Chemical weapons are back, and most of the egregious recent attacks bear Russian fingerprints. The weapon whose use resulted in the death of at least 90,000 soldiers in World War I and triggered a ban that endured for decades is increasingly being used as a weapon of assassination and terror.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May, blaming Moscow for the March 4th attack in Salisbury which poisoned Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his adult daughter, announced sweeping sanctions against Russia. May announced that Britain is expelling 23 Russian diplomats—the single largest such expulsion since the end of the Cold War—and unveiled economic and diplomatic sanctions against Moscow, including the cancellation of all high-level bilateral contacts and asking Britain's royal family not attend the soccer World Cup in Russia.
Although Russia has denied responsibility for the attack which has left the Skripals in critical condition and poisoned two first responders who helped them, May acted after Russia failed to respond adequately to her ultimatum earlier this week. On Monday, she said it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for either a “direct act of the Russian state against our country” or that Moscow had “lost control” of the “Novichuk,” a third generation nerve agent developed in the 1970s and 1980s, many times more lethal than anything then in America’s chemical arsenal.
The fact remains, however, that Britain and much of the world have long tolerated the intolerable. May herself was reluctant to investigate the notorious 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian security officer and dissident who was given a lethal dose of polonium-210, a radiological agent, in a pot of tea in a London sushi restaurant. In 2016, ten years later, a British inquiry concluded that a former KGB agent and ex-Kremlin bodyguard, Andrei Lugovoi, had given Litvinenko the lethal dose, “probably” with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s blessing.
Murder was part of Putin’s ruthless modus operandi, Litvinenko and other Russian dissidents had earlier charged. Putin came to power in the wake of public outrage surrounding the bombing of Moscow apartment buildings, which Litvinenko, among others, called a false-flag operation staged by the FSB, the Soviet KGB’s successor.
Litvinenko is not the only Russian dissident to die mysteriously on British soil—and Britain is not the only country to tolerate Putin’s chemical crimes. On Tuesday, opposition Labor Party parliamentarian Yvette Cooper demanded a review of 14 other suspicious deaths that she said U.S. intelligence sources have “potentially connected to the Russian state.” Last week, British police visited the graves of two of Skripal’s relatives who also died under mysterious circumstances. A report by the Syrian-American Medical Society concluded two years ago that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad had ordered Russian-air-supported attacks that have killed at least 1,500 people during the civil war. Most attacks used chlorine gas, or sarin—the colorless, odorless liquid nerve agent that the United Nations has classified as a weapon of mass destruction. Stockpiling sarin is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention. But Novichuk (meaning “new guy”) agents are permitted in limited quantities for research purposes. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Vil Mirzayanov, a Russian chemist who helped develop the agent, said that the Soviets had made and stockpiled enough of it to kill several hundred thousand people.
President Barrack Obama drew his own notorious “red line” on the use of such heinous agents, but rather than strike Syria’s arsenal, which risked spreading dangerous chemicals throughout the surrounding areas, Obama negotiated his controversial 2013 deal with Moscow to remove most of Syria’s vast chemical store. The deal removed most of Damascus’s arsenal of 1,300 metric tons of various agents, but it did not stop chemical attacks. Some of what Assad illicitly retained has been used against Syrian civilians ever since, including a recent attack in the Eastern Ghouta, the Damascus suburb still held by Islamic rebels. Some 900 people are said to have been killed in the latest strikes, some in chemical-related injuries. U.S. diplomats, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, before he was ousted Tuesday, blamed Russia for failing to stop the Assad government from using chemical weapons in at least four attacks in recent weeks.
Russia’s cooperation with Syria on chemical weapons is long-standing. Soviet assistance to Damascus began in the 1970s. Mirzayanov, now retired and living in Princeton, wrote that the Soviets continued delivering CW rockets, as well as the artillery systems for launching them, at the end of the 1980s. In 1994, Mirzayanov says, Russia sent Syria up to 700 kilograms of sarin precursors. In fact, Russia helped Syria create the heart of its chemical weapons program, the euphemistically titled Syrian Center of Environmental Protection Problems.
North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who views Putin as a kind of role model, has also discovered the utility of chemical weapons for assassinations. Kim is believed to have ordered the murder of his half-brother using another nerve agent, VX, at Kuala Lumpur airport. North Korea, like Syria, has also benefited from Russian assistance; illicit Russian and Chinese purchases of North Korean goods help fuel Pyongyang’s economy. In 2014, South Korea’s defense ministry estimated that North Korea has stockpiled between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, the world’s third-largest stockpile.
U.S. intelligence officials have also been alarmed by North Korean efforts to increase its decade-old secret assistance to Syria’s chemical weapons programs. In February, a U.N. report, first disclosed by the Washington Post, concluded that technical aid from Pyongyang included not only at least three visits by North Korean weapons experts in 2016 but also 40 previously undisclosed shipments of materials and equipment used to build chemical-manufacturing plants.
Both Russia and the United States have agreed to destroy their own vast chemical weapons stockpiles. Last September, Russia announced that it had completed destroying the last of those weapons, ahead of schedule. The U.S. lags behind. Russian financial and technical aid to such chemical rogue states as North Korea and Syria—and U.K. reluctance to punish Russia for its use of such agents to murder dissidents—have long been an open secret.
So why has the recent attack in Salisbury suddenly sparked such outrage? “This latest attack crossed so many red lines,” said Daniel M. Gerstein, a WMD expert and senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, who has served as an undersecretary in the Department of Homeland Security. The use of Novichuk exposed many more people to a potentially deadly agent than Moscow had intended, he said. Last week, Britain’s Public Health England urged hundreds of people who visited the Zizzi restaurant and Mill pub in Salisbury, where the Skripals ate and drank before collapsing on a bench, to wash their clothes and possessions. “This was really bad business,” Gerstein said.
Britain could expel Russian diplomats (which it did after Litvinenko was poisoned), ban or restrict new Russian visas, freeze Russian assets in the U.K, expel Russian-controlled broadcasters, or boycott the upcoming World Cup in Russia, though such steps would risk Russian retaliation. Moscow could retaliate by staging a costly cyberattack, as it has done elsewhere in Europe. And many American analysts doubt that Britain and the U.S., NATO allies pledged to come to each other’s assistance in the event of an attack, will be willing to lose valuable intelligence from Moscow or sacrifice the Russian wealth that has filled British hotels, restaurants, and businesses, propping up its economy.
Moreover, without American support for such sanctions, Britain could pay a disproportionately high price for its action. And U.S. support is by no means certain, or even likely. While President Trump was far more forceful than his predecessor in his response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons last year—striking a Syrian air base after a chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun—he has been consistently reluctant to blame Russia for such outrages.
Secretary of State Tillerson, who had forcefully done so, was fired Tuesday. On Monday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asked about Prime Minister May’s assigning blame to Moscow, called the attack an “outrage” and vowed strong support for Britain. She studiously avoided blaming Russia.
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