In a speech before Parliament, British Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “highly likely” Russia was behind a “military grade” nerve agent attack—an assassination attempt—on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
“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,” May added.
Following her speech, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders offered the following statement: “We stand with our ally and fully support them and are ready if we can be of any assistance to them.” She did not comment on May’s “highly likely” attribution of the incident to Russia.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson followed up with more forceful comments: “We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack… We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences.”
We asked a number of our experts to respond to these developments—and to comment on what the UK and its allies should do next. Their comments are edited for print below.
I don’t think that the British security services—MI5, MI6, GCHQ—would have allowed May to go out there and say “it was highly likely that” without her having a good body of evidence. And by that I mean, just beyond the forensics that this type of chemical has been historically with Russian chemical programs.
My initial instinct was that nothing in my life experience prompted me to reject that this could have been the Russians. It fits a pattern. And the fact that the prime minister felt comfortable enough to say “highly likely” suggests to me that her intelligence services have a body of knowledge that gives her confidence in saying that.
What do you make of May’s response, calling the incident an “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom?” And what do you believe the UK, U.S. and other allies should do next?
That’s a pretty strong statement on the part of the prime minister.
And Tillerson’s comments are heartening. He touches on all the key points, saying whoever is responsible must face serious consequences. Does White House endorse? Can we expect to hear similar commentary from POTUS? Why did Sarah Sanders avoid saying this?
In fact, I’ve not even seen American intelligence make the claim or give supportive words that they too believe the Russians are behind this. I think a very fair question to ask American intelligence would be: Do you concur with the prime minister’s statement that it is highly likely Russia is responsible? I’d love to see the response to that. (The Office of the Director for National Intelligence did not immediately respond to The Cipher Brief’s request for comment.)
Then, given that Great Britain is such a close friend, that it’s a NATO ally, that if Great Britain believes this is an unlawful use of force by the Russian state, that would seem to involve NATO’s Article 5—an attack against one is an attack against all—which isn’t suggesting some sort of military response, but it is suggesting a response, maybe consistent with the British response. If they impose sanctions, should the other members of the alliance and particularly the United States, do a similar thing?
Do you have any comments on how the Russians have played this off as an anti-Russian campaign, a circus of media lies, and so on?
What else are they going to say? There really aren’t many options here. We used to sell T-shirts at the agency that said, “Admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-accusations.” We thought it was just a T-shirt, not national policy.
Nothing in my experience makes me skeptical of the British conclusion. That’s not saying I’ve seen the evidence, but this is of a pattern, and so I am for one quite willing to believe that the prime minister is very likely correct.
Would you say the U.S. decision not to name Russia as responsible was more likely a political decision, rather than any issue with the intelligence or anything to that effect?
Well, the other possibility is that we don’t agree with the British, and we believe that the prime minister is out in front of her headlights. And if that’s the case, I would like to know that.
Not surprised considering that the Putin regime relies on political assassination to silence its enemies and it hardly suffered from dispatching Alexander Litvinenko on British soil in 2006. Skripal was not a vocal critic of the regime like Litvinenko but was still a bitter pill to swallow. The Russians had to begrudgingly release Skripal in a spy swap resulting from the utterly humiliating loss of its illegals network in the U.S., and Putin– as well as Russian intelligence– vow revenge for humiliation…
Russian use of nerve agents in these so-called “wet” operations follows a long tradition — In 1957 and then in 1959, Bogdan Stashinsky, a KGB assassin who later defected to the west, murdered two anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalists by using a spray gun to fire a jet of cyanide-laced gas into their faces.Two decades later the KGB supplied the Bulgarians with ricin to assassinate dissident Georgi Markov in London, and, more recently, strident Putin critic Litvinenko was poisoned to death with polonium, which, like the novichok agent reportedly used in the Skripal attack, is not exactly a staple found on the shelves of British tea shops.
Given that this is the second undoubtedly Russian inspired murder in recent years and innocent civilians were threatened as well, the UK has to take the lead by not only fierce condemnation of the incident, but very vocal and harsh retaliation, including a number of measures, demanding that Russia allows inspection of its chemical/biological weapons stockpiles, levying additional economic sanctions, pressure on Russian oligarchs who are Putin cronies yet enjoy the comforts of London residency, and isolating the Putin regime even further in international fora.
Once the U.S. has examined and presumably agrees with the British conclusions about the origin of the nerve agent, the administration should join in any measures that hurt Putin’s pocketbook and international prestige, two factors of critical importance to his regime. Unless the response truly hurts Russia in critical areas, they won’t have any effect.
The U.S. also has to make it crystal clear to the Russians that any similar attempt on American soil will result in a swift and forceful response that will significantly damage their interests (despite their historic thirst for revenge against traitors, the KGB and its successors have been reluctant to act on American soil — thus far –but Putin is not above breaking precedent. Since the highly suspicious “suicide” of Soviet intelligence defector Walter Krivitskiy in 1941, there has been little evidence of KGB assassinations or attempts in the US – though mystery still surrounds the death of former Putin crony turned foe Mikhail Lesin in Washington in 2015.
If the British intelligence services and law enforcement folks are to be believed, Russia authored this attack. They seem to have narrowed down with a great deal of specificity what the nerve agent was and where it came from, identifying the family of nerve agents it came from, and identifying that it was manufactured by Russia.
Now that we actually know the providence of the particular nerve agent, it’s clearly Russia, so the question now becomes—what is not only the UK going to do about it, but what is the West writ large going to do about it? So that’s really the next step, which I think May is in the process of working through in the Parliament.
What do you think of May’s response to the incident?
Her response is a perfectly reasonable one, and I think it’s a good and firm response because it doesn’t just leave something out there like, “This was Russia and it’s a very bad thing,” or “We know it’s Russia but we can’t say any more, or do any more.”
