Russians Behind Nerve Agent Attack on British Soil. Now What?

The British prime minister and outgoing US Secretary of State declared a red line crossed. There's no reason to think this White House will follow through.

Buried in news of the firing of the Secretary of State, the continued perfidy of the House Intelligence Committee, and various shenanigans involving past-their-prime porn stars and not-ready-for-prime-time White House staffers is a rather major incident in Russia-Western relations.

The Russians have attempted assassinations on British soil, using nerve agent. Prime Minister Theresa May has called them out:

British Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament on Monday that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Below is her address to the House of Commons in full, released by Downing Street:

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to update the House on the incident in Salisbury — and the steps we are taking to investigate what happened and to respond to this reckless and despicable act.

Last week my Right Honorable Friends, the Foreign and Home Secretaries, set out the details of events as they unfolded on Sunday the 4th of March.
I am sure the whole House will want to once again pay tribute to the bravery and professionalism of our emergency services and armed forces in responding to this incident, as well as the doctors and nurses who are now treating those affected.

Our thoughts, in particular, are with Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey who remains in a serious but stable condition. In responding to this incident, he exemplified the duty and courage that define our emergency services; and in which our whole nation takes the greatest pride.
Mr. Speaker, I want to pay tribute to the fortitude and calmness with which people in Salisbury have responded to these events and to thank all those who have come forward to assist the police with their investigation

This incident has, of course, caused considerable concern across the community. Following the discovery of traces of nerve agent in Zizzi’s restaurant and The Mill pub, the Chief Medical Officer issued further precautionary advice. But as Public Health England have made clear, the risk to public health is low.

Mr. Speaker, I share the impatience of this House and the country at large to bring those responsible to justice — and to take the full range of appropriate responses against those who would act against our country in this way.

But as a nation that believes in justice and the rule of law, it is essential that we proceed in the right way — led not by speculation but by the evidence.
That is why we have given the police the space and time to carry out their investigation properly.

Hundreds of officers have been working around the clock — together with experts from our armed forces — to sift and assess all the available evidence; to identify crime scenes and decontamination sites and to follow every possible lead to find those responsible.

That investigation continues and we must allow the police to continue with their work.

Mr. Speaker, this morning I chaired a meeting of the National Security Council in which we considered the information so far available. As is normal, the Council was updated on the assessment and intelligence picture, as well as the state of the investigation.

It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.
This is part of a group of nerve agents known as ‘Novichok’.

Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down; our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations; the Government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Mr. Speaker, there are therefore only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on the 4th of March.

Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country.

Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

This afternoon my Rt. Hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has summoned the Russian Ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and asked him to explain which of these two possibilities it is — and therefore to account for how this Russian-produced nerve agent could have been deployed in Salisbury against Mr Skripal and his daughter.

My Rt. Hon. Friend has stated to the Ambassador that the Russian Federation must immediately provide full and complete disclosure of the Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

And he has requested the Russian government’s response by the end of tomorrow.

Mr. Speaker, this action has happened against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression.

Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation has forcibly taken territory from another in Europe.

Russia has fomented conflict in the Donbas, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defense and the Bundestag, among many others.

During his recent State of the Union address, President Putin showed video graphics of missile launches, flight trajectories and explosions, including the modeling of attacks on the United States with a series of warheads impacting in Florida.

While the extra-judicial killing of terrorists and dissidents outside Russia were given legal sanction by the Russian Parliament in 2006.

And of course Russia used radiological substances in its barbaric assault on Mr. Litvinenko. We saw promises to assist the investigation then, but they resulted in denial and obfuscation — and the stifling of due process and the rule of law.

Mr. Speaker, following Mr. Litvinenko’s death we expelled Russian diplomats, suspended security co-operation, broke off bilateral plans on visas, froze the assets of the suspects and put them on international extradition lists. And these measures remain in place.

Furthermore our commitment to collective defense and security through NATO remains as strong as ever in the face of Russian behavior.
Indeed our armed forces have a leading role in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence with British troops leading a multinational battlegroup in Estonia.

