White House backed May’s decision to expel the Russian diplomats. In a move that could potential jeopardise the relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the US president said via White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders the US wanted to ensure “this kind of abhorrent attack does not happen again”.
Nato – a military alliance founded in the wake of the second world war between major European and North American nations – has said it is “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the attack and condemned the poisoning as “the first offensive use of a nerve agent on alliance territory since Nato’s foundation”. It has, however, ruled out invoking Article 5, the provision under which an attack on one Nato member counts as an attack on them all.
US President Donald Trump has offered his support to the UK, pledging to condemn Russia if it is found to be responsible, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also offered her support.
Have other UK residents been killed by Russia?
Concerns have been raised about the UK’s ability to protect those in its care after another Russian exile and Putin critic, Nikolai Glushkov, 68, was found dead at his London home late on Monday night. The Metropolitan Police has launched a counter-terrorism probe into his death due to “associations the man is believed to have had,” although the force stressed there is no suggestion of a link with the Skripal poisoning.
Perhaps the most famous death was of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 from acute radiation syndrome. Litvinenko claimed on his deathbed that Russian president Vladimir Putin was behind his sickness, causing serious diplomatic difficulties between Britain and Russia at the time. But Home Secretary Amber Rudd has announced a string of deaths on UK soil are to be reinvestigated by police and MI5 in the wake of Skripal’s poisoning, amid claims of Russian involvement. It came after a report by Buzzfeed claimed there is evidence 14 unexplained deaths were actually orchestrated by the Russian state or mafia allies.
Tensions between the UK and Russia are at their highest for 30 years. Despite May’s retaliation, people are calling for the Prime Minister not to back down in her subsequent actions. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn called for a “decisive and proportionate response based on clear evidence” after the Prime Minister’s current plan of action was revealed, and without being provided proof that Russia were not involved with the poisoning – and with Russian state television already accusing the UK of plotting the spy attack – experts say May will likely have to confirm that Russia committed an ‘unlawful use of force against the UK’.
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