She’s set specific guidelines, and actually put Russia in a good position—good from the perspective of the UK and the West—by saying either they were the authors of the attack, because it was their agent, or ‘if you don’t have any control over those stockpiles, we need to have inspectors come in to make sure everything is being handled and secured correctly.’ She’s put them in a binary position.
The Russians, of course, are simply going to do what we already saw the foreign ministry’s spokesperson Maria Zakharova say, which is that this is a big circus. They will always simply try to lie bigger and harder, which is what they always do when confronted with a situation like this.
How does this incident fit in with past Russian use of nerve agents and incidents of assassination outside Russian borders?
First, I think circumstantially you have to look at what do we know. We know that the Russian special services – nowadays what’s known as the SVR, their external services, but what was previously the KGB – was responsible for doing these types of assassination operations, whether or not it used a ricin-tipped umbrella or, like with Mr. Alexander Litvinenko, they’ve used a radioactive isotope or, as in this case, where it’s used a nerve agent.
First and foremost, you have Russian intelligence services going after opponents of whoever’s in power outside of Russia and doing so illegally. We’re talking about, basically, murders and assassination attempts. That sets aside a completely different category when they do that inside of Russia but that’s another art form, another set of circumstances.
But if you just narrow it down to the external stuff…the second thing you’ve got is, with Mr. Skripal, who the Russians who view as a traitor because he was reportedly an informant or asset of MI6, he would be a perfectly logical target for this type of attack because, not only did the Russians want to get rid of him – and I think that would be emotionally satisfying for Putin – but they also want to send a strong message to other potential and future spies: If you spy for the West or whoever, eventually we will find you even if you are relocated outside of Russia. That’s another reason why we have to say Russia was really responsible for this.
Why has the U.S. not followed its ally’s example in naming Russia as the likely source of this attack? Do you think the U.K. hasn’t shared their intelligence with us because they don’t trust us? Is there any reason the U.S. government wouldn’t trust their attribution?
With regard to the American response to the situation, I’m somewhat disappointed because I think it’s an opportunity. Regardless of what your analysis of the situation is, there is certainly enough information that the British have put out there that would allow even a very, very weak U.S. condemnation of the attack. I think there’s more than enough evidence for the White House to speak out more strongly.
It’s not to say they won’t in the future. But with this administration, it’s like anytime Russia comes up, it’s like nails on a chalkboard for them. They don’t want to address it, they don’t want to talk about it because it’s a bigger thing. I think it’s more of a political thing but the response that Britain together with the U.S. and others is going to be the key next step.
Does the U.K.’s statement that this is an unlawful use of force by Russia against the U.K. invoke anything vis-à-vis NATO?
This is something that Vladimir Putin is expert at: using open society and Western approaches to these things against us. The Kremlin knows that right now, to get any type of international coalition to do something against Russia is an extremely difficult thing. They actually annexed a country, Crimea, and there were still some members of the European Union and the international community who couldn’t quite bring themselves to condemn that, so they know this is tricky.
They also know that this particular American administration doesn’t want to hear the words “Russia” and “Putin” anymore than it has to. They also know that, in the case of the U.K., there’s a lot of Russian money in London and other parts of U.K. infrastructure. Putin knows all those things and he knows that that gives him some wiggle room.
Could it turn into a NATO Article 5 issue, that requires a combined NATO ally response? It certainly could if NATO came together and invoked Article 5. I think the UK could do that unilaterally (as the U.S. did after the attacks of 9/11).
I think a good start would be if they took the 20 most important richest Russian oligarchs and froze all their holdings in the U.K. and banned them from travelling to the U.K. That would certainly get a lot of attention, which was not done after Litvinenko.
We are in a tricky position because we are all open societies and we can’t do what Putin would do – which is to go out and kill somebody else and throw a bunch of people in jail without due process. We can’t do that. They know that and they’ll take advantage of it.
None of this should be a surprise. Putin has said that all traitors meet a sad end, and said so specifically with regard to 2010 spy swap. He always gives gives himself a thin veneer of deniability in the language he uses in such matters while those who work for him issue explicit, and false, official denials. The truth, and the intended message, are apparent in the actions of those Putin leads.
The Prime Minister’s comments were logical and appropriate. The Russian use of murder as part of statecraft is well known, and their consistent absurd lies to cover up other clear crimes over the past several years suggests that we should pay no attention whatsoever to their claims of innocence. In fact, I think the comments by the Russian Embassy in London have been way out of line with those expected from diplomatic missions in the 21st century.
How does this incident fit with Russia’s past use of these types of nerve agents, assassinations of defectors, etc?
This effort is fully consistent with Russia’s use of assassination. I was surprised, however, that Skripal was a target in this case. Putin has made clear that he considers Russian defectors as traitors and will continue to look for means to lure them to Russia or kill them. However, Skripal served time in Russian prisons and was swapped as part of a negotiation to return Russian illegal who were caught red-handed in the U.S. I would have assumed that since his name was public and that the Russians themselves turned him over, he would not have been high on the list of those in Putin’s sights. It seems to be a serious escalation, and that Putin had other motives for murdering him.
Now that the UK has made this public determination, what—in your view—should be done in response, by the UK and its allies, including the U.S.?
Russia continues to push the boundaries of political warfare and the western response should be strong. I would support a variety of coordinated responses to include denying visas to Russian travelers, negotiating to remove Russia from Interpol (which they abuse for political purposes), denying their sports teams from participating in international events, coordinating a boycott of the World Cup in Moscow and even listing them as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Cipher Brief expert comments compiled by content manager Brian Garrett-Glaser and intern Fred Ludtke.