We have led the way in securing tough sanctions against the Russian economy.

And we have at all stages worked closely with our allies and we will continue to do so.

We must now stand ready to take much more extensive measures.

Mr. Speaker, on Wednesday we will consider in detail the response from the Russian State.

Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.

And I will come back to this House and set out the full range of measures that we will take in response.

Mr. Speaker, this attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals.

It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk.

And we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.

I commend this Statement to the House.

In what was seemingly his last act as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson issued a statement in support of May’s position:

The United States was in touch with our Allies in the United Kingdom ahead of today’s announcement, including in a call between Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Secretary Johnson this morning. We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week.

There is never a justification for this type of attack – the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation – and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior. From Ukraine to Syria – and now the UK – Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.

We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences. We stand in solidarity with our Allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to coordinate closely our responses.

US options are, of course, limited even absent the fact that the Trump administration seems to have no interest in curtailing the Russians. In a normal world, this would be an occasion for outrage at the UN Security Council—where, of course, a Russian veto would stop any meaningful action—and the North Atlantic Council. While the extent of Russian aggression is not such that we’re going to launch World War III, we should at least acknowledge that this is an armed attack on an Ally under Article 5 of the NATO Charter.

To be sure, as former Obama administration official and now associate dean at Georgetown Law Rosa Brooks noted on this morning’s episode of the ironically-named “Deep State Radio,” our ability to call out the Russians for this has been further compromised by the fact that the United States routinely carries out targeted killings on foreign soil on national security grounds. But the UK is not Yemen. Russia has many legal and diplomatic options vis-a-vis the UK government that don’t exist in the places where the US conducts drone strikes against suspected terrorists. But Brooks is right that, whatever the moral differences, the legal ones are murky.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Europe, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Infidel753 says:

    If Trump wouldn’t act on the sanctions Congress imposed (almost unanimously) on Russia in retaliation for messing with our own election, he probably won’t do anything about this either. However, sanctions by the UK will have some effect, especially if other European NATO countries cooperate. It will be another example of other countries working around the US instead of with it, since the US under Trump no longer provides leadership.




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  2. Ram says:

    IF this was a foreign operation, then they have their own “heroic” James Bonds, We can feign as much horror as we like at the event, this is now a relatively common event. Poroshenko and Netanyawho among others have escaped investigation.




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  3. Kathy says:

    At this point, Trump is more likely to place sanctions on Great Britain for spreading Fake News(TM) about Russia.




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  4. Stormy Dragon says:

    Another Russian exile in London has turned up dead:

    Close associate of Russian business oligarch Boris Berezovsky found dead: report




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  5. Lit3Bolt says:

    I’ve noticed a lot of people asking, “Why is Russia cartoonishly assassinating dissidents in the UK in an obvious way? They should be much smarter.”

    Well, the reason for these cartoonishly brazen attacks, with large possibility of collateral damage, is that Putin owns Trump. Body, mind, and soul. He is proving to the world that he owns the United States, and the US foreign policy response is muted to nonexistent because he wills it. The UK and EU will have no choice but conclude that the US is an unreliable ally for another 3-7 years. This weakens NATO and all other US alliances, perhaps fatally so.




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  6. Mark Ivey says:

    Trump fired Rex Tillerson. The White House has responded..




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  7. CSK says:

    @Kathy:

    Surprisingly, Trump said something earlier this morning about believing May. That will probably change as the day progresses.




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  8. Gustopher says:

    Realistically, there aren’t a lot of options for Britain. They can expel some diplomats, restrict some visas and apply some sanctions. While they are still a member of the EU, they may be able to get the EU to do similarly.

    Britain has some laws about handling terrorism suspects, so if they really wanted to up the ante, they could arrest some Russian diplomats, and let them sit for days (weeks?), while denying them diplomatic immunity. This would probably be a bad idea.

