Nerve-agent at­tack ex­poses Bri­tain’s iso­la­tion

The Washington Post - - POWER POST - ap­ple­baum­let­ters@wash­

Add a new word to your vo­cab­u­lary: Novi­chok. It’s a chem­i­cal weapon de­vel­oped in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, a nerve agent re­port­edly 10 times more po­tent than its bet­ter-known pre­de­ces­sors. A Rus­sian sci­en­tist who was ac­ci­den­tally ex­posed to a small amount re­ported see­ing “bril­liant colors and hal­lu­ci­na­tions”; he died about five years later.

Larger doses may lead to im­me­di­ate paral­y­sis of the ner­vous sys­tem; that’s what the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment be­lieves hap­pened to Sergei Skri­pal, a Rus­sian de­fense in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer who spied for Bri­tain, as well as his daugh­ter, Yu­lia, when they were ex­posed to Novi­chok in Sal­is­bury, a pro­vin­cial English mar­ket town best known for its lovely cathe­dral. The con­trast be­tween the sin­is­ter Rus­sian poi­son and this mid­dle-class, mid­dleEng­land back­drop is part of what has made the story so sen­sa­tional in the coun­try.

Vladimir Putin, a man whom most Bri­tons know as a semi-fic­tional bad guy who some­times ap­pears on the evening news, has sud­denly in­sin­u­ated him­self into or­di­nary life. One Bri­tish po­lice­man fell gravely ill af­ter be­ing ex­posed to the Skri­pals; 12 oth­ers were hos­pi­tal­ized; hun­dreds have been warned as well. That makes it dif­fi­cult to dis­miss this story — “Rus­sians killing Rus­sians, and why should we care?” — as many Bri­tons did when Alexan­der Litvi­nenko, an­other Rus­sian ex-spy, was mur­dered with ra­dioac­tive polo­nium, an­other rare, highly clas­si­fied poi­son, in cen­tral London in 2006.

But while Litvi­nenko’s as­sas­sins might have ex­pected to go un­de­tected, the Skri­pals’ would-be mur­der­ers had to know that Novi­chok would quickly be linked to the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. This as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt rep­re­sents whole new lev­els of de­fi­ance. It broke the rules of spy swaps: Skri­pal had been par­doned by then-Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 and traded for a bevy of Rus­sian spies. It comes amid a long se­ries of other mys­te­ri­ous deaths, in­clud­ing that of Niko­lai Glushkov, a Putin op­po­nent, in London on Mon­day. It showed no con­cern for by­standers. It has been ac­com­pa­nied by a loud and ar­ro­gant dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign. Since the story broke, Rus­sian state tele­vi­sion has al­ter­nately is­sued warn­ings to “traitors” and blamed Bri­tish se­cret ser­vices, Ge­or­gia and Ukraine. A Rus­sian politi­cian ap­peared on the BBC rant­ing about a new Re­ich­stag fire and com­par­ing the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter, Theresa May, to Hitler. The Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry and the Rus­sian Em­bassy have been openly mock­ing Bri­tain, tweet­ing pho­to­graphs of James Bond and laugh­ing at the ev­i­dence.

But why are they do­ing this? Speak­ing to Bri­tish politi­cians and of­fi­cials over the past week, I’ve heard a range of ex­pla­na­tions. Just like the at­tack on the jour­nal­ist Anna Politkovskaya more than a decade ago, the hit may have been meant as a warn­ing to other po­ten­tial dou­ble agents; you don’t have to mur­der ev­ery jour­nal­ist, or ev­ery spy, to frighten the rest. Al­ter­na­tively, it may have been de­signed, in line with the old Soviet tra­di­tion of “ac­tive mea­sures,” to pro­voke an an­gry re­sponse; in ad­vance of the pre­or­dained Rus­sian elec­tion next week, Putin can in­crease slug­gish turnout by shout­ing about “Rus­so­pho­bia” in Bri­tain.

More omi­nously, it may have been de­signed to ex­pose the coun­try’s new iso­la­tion: Now that it is leav­ing the Euro­pean Union, Bri­tain no longer has a set of al­lies it can rely upon to help craft a re­sponse. It has no fa­vors it can draw upon, ei­ther. For the past year, Bri­tish diplo­macy has been fo­cused on Brexit to the ex­clu­sion of all else. As if to un­der­line this weak­ness, even the White House was stun­ningly opaque, con­demn­ing the at­tack without men­tion­ing Rus­sia. The Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, so quick to in­sult Meryl Streep and Alec Bald­win, has yet to tweet a syl­la­ble.

So ex­tra­or­di­nary does this fail­ure seem to the Bri­tish — does the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent be­lieve their gov­ern­ment or the Rus­sian Em­bassy? — that here in London, many are ask­ing whether Pres­i­dent Trump dis­missed Rex Tiller­son be­cause the State Depart­ment’s state­ment on the Skri­pal poi­son­ings used the word “Rus­sia.”

If the point was to ex­pose Bri­tish iso­la­tion, it has suc­ceeded: There is no ob­vi­ous, fast re­sponse that Bri­tain can make, by it­self, that dam­ages Putin. Bar some more se­nior Rus­sian politi­cians from Bri­tain? That hardly mat­ters to the Rus­sian pres­i­dent. Boy­cott the World Cup? No one will mind.

The re­sponses that might re­ally mat­ter are much more dif­fi­cult. The Bri­tish gov­ern­ment could ini­ti­ate a cy­ber­at­tack or re­veal some hacked in­for­ma­tion, and there are ru­mors that it will. It could re­in­force its troops on the Rus­sian bor­der, in the Baltic states. It could also de­cide on much more revo­lu­tion­ary fi­nan­cial ac­tions, make full use of its own new laws on “un­ex­plained wealth” and in­ves­ti­gate and freeze the as­sets of any Rus­sian of­fi­cials in Bri­tain. It could pass laws mak­ing it dif­fi­cult or im­pos­si­ble for anony­mous shell com­pa­nies to own Bri­tish prop­erty or in­deed to func­tion in Bri­tain at all.

That would cut down on Rus­sian money laun­der­ing, and in­deed in­ter­na­tional money laun­der­ing, and would slowly drive the Rus­sian oli­garchs out of London. But it would also cut down on the prof­its of the real es­tate agents, yacht sales­men, cou­turi­ers, lawyers and ac­coun­tants who make their liv­ing off the in­ter­na­tional rich who have found the city so wel­com­ing. For two decades, suc­ces­sive Bri­tish gov­ern­ments put prof­its over se­cu­rity and un­der­es­ti­mated the dan­ger of host­ing un­scrupu­lous klep­to­crats. The ap­pear­ance of Novi­chok in a quiet English town ex­poses the risks of that pol­icy — just at a mo­ment when Brexit Bri­tain will find it most painful to aban­don.

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