By Nicholas Fiorino
The attempted murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia by a thought to be extinct nerve agent may be spiraling Western Allies and Russia eerily close to a tense political showdown.
Skripal and his daughter were found unresponsive in Salisbury, England on March 4 and taken to Salisbury District Hospital, where it was revealed that both had been poisoned with a nerve agent. On March 12, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the chemical in question was a Novichok agent.
Two days following Prime Minister May’s declaration of Russia’s use of the banned agent, Britain announced that 23 Russian diplomats would be removed from the country, the largest foreign expulsion of diplomats since 1985, according to The Guardian. May’s decision received praise from Britain’s allies, with the United States, Germany, and France joining in condemnation of the attack. The four nations released a joint statement on March 15, saying, “[The attack] is an assault on UK sovereignty and any such use by a State party is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law. It threatens the security of us all.”
According to The Verge, Novichok agents, which refer to a series of the deadliest nerve agents known to be created, were exclusively developed between the years 1971 and 1993. According to Jean Pascal Zanders, a specialist in chemical and nuclear weapons and former research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, “The U.S.S.R. is the only country to have developed and produced these [Novichok] agents.”
Russia’s apparent use of the Novichok agent on March 4 in Salisbury, England was unforeseeable by Western Allies because of a chemical weapons ban believed to be completed in 2017. This ban was agreed upon in principle by 192 states and enforcement began in 1997. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was placed in charge as the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, achieving the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2013 for its efforts.
In September 2017, Director-General of the OPCW Ahmet Üzümcü released a statement, saying, “The completion of the verified destruction of Russia’s chemical weapons programme is a major milestone in the achievement of the goals of the Chemical Weapons Convention,” according to OPCW. This statement was released in response to Russia’s apparent destruction of 39,967 metric tons of chemical weapons, including Novichok agents. The next steps for the OPCW to undertake in response are unclear.
Russia’s defense has been steadfast however, with the country denying any involvement in the attack, according to the Moscow Times. The Russian embassy in London responded to Britain’s expulsion of Russian diplomats, calling the decision, “unacceptable, unjustified, and short sighted.” Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the British expulsion on March 17, matching Theresa May with 23 expulsions of British diplomats from Russia, while also closing the Moscow’s British Council, a cultural organization that works in over 100 countries and focuses on educational cooperation with the United Kingdom.
Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, responded to the Allies in a statement to the UN Security Council, saying, “I can think of a number of countries who would benefit a great deal from this incident and blaming Russia for it,” reports the Telegraph He continued, adding, “A hysterical atmosphere is being created by London and they are being completely non-transparent in this. They are trying to influence the public which is very easy to influence and not well educated.”
The European Union has recalled its ambassador to Moscow, citing Russian involvement in the attack, stating that there is, “no plausible alternative” according to CNN. The issue of Russian relations divides the European Union sharply, according to Stephen Castle at the New York Times. Although the statement is largely symbolic, it is telling of a potential conflict that the EU would make such a hardline statement.
On March 22, President Donald Trump replaced H.R. McMaster, his National Security Advisor, with John Bolton. Bolton has stated in recent days that the West should respond to Russia, “with a very strong answer”, according to the BBC. The world anxiously awaits new information, with an upcoming report by the OPCW in the works. Sergei and Yulia Skripal remain in critical yet stable condition.