    (My preferred bad idea is to use the same nerve agent to kill the Russian ambassador, and then say “oh, it looks like terrorists have this nerve agent. so sorry to have blamed you.” It would be a terrible idea, but it would really reward my sense of spite)

    The US will do nothing. Trump fired his Secretary of State for stating the obvious about Russia.




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  9. Andy says:

    we should at least acknowledge that this is an armed attack on an Ally under Article 5 of the NATO Charter.

    As terrible as Russia’s campaign of assassinations is, it is not an “armed attack” as defined under the Nato charter, nor should it be.




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  10. James Joyner says:

    @Andy:

    As terrible as Russia’s campaign of assassinations is, it is not an “armed attack” as defined under the Nato charter, nor should it be.

    There’s no consensus definition of the term. But the 9/11 attacks were deemed to be an “armed attack” under the Charter and there has been serious talk that a cyber attack could be, too. The limiting factor here may be one of scale. But that goes to how one responds, not whether it was an attack.




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  11. Sleeping Dog says:
  12. Andy says:

    @James Joyner:

    Well, there is a big difference between 9/11 and assassination. The latter I don’t think can reasonably be called an “armed attack” on a member state. The UK isn’t being attacked.

    We need to be careful about when Article 5 is invoked so that it doesn’t become a watered-down catch-all.




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  13. KM says:

    @Lit3Bolt:

    I’ve noticed a lot of people asking, “Why is Russia cartoonishly assassinating dissidents in the UK in an obvious way? They should be much smarter.”

    Like any good mob boss, he needs a way to let people know he did it without leaving proof he did it. It’s simultaneously a show of power – “I can kill in plain sight anywhere I want” – and a political CYA – “Spies poison, it’s a common trick. Could be anybody!”” Inducing fear without leaving a legal trace or culpability is a great way to get the peons in line and is a favorite trick of dictators. Hell, Kim had his brother killed in broad daylight not too long ago!

    People are thinking of small time crime and needing to not leave evidence that can be used against them in court. Seriously, even if we could prove Russia did it, what are you going to do about it? Putin’s very comfortable where he is and with the power structure he controls. He’s not afraid of the law or being brought to justice. Why should he care you figured out he’s doing what he’s doing?




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  14. gVOR08 says:

    Reading Mrs. May’s statement, whatever her faults on Brexit, it must be nice to have a national leader who can speak in sentences and organized paragraphs.




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  15. grumpy realist says:

    The Russians have basically said back to May: “you and what army?”

    And then we have Pat-the-crazy and his acolytes burbling over at TAC about how we should be snuggling up to Russia and nothing’s been proven about the nerve gas and…..

    Pro-Trump == pro-Putin, it seems. We’re certainly not getting much pushback from the Republicans on this side.




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  16. michael reynolds says:

    Add up all the expense the UK has incurred, calculate treble damages and toss in, say, 50 million in punitive damages. Then seize properties in London that belong to Russian oligarchs till the bill is paid. Let’s stop pretending the oligarchy is somehow separate and apart from the Russian government, they are effectively one and the same.




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  17. al-Ameda says:

    Perhaps Trump could assure Britons that “you have people who are very fine people on both sides,” and maybe a “both sides are to blame,” to finish up.

    Amazing that he has not said anything about this at all.




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  18. drj says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Then seize properties in London that belong to Russian oligarchs till the bill is paid.

    There’s rather more UK investment in Russia than vice versa, I’m pretty sure. So probably not a good idea.

    What the UK can (and should) do:

    1) Restrict Russian access to the City and its financial services.
    2) Take a tougher stand against tax evasion and money laundering.
    3) Impose visa restrictions for Putin’s oligarch buddies.
    4) Increase funding for BBC Russia.
    5) Force social media companies to take stronger measures against fake news and bots.
    6) Cancel brexit.




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  19. Mikey says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Pro-Trump == pro-Putin, it seems.

    Seems? I think we’re way past seems.




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  20. PJ says:

    News that tRump has replaced the Churchill bust with a Putin bust.
    And the US is going bust.

