The 23 non-declared intelligence officers are on their way back from the Russian Embassy in Kensington, and Moscow has promised to retaliate. British diplomats will be kicked out from Russia. But it is likely much of the Russian response to the British government over the Novichok attack on the Skripals in Salisbury will be covert, and all the more insidious for that.
Security correspondents have been warned of the possibility of major cyber hackings, spreading fake news about private details stolen from officials and journalists. This is in line with the NotPetya attack on parts of the NHS last year, which is now being pinned firmly on Russian state agencies. Russian cyber attackers also targeted the Danish defence ministry and the recent Italian general election. It took ten days, just recently, to neutralise a recent NotPetya offensive on the Danish multinational shipping and freight giant, Maersk.
The latest expression of condemnation and outrage from the USA, Germany and France – as well as the UK – suggests that these governments now fear that this is part of a pattern, aggressive non-obvious acts against the principal allies in the West, Nato in particular. The implicit fear is that the Salisbury targeted assassination attempt is not an isolated one-off.
More pointedly, the Nato Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg stated that this is part of a pattern of asymmetric covert offensive operations in line with the new military doctrine described by some as ‘non-war warfare.’
The Russian foreign ministry has claimed that Britain is acting petulantly because it doesn’t want to admit Russia has been restored to its ‘great nation’ status, which it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian state media has even claimed that Britain is behaving like the hapless Inspector Lestrade of the Yard, instead of applying the rapier intellect and forensic skills of Sherlock Holmes to unravel the strange affair of the Salisbury poison attack.
There is more than a whiff of nervousness and hysteria about the official bluster coming out of Moscow now. The denials are blunt and baffling, and there is a sense that the Kremlin feels that things aren’t quite going its way.
Britain is already implementing a longer-term response. Today the new defence secretary Gavin Williamson unveiled plans to build a new £48 million centre for research at the government’s chemical and biological labs at Porton Down – which first identified the Novichok agent used in Salisbury. More money is to be put into cyber warfare, offensive and defensive. Defence is now being moved up the political agenda for Theresa May’s government. The two reviews now on the way – the national Security Capability Review from the Cabinet Office, and the MoD’s own Defence Modernisation Programme – will be no bureaucratic holding operation, but the beginning of a major reform and upgrade of Britain’s defence and security overall.
There is much about the detail of the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal which is puzzling, and on which the national and international media have been oddly inattentive. We know that Novichok 5 was a binary nerve agent pioneered in the nineteen eighties, and developed further in Russia in the Yeltsin years – though it was not declared to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, founded in 1997.
Some of the technicians who pioneered the agent were appalled at its effect. Vil Mirzayanov, who is now living in the US, divulged that it was still under development when he left Russia some twenty years ago. This week he has stressed the enduring half-life of the agent: “It is very bad because even the very small doses, very small, are very effective and there will be consequences for years, probably.”
Because of the highly toxic nature of the agent, it can only have been assembled from its component parts very recently – and most likely for the specific targeted assassination of Sergei Skripal. This raises the question of precisely when was it prepared, and where, and who got it to Salisbury and how? It is surprising how little mention has made, officially and unofficially, and in the public media, of who exactly the perpetrators are thought to be.
The job was quite clearly bungled. Like the murder of the agent and consultant Alexander Litvinenko with polonium 2010, the attackers were careless and profligate with their agent of choice. There is an element of the Keystone Cops, or the bungling Thomson and Thompson twins of the Tintin stories, in both cases. Traces of polonium were found in several sites across Mayfair in 2006, laid allegedly by the intelligence operative Andrei Livakoi. For such a lethal substance, quite large amounts of Novichok 5 have been found in Salisbury, in the car, the Zizzi pizzeria and Mill pub. In both cases the poison was not supposed to be traceable; part of the spec for Novichok was that it was “undetectable by Nato forces”.
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The fact that a battlefield nerve agent was deployed, in a targeted assassination, in western Europe for the first time since the end of the Second World War breaks new ground. The fact the agent Novichok 5 has been identified so quickly is an embarrassment to Russia, the primary developer of the weapon.
It now seems part of a piece with the theories of ‘non-obvious’ or ‘undeclared’ warfare and confrontation attributed to the Russian defence chief General Valery Gerasimov. These were enshrined in an article and speech published in his name in 2013, entitled “The Value of Science is in the Foresight.”
It is interesting to note that only last week the inveterate security and defence blogger Mark Galeotti published an article of recantation in “Foreign Policy.” In it he claims that he invented the notion of Russia having a ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, which he now regrets because it isn’t true. A cynic might think that this reads uncannily like deception tactic in line with the whole notion of ‘non obvious warfare’ , which aptly describes much of Russia’s current aggressive activity, like it or not, and with or without the Gerasimov name on it.
Military strutting and threatening noises have been very much part of Vladimir Putin’s presidential re-election campaign. Perhaps, it’s his way of mirroring Donald J Trump by ‘making Russia great again.’
But for all the boasts about new super missiles, nuclear warheads and underwater drones, Russia faces stormy weather – in two areas in particular. This may go some way to explaining the ramping up of provocation and the active threat to deal with defectors and traitors abroad, such as Sergei Skripal – to say nothing of mischief making in the Baltic and the Balkans.
In Syria, the military commitment to the Assad junta is nowhere near an end state, or end game. Fighting has atomized into nearly a dozen fronts. Russia is now deeply embedded with the Assad forces, and those of Iran, which now has ten major missile and land force bases in western Syria according to US and Israeli photo reconnaissance. Iran is also piggybacking on Russian bases on the Mediterranean at Latakia and Tartus. Russian air forces are accused of complicity in war crimes with the bombing of civilian targets and known hospitals and clinics in the Eastern Ghouta enclave.
The Russian commitment in Syria and its surrounding region looks more open-ended and unpredictable than Putin and his advisers could have imagined when they ordered the full commitment of Russian forces to Syria to save Assad from defeat in the autumn of 2015.
Ukraine is now the second great headache for Russian foreign policy. Internationally, only the most die-hard Moscow allies have accepted the annexation of Crimea. In Ukraine itself, the Donbass enclaves are the setting for a rumbling on-off conflict – the epitome of regional ‘non-war war.’
There are growing indications that Ukraine may be invited to apply for membership of Nato at the alliance’s major summit on July 11th and 12th in Brussels. This looks like it will be the culminating point in the trajectory of all Russia’s current season of destabilization activity towards Western European allies, such as Denmark and Britain.
The British government is aiming to lay out its new approach to defence and security for the Brussels summit. Germany, France and Italy, have done so, or are doing so. In the build-up to the July meeting, the strange attack in Salisbury, is, as Sherlock Holmes might say, a quite singular occurrence.