    Edit: Sorry that’s pResident tRump. The R isn’t exactly silent and it stands for Russia.




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  21. Kathy says:

    @drj:

    6) Cancel brexit.

    They should do that regardless.

    Though I dislike politicizing sporting events, Britain could boycott the FIFA World Cup (soccer) to be held in Russia this year.

    It would be more effective if they could get other countries to go along with it. after all, there are only 32 participating countries. But Brexit. It’s also unlikely countries from the Americas would be interested. And it’s also too late to switch hosting duties to another country.

    BTW, how is it a city (and nearby locations) is enough to hold the Olympics with hundreds of teams and thousands of athletes in scores of events (including two soccer tournaments), but it takes a whole country (or two) to hold a single soccer tourney for 32 teams and under 1,000 athletes?




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  22. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @Kathy: FIFA requires more bribes than the IOC. Which is saying something, considering the IOC…




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  23. MBunge says:

    But the UK is not Yemen.

    Yes, one is full of dark-skined people whose death and suffering concern James Joyner not at all. Guess which one?

    Mike




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  24. george says:

    To be sure, as former Obama administration official and now associate dean at Georgetown Law Rosa Brooks noted on this morning’s episode of the ironically-named “Deep State Radio,” our ability to call out the Russians for this has been further compromised by the fact that the United States routinely carries out targeted killings on foreign soil on national security grounds. But the UK is not Yemen.

    Doesn’t that paragraph give you at least a little pause? As a practical matter we want to be able to kill people in other countries and not have others kill people on ours. Presumably once other options fail we and they are going to go the kill route. Its been this way for centuries, and probably millennia, and its done by every major power, including us. I understand why we want to be better at it than they are; what I don’t understand is the morale outrage a lot of folks are expressing.




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  25. PJ says:

    @Kathy:

    BTW, how is it a city (and nearby locations) is enough to hold the Olympics with hundreds of teams and thousands of athletes in scores of events (including two soccer tournaments), but it takes a whole country (or two) to hold a single soccer tourney for 32 teams and under 1,000 athletes?

    Because somehow you can get a city to build the extra stadiums that are required for the Olympics. And that then will fall into disarray…
    Hopefully there aren’t any city, or country, that is stupid or wasteful enough to be willing to build a number of full scale soccer stadiums in just one city…

    Also, the size of the stadiums required for the Olympic soccer tournament is on a different level than the size of the stadiums for the world cup… and the number of teams participating…
    Putting the FIFA tournament in different cities also means that you’ll get enough people to fill the stadiums…




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  26. al-Ameda says:

    @Just Another Ex-Republican:

    FIFA requires more bribes than the IOC. Which is saying something, considering the IOC…

    Hey-ohhhhhh …
    Well-played … you can drop the mic right over there




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  27. Barry says:

    @Lit3Bolt: “The UK and EU will have no choice but conclude that the US is an unreliable ally for another 3-7 years. This weakens NATO and all other US alliances, perhaps fatally so.”

    When the Brexit Britch actually does something to hurt Russian oligarchs, that statement will be justified.

    Right now it’s more like ‘the EU can’t trust the UK/US to actually oppose Russia’.




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  28. Barry says:

    @Barry: I’m amazed at how much Putin has accomplished in a few years (with the help of many traitors, of cource):

    Poland, Hungary and Turkey all turned from the West/EU/NATO.

    The UK becoming not only the oligarch’s banking center, but also a place where the FSB kills freely,

    The US turned into Putin’s b*tch as well.




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  29. MBunge says:
  30. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Kathy:

    Though I dislike politicizing sporting events, Britain could boycott the FIFA World Cup (soccer) to be held in Russia this year.

    The joke in Britain is that England always boycott the World Cup after the second round of playing, so, there would be no loss.




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  31. Infidel753 says:

    Despite Brexit, the EU has promised solidarity with the UK against Russia.

    A couple of people in the thread above have suggested canceling Brexit. Unfortunately, most Americans have no grasp of the actual issues involved.




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